Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jul 2003
Source: The Dominion Post (WV)
Copyright: 2003 The Dominion Post
Author: Molly Ivins



It's an odd country, really. Our largest growth industries are gambling and 
prisons. But as you may have heard, crimes rates are dropping. We're not 
putting people into prison for hurting other people. We're putting them 
into prison for using drugs, and as we already know, that doesn't help them 
or us.

Our entire system of criminal justice is becoming more and more bizarrely 
prosecutorial -- a federal court has just held that the Miranda rule no 
longer applies. (That decision, by the way, was the result of a case 
brought by the Landmark Legal Foundation , the right-wing outfit that gets 
money from the same Richard Mellon Scaife so notable in the apparently 
endless effort to get President Clinton.)

In 1998, more than 600,000 people in this country were arrested for 
possession of marijuana, a drug less harmful for adults than alcohol. A 
famous British medical journal, The Lancet, concluded last year: "On the 
medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill 
effect on health." And according to an ad campaign by Common Sense for Drug 
Policy, a Department of Health and Human Services study shows that less 
than 1 percent of marijuana users become regular users of cocaine or heroin.

Of course, drug policy in this country has a long history of tragicomic 
turns. Back in the early '70s, Texas still had berserker marijuana laws 
(first-offense possession of any amount was a two-to-life felony). I will 
never forget the jaw-dropped amazement with which we learned that Nelson 
Rockefeller, then the governor of New York, had proposed a similarly 
draconian law there on the grounds that "Texas has it, and it works very well."

It worked so badly that it was a rank, open scandal, and the very next 
year, the Texas Legislature --which by no means had any claim to the 
progressive credentials for which Rockefeller was noted -- repealed the 
thing. Even the Texas Lege could see what a piece of folly that was.

But the history of our drug policy is that there's always some new drug to 
be frightened of, usually associated with a feared minority group, as opium 
was with Asians and marijuana with Mexicans. And in the 1980s, along came 
crack, associated with inner-city blacks.

According to The New York Times, "Crack poisoned many communities. Dealers 
turned neighborhoods into drug markets. As heavily armed gangs fought over 
turf, murder rates shot up. Authorities warned that crack was instantly 
addictive and spreading rapidly and predicted that a generation of crack 
babies would bear the drug's imprint. It looked like a nightmare with no end.

"But for all the havoc wreaked by crack, the worst fears were not realized. 
Crack appealed mainly to hard-core drug users. The number of crack users 
began falling not long after surveys began counting them. A decade later, 
the violence of the crack trade has burned out, and the murder rates have 

Which would be great news, except for Boots Cooper's immortal dictum: "Some 
things that won't hurt you will scare you so bad that you hurt yourself." 
And you should see what fear of crack has done to the American system of 
criminal justice.

The Times reports that every 20 seconds, someone in America is arrested for 
a drug violation. Every week, a new jail or prison is built to house them 
all in what is now the world's largest penal system.

A lethal combination of media sensationalism and political law-and-order 
opportunism pushed through a virulent stew of get-tough-on-drugs laws. The 
worst were mandatory minimum sentences, which took away the discretion of 
judges to lighten up when they feel it appropriate, and the 
three-strikes-and-you're-out laws.

The Times seems slightly startled by the injustices that these laws have 
wrought, noting in one alarmed bit of type: "Mother of two gets life in 
prison for $40 worth of cocaine." Shoot, that's nothin'-- in Texas, we gave 
a guy life for stealing a sandwich. "Father of nine gets ten years for 
growing marijuana plants." Hah! In Texas, we gave a guy more than that for 
busting a watermelon. Don't get me stah-ted.

A further distortion in the system produced by these wacky laws is that 
good behavior can no longer get you out of prison early; the only way out 
is to roll over on somebody else. It pays to sing in this system.

And do you think it makes a lot of difference to people doing time whether 
they get out by telling the truth or by making it up? One defense attorney 
said: "They're like crazed, berserk rats in there; they'll say anything." 
And so another unhappy consequence of our fear of crack is that more and 
more people are being convicted of crimes they never committed because 
other people in prison are willing to lie about them.

Unless you are a drug user or know somebody in the joint, all this may seem 
far removed from your life. It's not. They're taking money away from your 
kids' schools to pay for all this, from helping people who are mentally 
retarded and mentally ill, from mass transit and public housing and more 
parkland .

MOLLY IVINS writes a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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