Drug War Reform: A Crumbling Wall

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Drug War Reform: A Crumbling Wall

Many have written to say they would like to see the criminal-justice system revised to stop making convicts out of nonviolent drug users, but some are pessimistic about the chances.

They say the officials waging the drug war will not willingly relinquish the great power and flow of money they enjoy under current drug-fighting policies. They doubt that average civilian citizens can band together enough strength to wrest that power away.

So recently, when meeting with Buford Terrell, who is a professor at South Texas College of Law, and who specializes in controlled-substances law, I asked if he believes any appreciable change in the drug war is possible, considering all the power and money involved.

He said he does. Said he believes the big money-power barrier to ending or drastically reducing the drug war ultimately will prove to be brittle and come crumbling down all of a sudden. Like the Walls of Jericho. The Berlin Wall. The Cold War. Prohibition.

I asked if he had any thoughts about when that might take place. He said that two years ago he predicted marijuana would be legalized within five years and he sees no reason to change that. Which now means that within three years he believes marijuana will be legalized throughout the land.

Public outcry for policy change I have been hearing from a great many people in recent months as a result of our ongoing discussion and debate about criminal-justice issues in this space. The amount of support for change, the way it seems to be growing, and the fact that much is coming from unexpected sources (such as schoolteachers and retired federal agents), all is pretty convincing.

People are forming or joining organizations to work for changes, voters in several states have passed initiatives and referendums calling for drug policy reform.

Still, that three-year prediction seems a bit short, considering how long marijuana has been illegal, and how much has been invested by the drug warriors in fighting it, and how punishment for nonviolent drug offenses has increased in recent years.

But then, within just a few days after our conversation, a couple of items appeared to lend additional weight to Terrell's optimism.

First was a letter from a Washington-based organization, The Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, calling upon religious leaders all across This Great Land to join the hundreds of others (including several from the Houston area) who already have signed, asking President Clinton "to grant clemency to and to release on supervised parole those Federal prisoners serving unconscionably long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses."

The letter pointed out there are 10 times as many people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. now than there were in 1980, and many of those in federal prisons have amazingly long sentences "20 years, 25 years, life -- with no chance of parole, which was abolished by Congress in 1984."

Clinton's chance to leave mark Dorothy Gaines, "one example of thousands of injustices," according to the letter, is serving 20 years for conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine:

"A search of Dorothy's home turned up no drugs, no money, and no paraphernalia. State prosecutors declined to prosecute her. However, federal prosecutors used the testimony of drug dealers, who testified
against Dorothy to reduce their own prison sentences, to convict Dorothy. Regardless of her innocence or guilt, a 20-year sentence is excessive and unjust. Dorothy, a widow with three children, entered prison on March 10, 1995. Her oldest child, Natasha, left college to raise her young siblings, Chara and Philip. Dorothy has already served five years in prison. She has received numerous awards for helping prison staff. Please help us send her home, back to her children who need her."

The second item was story about a Rolling Stone magazine interview with President Clinton, in which he said that "small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be." Clinton also said: "We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment."

There is certain to be a great many responses to those comments, and my guess is that most will favor change. Couple that with the letter from the religious leaders, and Clinton may see an opportunity to wind up his presidency with a history-making trumpet blast that could start the crumbling of that drug war wall.

By THOM MARSHALL

Thom Marshall's e-mail address is thom.marshall@chron.com