ISSUE STATEMENT — My thoughts on the drug war and mass incarceration
I have opposed the misguided drug war for many years. We should not be locking people up for using the same drugs that have been used by at least the last three American presidents and, according to many surveys, by a majority of American people.
As an activist and a law professor, I have been involved in the grassroots movement to decriminalize drugs. The goal should be to let adults make their own decisions as long as they are not harming themselves and others, let the States and their voters decide their own drug policies, and treat drug abuse as a public health issue, rather than burdening our criminal justice system. And the federal government should get out of the way.
In Florida, I supported the 2014 medical marijuana referendum that garnered about 58 percent of the vote statewide, falling just short of the required 60 percent mark. My opponent, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is a drug warrior who opposed the medical marijuana referendum. Calling marijuana a “gateway” drug, she refuses to allow her constituents in South Florida, in consultation with their doctors, to decide for themselves whether to utilize this plant-based medicine to alleviate pain and other symptoms of various illnesses and the side effects of other medications.
Certain industries have a special interest in keeping marijuana illegal — for example, the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, both of which view recreational and medicinal use of marijuana as a competitive threat; and the private prison industry, which profits from warehousing people in jails, including for marijuana possession. Not surprisingly, having taken in lots of campaign donations from the alcohol, pharmaceutical, and private prison industries and their political action committees (PACs), Debbie Wasserman Schultz opposes medical marijuana and supports privatized prisons and mass incarceration. Unlike my opponent, I do not take any contributions from these special interests, or from any corporate interests at all.
In addition to Florida’s medical marijuana referendum, I also support the recent reforms by Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to decriminalize marijuana for personal use, and I call on the federal government to “deschedule” marijuana from the list of controlled and dangerous substances.
Far more serious than recreational marijuana use is the rise of illegal pill mills, the over-prescription of opioids, the enormous increase in heroin abuse, and the epidemic of flakka, synthetic crystals and bath salts imported from China, which has turned many users into paranoid and often violent zombies with superhuman strength and off-the-charts near-death vital signs. In the first year since the flakka epidemic began in Broward County, 60 people have died as a result, with hospitals getting dozens of overdosed patients a day, and on some nights, half the calls to police are flakka-related emergencies. Likewise, opioid use has resulted in an alarming rise in overdose deaths around the country, including in more affluent areas, and particularly in South Florida. These are the type of drugs on which we should be focusing our law enforcement and public health efforts.
In many of the states that have moved in the direction of legalization and regulation of marijuana for personal use, entire new industries are flourishing, adding jobs and increasing tax revenues, and crime rates are falling. While I support state efforts to allow individuals to make their own decisions, I also recognize the need to provide young people — and people of all ages — with many more job and educational opportunities in a time of decriminalization and legalization.
While ending the drug war presents a range of challenges, there is no doubt that the drug war itself has been a costly disaster for millions of individuals, families, and taxpayers. An entire private prison industry has arisen that lobbies for harsh drug wars with severe sentencing. The drug war institutionalizes racial, generational, and economic injustice, by disproportionately punishing people of color, young people, and people with lower incomes at far greater rates than the population as a whole. For instance, although surveys show that illicit drug use is no higher among people of color, African-American men are arrested at many times the rate of white men on drug charges in the U.S., and at even higher rates in Florida.
The drug war results in mass incarceration. More than half a million people are languishing behind bars on drug charges in the U.S., breaking up and often irreparably destroying families. And there are other collateral consequences. People convicted of even misdemeanor drug offenses, including marijuana possession, are denied access to education, housing and federal financial aid under federal law, and frequently will find that they are virtually barred from the job market. In Florida and some other states, those convicted of non-violent drug felonies are barred for life from voting, even after they have served their sentences, regardless of whether they are responsibly employed, paying taxes, and raising families. In 2001, I helped spearhead the grassroots lobbying campaign that overturned New Mexico’s felon disenfranchisement law, and worked successfully with a Republican governor to do so. Unfortunately, Florida leads the country in felon disenfranchisement. More than one in ten Floridians — and nearly one in four African American Floridians — are shut out of the polls because of felony convictions, most of which are non-violent drug felonies.
Public opinion surveys show that people across the country, and particularly in South Florida, want to end this misguided drug war. Unfortunately, powerful industries continue to lobby for the drug war — including the same pharmaceutical, alcohol, and private prison companies from which my opponent readily takes large amounts of money. It is time to take corporate money out of politics, end the drug war, and provide legal and healthy alternatives for everyone. People should have the freedom to decide with their doctors whether to use medical marijuana, and to decide for themselves whether to use marijuana recreationally. We don’t need more prisons. We need more jobs and more educational opportunities as alternatives to drug dealing and chronic drug use. And for those who are caught in the grip of the disease of drug addiction, rather than warehouse them in prisons as punishment, we need more treatment programs to provide a better means to help them recover.
In solidarity and gratitude,