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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 10/16/16

Outing The Prison-Industrial Complex

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By Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese

What do you call a system in which private entities partner with law enforcement to spy on peaceful protesters and arrest them, in which the poor and people of color are preyed upon to meet private prison quotas in order to provide slave labor, in which drug use is treated as a crime rather than the public health issue that it is, and in which police are heavily militarized and violate the law without being held accountable?

Like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex (PIC) has become a behemoth that feeds personal and corporate profits through human exploitation. Its tentacles reach into many parts of our society. It is necessary to understand how the many aspects of the PIC operate in order to confront it and stop it from swallowing up our families and communities.

Ending the Failed Drug War

No More Drug War
No More Drug War
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While drug prohibitions have existed nearly 100 years, in 1968 President Nixon gave it a name: the war on drugs. More than forty years in, rather than stopping drug use, the drug war has destroyed the lives of millions of families, filled the jails with nonviolent offenders and fueled corruption within law enforcement. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch finds that the number one reason for arrests is possession of drugs, one arrest every 25 seconds, and that more than half of these are for marijuana though 58% of people in the United States support legal marijuana. Police, who are encouraged to make arrests either openly through quotas or quietly through rewards, go after low-level drug offenses because they are easy. And they often violate civil rights through illegal searches and seizures to do so. And, of course, marijuana and other drug arrests are racially disproportionate to communities of color.

The impact of these arrests are great. They can lead to the loss of jobs, the loss of government benefits such as tuition or housing assistance, and they can lead to loss of life. Dozens of people have died in jail awaiting trial for possession of drugs. And now, as Maya Schenwar reports, states are considering legislation to increase the consequences for selling drugs, including life in prison or the death penalty if drugs are sold to a person who then dies of an overdose.

And treating drugs as illegal has enabled police to have control over communities, especially low-income communities. Investigative reporter Jamie Kalven wrote an in-depth expose' on corruption within the Chicago Police Department. Officers kept drugs that were confiscated and routinely stole money and valuables from public housing residents.

Criminalizing drug sales and possession have not stopped them and as a result ending the war on drugs is moving into the mainstream of political discourse. The United States has high rates of drug use. It is clear that a new approach is needed. Many groups recommend decriminalization of drugs and treating drug use as a public health issue instead through better education about drug use, regulation of use as is done for alcohol and treatment on demand for people who are addicted.

From Anti-Drug War Philly DNC Protesters March Giant Joint - Hit & Run ...
From Anti-Drug War Philly DNC Protesters March Giant Joint - Hit & Run ...
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2016 may be the biggest year ever for marijuana legalization. This year nine states will vote on legalization of marijuana or on allowing medical use. In five states -- Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada-- voters will decide on legalization of marijuana by regulating and taxing it. If passed these states will join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska with such laws, as well as DC which has legal marijuana without a system allowing sales. The federal government has allowed these laws to be put in place without threat of prosecution and has allowed marijuana to be sold on tribal lands. These laws have raised tremendous amounts of tax dollars and reduced arrests, without any serious harms.Even though youth in Colorado are not using more, law enforcement is focusing its resources on youth, causing increased arrests. In addition to votes on legal marijuana, there are protests in favor of ending the war on marijuana. The first protest against marijuana criminalization was on August 16th 1964. Ending this injustice has been a long time coming.

Four other states, Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota, will vote on legal medical marijuana, which is already legal in nearly half the country. Federal courts have ruled that the federal government cannot prosecute medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Even Congress passed a law allowing veterans to use medical marijuana overruling a Veterans Administration policy. While the Drug Enforcement Administration has refused to recognize reality, their denial of rescheduling of marijuana is not slowing progress to end the war on marijuana.

The 2014 Global Marijuana March
The 2014 Global Marijuana March
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We know the criminalizaiton of drugs has failed despite the war on drugs producing massive seizures of drugs, mass arrests as well as the largest prison population on the planet. But what about the alternative? There are many countries around the world that have enacted various forms of decriminalization or legalization of various drugs that have consistently shown successes -- reduced arrests, low levels of drug use, less death and less crime.

We will focus on one here -- Portugal. Fifteen years ago Portugal enacted decriminalization of all drugs. The results are dramatically positive. There has been no major increase in illicit drug use despite the removal of the threat of prosecution. Rates of drug use in Portugal have remained below the EU average and far below US levels. Portugal has experienced a major drop in drug-related arrests and incarceration. People receiving treatment for drug problems in Portugal also rose by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011. There has been a steep reduction in new HIV cases: In 2000, the number of new cases among people who use drugs was 1,575--by 2013, that figure was only 78. In 2001, 80 people in Portugal reportedly died due to drug overdose--in 2012, that number was just 16. The only question remaining is whether deciminalization goes far enough or whether a legal, regulated and taxed market would be even more effective.

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Margaret Flowers, M.D. is a pediatrician from Maryland who is co-director of Popular Resistance and coordinator of Health Over Profit for Everyone Campaign.

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