Drugs and Prisons Dominate the Week’s News Cycle

Aug 19, 2013

Drugs and prisons hit the news cycle this week with the force of a coordinated campaign. New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy was found unconstitutional and we learned that the NSA shares intercepted information with the DEA to use against American citizens. It is the DEA’s policy, then, to makes up stories to cover up how they got their leads.

The White House threw down on Monday. In a speech before the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder announced new White House policy in regard to mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders. This policy would only impact federal prosecutions. Federal prisoners make up only about 10% of the nation’s prisoners, the rest being state and local.

In his remarks, Holder recognized the destructive impact of mandatory minimums on minority communities and pointed to the need for alternative placements or rehab for these offenders. Such programming is likely to be helpful for some, and recognition of the destructiveness of mandatory minimums is nothing less than welcome. Yet, Holder’s remarks were met by advocates for change in drug and prison policies with lukewarm praise and limp-handed applause. Alternative sentences and rehab still frame the issue as a matter of addressing bad behavior rather than a matter of addressing bad laws. It offers new ways to contend with too many misbehaving citizens rather than ways to curb the economic drivers for locking citizens up.

Figures from this week’s Economist: America has around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Roughly one in every 107 American adults is behind bars, a rate nearly five times that of Britain, seven times that of France and 24 times that of India. According to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, these number have “no proven relation to crime rates.”

In the coverage of Holder’s remarks, several reporters framed those remarks as addressing the problem of overcrowded prisons. But the problem isn’t overcrowded prisons but an over-criminalized culture structured to create “crowded” prisons. That “crowd” in a crowded prison is an industry resource for the for-profit incarceration machine.

It’s not that hard to figure out. Take just one component of the incarceration system, private prisons, which are for-profit federal contractors whose profits derive from the number of prisoners served. A portion of that profit is re-invested in creating more profit through political lobbying, just as in any industry. Successful lobbying means more prisoners, which means more resources, which means more political power, which means more resources, and when I say “resources”, I mean taxpayer dollars. It’s a self-reinforcing loop, not unique to the prison industry.

The system may not be predatory on purpose, but it is predatory by design.

Holder didn’t mention for-profit prisons as a driver of obscene incarceration rates. What Holder said the administration will do is instruct federal prosecutors to write up reports on low level drug offenders in such a way so as to not trigger mandatory minimums.

This direction to federal prosecutors is what’s called a “policy”. 

The Ogden memo of 2009 was also a federal policy suggesting that federal police would take a hands-off approach in regards to state-legal medical marijuana providers. But as a federal prosecutor said during the trial of a Montana provider two years ago, in reference to the Ogden memo, (and I quote), “a policy is not a promise”.  Federal “policy”, it turns out, indicates an option the government says to prefer, may exercise, or may exercise selectively.  

In all fairness, as the Executive Branch, they lack the power to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether, and there is currently a bipartisan bill in Congress to do that. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to address concerns with mandatory minimums. The Washington Post quoted this week from a report from the Urban Institute that at the current rate, prisons will eat up 30% of the entire Department of Justice’s budget by 2020. Add to this the prevailing distrust of government around surveillance, concern over an over-militarized police force, and a rising recognition that misinformation justifies the Drug War and the week’s news cycle seemed to demonstrate the need to relieve building public pressure. But it would be naïve to think protecting profits are not also part of the current calculations.

Anchoring it all was a CNN special with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Science has changed Dr. Gupta’s mind on marijuana and he has publicly apologized for failing to recognize its medicinal value. On the talk show circuit, Gupta has called out the government as a hypocrite on the issue. His CNN special can be found on or YouTube. For more cannabis science, you can also check out my article at I’ll tell you what a joint and a yam have in common.

This is Kate Cholewa. Thanks for listening.