EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is the first in a two-part series by contributing editor Adam Rathge. The series is drawn from Rathge’s dissertation, which examines the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States by analyzing the development and transformation of medical discourse, regulatory processes, and social concerns surrounding cannabis between 1840 and 1940.
Robocalls. Partisan attack ads. Pundit punditry. It’s midterm election time in America! As this post goes live, Nate Silver’s projections over at FiveThirtyEight suggest the GOP will take back the Senate. But that’s not the only measure of intrigue to be settled on November 4th. In Alaska and Oregon, voters will decide whether to implement legislation modeled on the laws passed by Colorado and Washington in 2012, making marijuana sales legal for adults in those states. Voters in Washington, D.C. will also decide on marijuana legalization (with a ballot measure that will make it legal to possess or grow small amounts, but not buy or sell it). Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana. And if we take a quick look ahead to 2016, we find a half-dozen additional states considering marijuana legalization initiatives.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this recent turn toward medicalization and legalization are the contradictions it inspires. For example, if “soft legalization” passes in Washington, D.C. next month, and Congress allows it to stand, marijuana possession would be legal throughout the city, but acquiring it would still require a series of acts that remain illegal. In fact, according to federal law, none of these ballot initiatives are legal. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is “considered among the most dangerous drugs” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Despite this, twenty three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. Moreover, following the implementation of recreational legalization in Colorado this year, the state now allows the sale of marijuana to any adult over the age of twenty one while doctors continue to write marijuana prescriptions for patients. Cannabis is both medicine and intoxicant. All this has led the Justice Department to recently clarify its policies as the nation lurches forward toward what many consider a tipping point for widespread marijuana legalization. As such, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at how we got here in the first place. And I mean way back. A hundred and fifty years back.
Cannabis products were commonly sold and used in the United States throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but were also subject to state regulations and restrictions.
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Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Beavercreek, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina highlight the dangers of our current war on drugs and crime for young black men. Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, public and civic discourse still frequently turns to problematic discussions of the young black male. In teaching a course on the Crack Era as well as past courses on Mass Incarceration, I am struck by the consistent, seemingly invisible violence met upon women. Both physical and structural violence are disproportionately met upon poor nonwhite women. In both macro and micro moral panics surrounding drug abuse, civic disorder and crime, discussions typically circle the same terrain. What of the young black male? Somebody save the children! Absent in popular and policy discussions is substantive conversation regarding the plight of poor nonwhite women.
Women are the fastest growing prison population in the United States. As of 2010, more than 1 million women were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women. Perhaps most damning—trauma, sexual violence, drug dependence and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration. Despite more than 40 years of failed policy our nation elects to punish rather than heal. We lock women up instead of providing social services to help them cope with trauma, violence, addiction and poverty.
The preponderance of women in prison—roughly 85 to 90 percent—have a history of victimization prior to their incarceration. This often includes domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. As always color proves central to understanding our wars on drugs and crime: nonwhite women who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders. Women of means are more likely to be treated as victims, often referred to child welfare and mental health systems.
When we do talk about poor nonwhite women, we demonize them. In the burgeoning years of the law and order movement Patrick Moynihan sloppily applied sociological theory to label the black family—particularly black women heading single-parent households—a “tangle of pathology.” Black women were not headstrong, independent, and self-reliant because they had to be. This was simply a character flaw, one responsible for driving away potential suitors and fathers. Realities of poverty, previous childhood and ongoing trauma, as well as the daily specter of violence and coercion were not explanatory tools in this case. Continue reading →
On May 31, 2014, the White House issued a cryptic press release, a brief letter from President Obama to Congress. The letter announced that the US government had decided to levy economic sanctions against Victor Cerrano, Jose Umana, and Francisco Barros, three foreign individuals from Colombia, El Savador, and Cape Verde, respectively.
Thomas Jefferson: Sanctions Pioneer
For some of us, it may be surprising to learn that the United States sometimes declares what amounts to an economic war  against individuals. If we survey the history of economic statecraft  from the Peloponnesian War, to Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo,  to the growing popularity of economic coercion since the 1970s, it’s clear that sanctions against non-states actors are a relatively new development (Baldwin 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, & Elliott 2007; Drezner 2003).
Today, such economic restrictions against individuals and entities (e.g. businesses, charities) are rapidly outpacing embargoes against states, and US non-sovereign targets currently number in the thousands. In the War on Terror, non-sovereign sanctions have also emerged as a critical instrument of non-military aggression in the form of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.  Those listed—either as SDNGT (global terror) or as a SDNK (global narcotics trafficker)– quickly find that they are essentially ‘locked out’ of the American economy and that their US assets are “frozen.” All US persons and organizations are prohibited from economically transacting with a SDN.
The concerted use of non-sovereign sanctions was pioneered in the War on Drugs, and not in the War on Terror. 
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CCTV interview prior to execution. Caption: “Their pain (referring to the mothers of the dead bargemen) is the same as mine.”
On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen. What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.
Xinmin.cn 湄公河惨案主犯糯康等四人在云南执行死刑 March 1, 2013
The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.
Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.
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Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.
David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece in Reason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”
Two different kinds of reporters.
Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.
If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain. Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage. Shit, they’re still not in the right place.
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The 2013 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting (May 30-June 2) in Boston concluded yesterday. As an interdisciplinary conference of considerable size (over 600 panels) that attracts a diverse range of policy, academic, practitioner panelists and attendees, this annual meeting seems to offer rich opportunities to venture outside of one’s narrow subfield and to have unexpected yet fruitful conversations.
Given the overlapping interests of those who work on law and psychoactive substances, this conference may be a future forum of interest for ADHS readers. The conference has been extant for several decades, deriving its institutional origins from the founding of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in 1964. This year’s theme was “Power, Privilege, and the Pursuit of Justice: Legal Challenges in Precarious Times.” Continue reading →
When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized in efforts for reform to “take back their streets”. Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil. The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods. Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress. Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool. Continue reading →