Pubdate: Fri, 06 Jul 2007
Source: In These Times (US)
Copyright: 2007 In These Times
Author: Silja J.A. Talvi
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


When a person is sent to prison for the first time on a drug-related
felony charge, there is little chance that he or she will be told
about the "collateral consequences" of their sentence.

The severity of these residual punishments depends on
the state. "Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions
Associated with Marijuana Offenses," a report released
in July by the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics
(CCLE), ranks Florida, Delaware, Alabama,
Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah,
Arizona and South Carolina as the 10 states with the
worst records for continuing the punishments of people
who have already served their time.

"Life Sentences" author Richard Boire writes that the long-term
sanctions for drug crimes, even for relatively benign drugs like
marijuana, can exceed those of violent crimes like premeditated
assault, rape and murder.

Intense criminalization of drugs began with the Nixon administration,
which ignored its own appointed "marihuana" commission's
recommendation that legalization for personal use was a logical
alternative to costly and ineffective criminalization. The drug war
intensified during the Reagan era and has since grown worse: Today,
fully 45 percent of 1.5 million annual drug arrests are related to

Up until the early '90s, people who smoked pot were rarely arrested in
large numbers.

If sentenced, most users and small-time dealers did not face long
sentences. That has changed.

According to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project,
marijuana-related arrests jumped up by 113 percent from 1990 to 2002,
while overall drug arrests only increased by three percent during that
time. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
has linked smoking weed to everything from teen violence to terrorism.

"ONDCP's crusade seems to get more incoherent and detached from
reality every day," says Bruce Mirken, communications director for the
Marijuana Policy Project. "One minute they say marijuana makes you an
apathetic slug, the next they say it turns you into a violent
gangbanger. Neither has the remotest connection with reality, and
these latest claims of a link between marijuana and violence are based
on shameless manipulation of statistics taken completely out of context."

Government-funded propaganda has been disseminated everywhere, from
ads in some progressive magazines, to press releases regurgitated as
"news" on cable stations like FOX News, to websites such as, which recently posted an ONDCP article, "Early
Marijuana Use an Early Warning Sign for Gang Involvement." For all of
its hoopla about the consequences of drug use, the ONDCP hasn't shown
an interest in documenting the problems faced by those convicted of
felony drug charges after release.

Job applicants must inform potential employers, upon request, of past
felonies, no matter how long ago they happened. The resulting job
discrimination pushes many former prisoners back into the underground
economy, contributing to the fact that two-thirds of former prisoners

Former drug-related offenders have been further punished by
stipulations signed into law in 1996, without congressional or public
debate, as a part of the Welfare Reform Act. Former convicts can now
be denied public housing, food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy
Families and scholarships for higher education. Other limits on
freedoms include the denial of vocational licensing and certification
for some professions, voting rights, suspension of driver's
licenses--regardless of whether the offense had anything to do with an
automobile--and lifetime bans on the adoption of a child.

Equally serious is that incarcerated men and women,
especially those who do not have the physical size or
prowess to fight off predators, can be extorted,
bullied, beaten, molested or raped by guards and fellow
inmates. "Stories from Inside: Prison Rape and the War
on Drugs," a study released earlier this year by Los
Angeles-based Stop Prisoner Rape, estimates that as
many as one in four female and one in five male
prisoners experience sexual violence while
incarcerated. The real numbers are likely to be higher
because of underreporting related to fear of
repercussion or stigma.

"While anyone can be a victim of prisoner rape," the report states,
"inmates convicted of a non-violent drug offense typically possess
characteristics that put them at great risk for abuse.

They tend to be young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and
lacking the street smarts necessary to protect themselves from other


Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, an
investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of
newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon,
Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is at
work on a book about women in prison (Seal Press/Avalon/Perseus).
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