The War Against the 'War on Drugs' | The Nation


The War Against the 'War on Drugs'

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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The MacArthur Foundation’s $75 million pledge shows that political momentum is clearly on the side of reform.

Richmond, Virginia, is the eleventh-most-unequal big city in the country; its leaders finally want to change that.

As California goes, so goes the nation.

If that old adage still holds true, then the nation may soon see a gradual backpedaling from the criminal justice policies that have led to wholesale incarceration in recent decades. For the most populous state in the union is on the verge of insolvency--partly because it didn't set aside a rainy-day fund during the boom years; partly because its voters recently rejected a series of initiatives that would have allowed a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and borrowing to help stabilize the state's finances during the downturn; partly because it has spent the past quarter-century funneling tens of billions of dollars into an out-of-control correctional system. Now, as California's politicians contemplate emergency cuts to deal with a $24 billion hole in the state budget, old certainties are crumbling.

The state with the toughest three-strikes law in the land and a prison population of more than 150,000 is facing the real possibility of having to release tens of thousands of inmates early in order to pare its $10 billion annual correctional budget. At the same time, an increasing number of the state's political figures are challenging the basic tenets of the "war on drugs," the culprit most responsible for the spike in prison populations over the past thirty years; they argue that the country's harsh drug policies are not financially viable and no longer command majority support among the voting public.

Similar stories are unfolding around the country; in Washington, federal officials are talking about drug-policy reform and, more generally, sentencing reform in a way that has not been heard in the halls of power for more than a generation.

For old-time politicians, who have spent the past three-plus decades navigating the country's roiling tough-on-crime waters, the changes are almost unfathomable. Onetime California governor and current gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown, for example, has spent decades trying to erase the public's memory of his liberal tenure in the 1970s, when California's prison population shrank to well below 30,000. As a part of that remodeling, he has assiduously courted the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, the trade union representing the state's prison guards. Now, with his war chest flush with CCPOA funds, Brown won't do anything to challenge tough-on-crime orthodoxies.

Yet many newer political faces view the current moment as something of an opportunity. For Betty Yee, chair of California's Board of Equalization--the office responsible for collecting sales tax in the Golden State--the changes, especially around drug-law enforcement, can't come soon enough.

Sitting at her conference table high up in one of downtown Sacramento's few sky-rises, Yee has marijuana on her mind. Specifically, she has become an outspoken advocate for legalizing pot for residents older than 21. Her friend Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco city councilman, is pushing just such a bill in the State Legislature. Yee wants to levy fees on business owners applying for marijuana licenses, impose an excise tax on sellers and charge buyers a sales tax. Do it properly, and the state could reap about $1.3 billion a year, she has estimated. "Marijuana is so easily available. Why not regulate it like alcohol and tobacco?" she says, and gain additional tax revenue into the bargain?

Not so many years back, any public figure who dared to advocate such reforms would have been shunned by much of the establishment. It's a measure of how much things have changed that Yee and Ammiano's proposal is being taken seriously across the board. In fact, shortly after I met with Yee, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger--whose office declined my request for an interview for this article--announced that the state should at least consider the merits of pot legalization. He wasn't advocating it, he was careful to stress, but he did think the time was ripe to debate the issue.

"The budget is so bad now, the populism of the issue is beginning to work here in the Legislature," Ammiano says as he paces back and forth in his office, toward the bookshelves with the four martini glasses and Golden Gate Bridge bookends and then away again. On the wall near the receptionist's desk hangs a huge poster from the movie Milk. "Everyone thinks it's Cheech and Chong," he says with a laugh, describing the marijuana legalization bill. "But there's a lot of policy wonks" supporting it. "There's very conservative support from the oddest sources and locations." The GOP chair in the state, as well as Tom Campbell, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, have indicated their support for his bill, Ammiano declares. "When it starts to cost more money than it's worth even in the eyes of the pooh-bahs, then you can accomplish something."

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