Saturday, March 15, 2008

What We Almost Didn't Have

In addition to being a fairly rabid Obama fan, I'm also a fan of the HBO series "The Wire." Without going into all of the reasons for my obsession with Omar, Snoop, Dukie, Marlo, Bunk, McNulty, Bubbles (ok, I'll stop now, but it makes me smile, sadly, just thinking about em all, even the bad ones), I will just say that "The Wire" has a great deal to say about the state of our country.

One of the main things that is says is that the war on drugs is a horrifically criminal destruction of human lives, and that we are literally killing ourselves by continuing it. I agree.

But I'm not going to try to convince you yy talking about the macro stuff. Like the at least six billion dollar cost of imprisoning people on non-violent drug offenses. Or the almost 2000% increase in the Federal prison budget since mandatory minimum sentences were enacted for non-violent drug offences. Or, or, or.

Instead, I'd like to make a page from the writers of The Wire, and make up a story: think back to the 80's or early 90's. A young man, a college student (race is irrelevant to this, but imagine him to be Black), buys some weed, with the plan of taking it home to share with some of his friends.

On his way home, he is stopped for speeding (or making an illegal left turn, or weaving in his lane, or just for being Black). The police find this small amount or recreational drugs in his car, and arrest him for possession. Let's assume that this young man is also honest and naive, so he admits to his plan of partying with his friends. The police now have enough evidence to charge him with possession with intent to distribute. And they do.

Let's imagine that our young man comes from a family with enough money to hire a good and well connected lawyer. This lawyer convinces the DA to reduce the charges to simple possession and to let our guy off with a guilty plea and a fine, but no jail time. And our guy is now smart enough to not tell anyone, so his college does not find out and he is not expelled. So now, our "lucky" middle class college student is out just several thousand dollars and is stuck with only a permanent criminal record for drug possession (and yes I did say our guy is lucky, because it could have been much, much worse).

Now, let's take a break from this fiction for minute and consider a few actual facts. Almost 30 million Americans have admitted to using marijuana in their lives. Almost 3 million have admitted to using it within the last 30 days. In other words, 10% of the population has admitted to committing a crime that could, in many places, get them locked up, or at least have them classified as a criminal. And we all know that once someone is classified as a criminal, the possibilities for their life are severely diminished. Forever.

Back to our college student. This young man realizes that his chosen career of the law is now no longer open to him, as you cannot be an officer of the court with a criminal conviction. He closes that door, and being a talented and intelligent man, picks a different path. He goes on to own a small business and lives a successful, but private, life.

So what, you say. He made a mistake and he paid for it, and it didn't even cost him that much. After all, he was still "successful." Now make the obvious leap - Barack was that college student, and but for dumb luck, we would have been deprived of the leader that he has become.

Wait, let me correct that: because of dumb luck and stupid laws, we have been deprived of great leaders, productive employees, good parents, wonderful children, loving spouses, etc., etc. etc. Hundreds of thousands of them, our fellow countrymen and woman. Deprived of their rights, segregated from society, labeled as criminal, simply for doing something that at least 10% of us have also admitted doing. And we are all paying for this idiocy. Some of us are paying with our freedom, some with our taxes. All of us are being deprived of the contribution that these people would have made. And all because of this short sighted, morally bankrupt and ultimately futile war on drugs.

So here's the call to action: if you are arrested for a non-violent drug offense, admit nothing and demand a trial by jury (but don't take my advice, talk to your lawyer, and educate yourself on your rights). If you find yourself on the jury for one of these trials, regardless of the actual red handed guilt of the person being charged, find him or her not-guilty. This is called jury nullification and it has been used to good effect in the past (it's one of the ways that Prohibition was ultimately shown to be impossible). It is a simple thing that we can do right now to bring this stupid "war" to an end.

I wish that this was something that Barack could run on, but it ain't. We'll just have to trust that he has the compassion (he does), the political will (I think he does), the intelligence (I KNOW he does) and the mandate (that's up to us) to put an end to this idiocy.

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