The Drug War’s Collateral Damage

Those victimized by a crackdown on marijuana since the early ’90s can be denied everything from food stamps to voting rights to the right to adopt a child

Silja J.A. Talvi

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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 marijuana.

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 Black​News​.com, 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 recidivate. 

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 detainees.”

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Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is 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.
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