Tuesday, January 27, 2009

By The Numbers

As you may or may not know, the United State still has at least one accomplishment in which it leads the world: We have the highest prison population rate in the world. That’s right, with 738 of every 100,000 people in the U.S. in prison, we are number one. That’s roughly 0.7 percent of the population. Now 0.7 percent might not sound like such a big number, but compared to the rest of the world it’s pretty impressive. It works out to about 2.3 million people. In comparison, Russia comes in a distant second with only 611 per 100,000 of its population in prison. And England, for example, has only 148 per 100,000 of its population in prison.

But it seems to me that we are not doing enough, prison population-wise. If we aren’t careful, some of those prison population wannabes, like Russia or Cuba, are going to take our crown. Not that such a thing would be easy, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our past achievements. We need to keep up our frenetic pace of arrests and convictions. And how better than by going after people using illegal drugs. They are, after all, pretty easy to catch. Especially in California where they operate in the open. Not like murderers or rapists. Sort of like if you’re in college and you’re worried about your GPA dropping, you sign up for some easy classes. The results look good on paper, and you don’t really have to put in a lot of effort.

So I’ve been looking at some numbers to see how much we can accomplish if we really set our minds to it. Currently, the U.S. population is approximately 305 million. Of those, approximately 66 percent are White, 15 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are Black. The reason such a breakdown is important is because you can’t just go around putting lots of White people in prison. We do need to maintain at least somewhat of the status quo, where the Black prison population is about 6 times that of the white prison population, and Hispanics are incarcerated at about twice the rate of Whites. Of course if we really want to excel we’re going to have to set aside some of our old ways, and start going after non-minority offenders a lot more than we have.

And where better to start than with marijuana users. Unlike other crimes, and even other drug-related crimes, marijuana smoking crosses all racial, ethnic, and geographic lines. The rich and poor alike, urban and rural, young and old, all like their weed. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population 12 years and older are regular marijuana smokers. If broken down by age group, that number goes up considerably. Of those aged 18-25 years, 16.6 percent smoke marijuana regularly, and 8.6 percent of those aged 26-34 are regular smokers. Now we’re talking some serious numbers. According to U.S. census information, somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 percent of the population falls into that 18-34 age group. That works out to about 67 million people, and of those about 8 million are regular marijuana smokers. That’s almost 3 percent of our total population.

I don’t know about you, but numbers like that tell me that our law enforcement officials are not coming anywhere close to doing their jobs. We have over 8 million criminals in this country, and fewer than one million of them are behind bars. That means that almost 90 percent of those dangerous marijuana-smoking criminals are walking around free, smoking their reefer and flouting the law. I don’t know much about how the law-enforcement business works, but in any other business a 12 percent success rate would be totally unacceptable. It would indicate total, absolute failure. Heads would role, people would be fired. Consultants would be brought in.

So what can we do? Almost 3 percent of our population are criminals, yet fewer than one in ten of those criminals are behind bars. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that pretty embarrassing. And scary. How can any of us feel safe and secure with so many criminals running around free? The only solution I can see is to ceaselessly go after all of these marijuana-smoking criminals. I mean, let’s get really serious about it. Not just the occasional bust of a kid smoking a joint or a raid on a medical marijuana dispensary. I think it would be more efficient to just assume that everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Then, after we get that 3 percent of our population safely locked away, we can go after the rest. Remember, that 3 percent represents only the 18-32 age group. There are still millions of younger and older Americans who smoke marijuana regularly. And what about the occasional users? They’re breaking the law just like the rest; an occasional crime is still a crime. So with just marijuana smokers alone, we could increase our prison population to over 5 percent and quite possibly close to 10 percent of our total population. No other country would ever come close to a number like that. We would secure our number one position in the prison population game once and for all. And we would all certainly sleep better knowing that nearly one in ten of our friends and neighbors are securely locked away, no longer smoking their “devil’s weed.” I know I would.

Now if you would, please join me in a little patriotic chant: U – S – A… We’re number 1. U – S – A… We’re number 1. U – S – A… We’re number 1. U – S – A… We’re number 1.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

R.I.P. U.S. Constitution

It’s now official. The Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights, no longer applies to law enforcement officers. How could something like this possibly happen? Here, in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? Land of the “free.” Simple, the Supreme Court made a decision.

That’s right, the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search or arrest can still be used against a defendant. Of course this ruling applies only when officers make a “mistake.” Like serving an expired warrant in this case, for example. So much for the 4th Amendment.

Believe it or not, I don’t really have much to say about this turn of events. I think it speaks for itself. There is now nothing to stop the police from obtaining evidence illegally. All they have to do is say it was a simple mistake. I have a feeling that police “mistakes” in gathering evidence are about to go up dramatically. The police now have carte blanche when it comes to search and seizure. We can no longer feel “secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects.” For once, our government has given us something to really be afraid of. And it’s not terrorists or weapons of mass destruction. It’s our government. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Decides Not To Decide

Sometimes what the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t decide is as important as when it actually hands down a decision. But how, you might ask, can that be? If the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t decide an issue, doesn’t that mean it’s still unresolved? The answer is, not necessarily.

