By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
And there are now more prisoners in American jails for drug offenses than in the entire jail systems of Western Europe combined. Last year, the U.S. spent $40 billion in the war against drugs, a 40-fold increase since 1980. The effect of this ”war“ has been minimal in terms of combating drug usage and winning the battle of public opinion. More than a third of Americans -- 35 percent -- over a the age of 11 have tried marijuana, and an estimated 11 million say that they are current users. Those who have experienced the effects of the ”war“ firsthand say that many people are unaware of how many are affected by it. In Seattle, Nora Callahan helps to run the November Coalition, which she founded with another woman who, like herself, had a brother jailed for a long time in prison on a drug offense.
”This is a horrible, inhumane war,“ said Callahan. ”They say drugs fund the terrorists. Gasoline funds the terrorists.“ She said that the public was still ill-informed about the effects of the law. ”As soon as we show them people’s stories, they say, ‘That could be my brother.’ People feel shame at the policy . . . Some of the conservatives here get angrier than the hippies, it‘s the overreach of government they don’t like, and these are mainly people who don‘t think about drugs much until they pick up their Prozac prescription. There is a lot of anger about the hypocrisy.“
Julie Stewart, the president of FAMM, started the organization a decade ago after her brother was jailed for five years for growing marijuana. ”These are ordinary people given extraordinary sentences,“ said Stewart. ”I was naive enough to think that once legislators knew what was happening, they would undo the laws. That didn’t happen, but the tide is beginning to turn in Congress.“ Stewart said that whenever there is a ”crime du jour,“ Congress responds with severe penalties, whether it‘s piracy in 1790 or drugs today.
”There is a demonization of drug offenders in the U.S., but it’s not the kingpins doing the hard time, it‘s these low-level offenses,“ said Monica Pratt of FAMM. ”These laws make it very simple to get a very, very long sentence. And the people that could make a difference don’t.“
The Bush-appointed drug czar, John L. Walters, favors jail over rehabilitation for drug users and opposes medical-marijuana use. He believes that the problem has been exaggerated: ”What really drives the battle against law enforcement and punishment is not a commitment to treatment, but the widely held view that we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs, that drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh, and the criminal-justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. These are among the great urban myths of our time.“
Now a group of Americans who face imprisonment here for marijuana offenses are seeking political asylum in Canada, having headed for the nearest foreign border and finding that Vancouver may be just their kind of town. They are claiming asylum status on the grounds that they have ”genuine fears of persecution“ in their own country. Whether they succeed in this strategy is a moot point, but what is interesting is that the Canadian authorities have decided to hear their arguments and allow them their day in court, permitting them to remain in Canada until hearings next spring.
One of those seeking asylum is Renee Boje, whom the U.S. wishes to extradite to stand trial for cultivating cannabis plants at the home of Todd McCormick, the L.A. medical-marijuana activist. She told AlterNet from her home in Vancouver: ”I‘m a member of a class of society they’re trying to oppress or wipe out completely.“ If convicted down in L.A., she faces the possibility of 10 years inside, and the length of that sentence is part of her plea that she would face ”persecution“ if she were to return south of the border. ”There are hundreds of Americans here because they are being persecuted by their own government,“ she said.
Canada has recently moved to soften penalties for marijuana possession, reflecting trends across Europe. In the United Kingdom, David Blunkett, a home secretary certainly not known for his liberal views, surprised many when he reclassified cannabis as a less harmful drug and relaxed the laws earlier this year, introducing a system whereby police officers would no longer routinely arrest those found in possession but would adopt a ”seize and warn“ policy. Arrests would occur only if a child was involved or a ”flagrant disregard for the law“ was shown -- such as blowing the smoke in an officer‘s face.
Meanwhile, people like Steve Treleaven must carry on with their sentences. ”I was a young man when I got arrested,“ says Treleaven, who may have already lost many years and much hair from the top of his head, but who has managed to remain fit and sharp in mind and body by running 30 miles a week round the quarter-mile prison track and by his habit of voraciously reading everything from history books to his weekly Nation. ”I was an old man within a year, so what I try and do now is make sure that when I get out, I’m as young as I can be.“ What would make him happiest, one feels, would be to see his son play soccer. Like many who are denied a chance to shout their case from the ramparts, he talks almost nonstop, so the visit is soon over, an event signaled by that familiar international soundtrack of incarceration, the jangling of keys.