It all started back in 2005 when local police arrested Felix Kha, a Garden Grove, CA citizen, for possession of marijuana and seized one-third of an ounce of the controlled substance from him. The charge was eventually dropped, since Mr. Kha was in compliance with California state medical marijuana laws. However the police refused to return his seized medicine. And that’s what got this judicial ball rolling.

You see the police, and the city which backed up the police’s position, believed that they would be in violation of federal law if they gave the seized marijuana back to its rightful owner. Or so they said. That’s in spite of a valid court order for the return of Mr. Kha’s marijuana. When Mr. Kha pressed for the return of his medicine, the city filed suit with the 4th District Court of Appeals. That appeal was unanimously rejected. You’d think that would have been the end of it, and the police would have just returned the seized property. But no. The city then asked the California Supreme Court to review the case. They also declined, so that definitely should have put an end to the matter once and for all.

But no. Not to be deterred by two decisions not to review their appeal, the city of Garden Grove took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Funny thing, the U.S. Supreme Court also declined to hear the case. Fortunately for Mr. Kha, there are no more alternatives for the city of Garden Grove. Case closed. Period. End of discussion. The seized property must be returned. So now what?

Well, the city of Garden Grove spent $80,000 in their pursuit of this case. That amount may increase even more if they are ordered to pay Mr. Kha’s legal fees (as well they should). In the current economic climate, I bet the taxpayers of Garden Grove are just thrilled to death with the way their city is spending their hard-earned tax dollars.

But more significant are the ramifications of the highest court in the land refusing to review this case. It means that law enforcement officials in states with legalized medical marijuana must now respect patients’ rights (in theory). There will no longer be any question as to what to do with property seized from people in compliance with their state’s laws. That’s a great thing for sick people all across the country. But it gets even better. Not only does it mean that it is not the job of local law enforcement officials to enforce federal law, but it means that they cannot choose to uphold federal over state law. As if that wasn’t enough, it means that, contrary to what some have argued, federal law does not supercede state law. At least when it comes to medical marijuana. Whether or not local, state, and federal law enforcement officials abide by this ruling is another question. But at least a precedent has been set. It is, at the very least, one small victory over the U.S government in the war that it has been waging on its sick and dying citizens.

And who knows, maybe it will cause the local authorities to think twice before calling in the feds for a raid (yes, they do that all the time). They might even lose their jobs or be arrested themselves if they violate the state laws that they swore to uphold. And maybe the feds will think twice if they don’t have the cooperation of the local authorities. And maybe, just maybe, Mr. Kha will get his medicine back. Maybe not.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Because The Bible Tells Us So

Believe it or not, I do have some intellectual interests other than the war on drugs. And one of those interests is creationism or, if you prefer, intelligent design. Now I’m not exactly what you would call a religious person, so I don’t actually believe in the “theory” of creationism. And it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with science. But you have to give the creationists credit for one thing: they have an answer for everything. Although the details vary depending on the issue, the bottom line of every one of their arguments is simply, “because the Bible tells us so.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all preachy on you. Or try to justify the use of recreational drugs based on a tenuous interpretation of some obscure Bible verse (thank Jah). But whether or not you believe you can glean something about the meaning of life or the history of the universe from the Bible, I think you have to admit that the Bible can at the very least teach us something about human nature. Especially the Old Testament. And I think it is somewhat significant that the very first lesson in human nature that the Bible teaches us is fairly simple, straightforward, and not easily misinterpreted: Prohibition doesn’t work.

That’s right, the very first lesson we learn, after finding out about the creation of the universe, comes in chapter 3 of the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the fruit of any tree in their garden except for one, the tree of knowledge. They were warned quite clearly that if they ate from that particular tree that they would die. Of course they did eat the forbidden fruit, and the rest is history (at least according to the Bible). So what does that teach us?

First, prohibition cannot be based on lies or misinformation. Eating the forbidden fruit turned out not to be fatal after all. When Adam and Eve realized that they had been lied to about the true nature of the fruit, what else could they do but eat it? They were, after all, only human.

Second, a powerful enforcer of the law is not enough. Even the creator of the universe, who knows all and sees all, could not stop Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit. So how could a mere government and their police force hope to do any better?

Third, even the threat of the most severe punishment, death, is not an effective deterrent. Especially when the “crime” is something that goes against human nature. In this case, the law attempted to prevent people from gaining knowledge. As we all know, people are always asking questions and learning new things. That’s what people do. Such a behavior cannot be controlled with legislation.

Fourth, you can’t watch everybody all the time. Even with a population of only two and an omniscient enforcer, the law was still violated. That kind of makes what the DEA is trying accomplish seem pretty pointless (as if it didn’t already).

And finally this story teaches us a lesson that every parent has eventually learned. If you tell an adolescent not to do something, they often will, if for no other reason than to make a point (“you’re not the boss of me”). But if you give people some freedom, within some reasonable limitations and boundaries, more often than not they will come to the right decision on their own. In other words, given the opportunity to act like adults, most people will.

So I think there’s a lesson to be learned here, especially for those who justify the war on drugs on moral grounds. Regardless of how they might interpret the Bible with respect to what sort of recreation is acceptable or forbidden, there can be little doubt about the Bible’s position on prohibition as a solution: It has, since the beginning of time, never worked, and can’t possibly be expected to ever work, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Amen.