Sandra Parshall

Did you know that one out of every 31 adults in the U.S. is either in prison/jail or on supervised release from incarceration?

That startling statistic is in an article by Senator James Webb of Virginia that appeared in last Sunday’s Parade Magazine. I don’t usually regard this newspaper supplement as a source of sociological wisdom, but Webb’s piece is worth every citizen’s attention. Reform of the criminal justice system and our overburdened prisons is one of his keenest interests, and he has the facts, supplied by the Department of Justice, to back up his call for change.

The prison population in this country is up to 2.3 million. Another 5 million adults are on probation, parole, or other correctional supervision. The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prisoners – 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, almost five times the worldwide rate of 158 per 100,000. As Webb says, “Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different – and vastly counterproductive.”

What we’re doing differently is putting a lot of people in prison for relatively minor and nonviolent offenses. According to the DOJ, fully one-third of all prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. Almost half of all drug arrests in 2007 involved only marijuana. Almost 60% of those imprisoned for drug offenses have no history of violence or involvement in major drug sales. Four out of five drug arrests are for possession; only one in five is for dealing. While marijuana users are serving prison sentences, the Mexican cartels that bring drugs across our borders and into our communities, at an estimated annual profit of $25 billion, flourish unimpeded, and gangs from other parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe are getting in on the action. Imprisoning users does nothing to stem the drug trade.

Our prisons are overcrowded and dangerous. People who commit offenses that other countries would treat as medical, mental, or social problems are thrown into institutions where violence is a constant threat and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are rampant. Being caught with even a small amount of an illegal drug is enough to ruin a person’s entire future, if he survives prison. According to the DOJ, more than 350,000 adult prisoners are mentally ill. This is some of what we’re getting for the $68 billion we spend on corrections in this country every year.

Some state governments are beginning to realize that their corrections systems have to be fixed – if only because state budgets can’t continue to fund ever-increasing prison populations. Last week, Gov. Patterson of New York announced plans to roll back harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses. Across the country, politicians are pushing sentencing reform to reduce prison populations and costs. Of course, opponents claim that this amounts to coddling criminals and that we should be building more prisons.

Senator Webb proposes a national commission that would take a comprehensive approach to corrections reform and provide guidance to states dealing with overburdened prisons and court systems. Like so many other problems we face in this country, the chaos in our prisons seems overwhelming, and plenty of people will throw up their hands and say it can’t be fixed. But it must be fixed, whether at the federal level or state by state. We can’t look the other way and allow this mess to get worse.

What approach do you favor? Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be given lighter sentences, or probation and community service instead of prison terms?

Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be incarcerated with those convicted of violent crimes?

Do you think drug use should be treated as a crime or a medical problem?

Do you believe marijuana use should be decriminalized?

Read Senator Webb’s article here:

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Comment by Dana King on April 6, 2009 at 4:25am
Thanks for the clarification. I see your point, and largely agree. Marijuana laws, as currently constituted, probably do more harm than good in the "war of drugs." I don't have much regard for full-time stoners, but I've known some mean and self-destructive drunks, and have come to believe grass may be the lesser of two evils. Cocaine, heroin, meth, and others are a different story, though I still cringe when we Americans declare war on anything. We immediately come up with programs that are, as should be expected, no more efficient that any first attempt would be. Our problem is, once we see it's not working, our solution is to try more of the same.
Comment by Bernd Kochanowski on April 5, 2009 at 9:13pm

I agree the first link is not so good. Anyway, the argument is hidden in the references. I wrote about "good scientific evidences". You can find hundreds of scientific papers, which in my eyes add up to "good evidences". And no one knows what will happen if marijuana would be legalized and the number of addicts and long term user begin to rise. But surely at the moment it looks as if the damage done is obviously weaker than that by alcohol.
Comment by Bernd Kochanowski on April 5, 2009 at 9:04pm

sorry for my bad English. I wanted to use "wipe out" as in "destroy". Drugs either kill, make ill, or (and) reduce the ability of a person to function in a socially accepted way - I agree though, that is it more complex: People use drugs because they cannot cope with the demands the society makes.

It looks to me as if the USA is a fragmented society. At the edge there is a large population, whose members have up to now (theoretically) the possibility to become a part of the mainstream society, legalized drugs will reduce that possibility and will most likely let this population break away.
Comment by Dana King on April 5, 2009 at 4:47am
I think I'm misreading this comment, as it seems self-contradictory to me:

Somehow I feel that the USA should not legalize drugs. Compared to European countries, there are far more addicts in the USA. If you legalize other drugs than marijuana you will wipe out a large proportion of the addicts and multiply the present social problems.

To me it reads as if you're saying the US has more addicts than Europe, but legalizing more drugs will give us fewer addicts but will multiply our social problems.

I don;t get why legalization will lower the number of addicts, or how lowering that number will multiply our social problems. Like I said, I may be misreading.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 5, 2009 at 2:09am
Hi Bernd--checked out your links: the first was some dude's blog post that said essentially that when people are stoned they experience short-term memory loss. Duh. The second one was in German, so unfortunately I couldn't read it. The third concluded thus: "CONCLUSIONS: Our results support the hypothesis that heavy cannabis use during adolescence may affect the trajectory of normal brain maturation. Due to concurrent alcohol consumption in five HCU subjects, conclusions from this study should be considered preliminary, as the DTI findings reported here may be reflective of the combination of alcohol and marijuana use. Further research in larger samples, longitudinal in nature, and controlling for alcohol consumption is needed to better understand the pathophysiology of the effect of cannabis on the developing brain." That sounds a bit inconclusive, but from personal experience I'd be willing to concede that heavy pot smoking makes people lazy and stupid and can prolong adolescence. Still, those consequences are far more benign than those associated with heavy prolonged use of other currently legal substances like tobacco and alcohol.
Comment by Bernd Kochanowski on April 5, 2009 at 12:57am
Jon I didn't write that people should be incarcerated just because marijuana is not harmless, the link in my comment would have made that clear.

But just because I think that the American politic concerning marijuana is wrong I must not agree that marijuana is more harmless than tobacco smoke or alcohol.

Recent data can be found here:

J Psychiatr Res. 2009 Jan;43(3):189-204.
Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2008 Dec;18(6):557-63.
Neuropsychiatr. 2008;22(4):223-9.
Gesundheitswesen. 2008 Nov;70(11):653-7. Epub 2008 Nov 27.
Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2008 Dec;18(12):882-7. Epub 2008 Sep 6.
J Psychiatr Res. 2009 Jan;43(3):189-204.

Some links are here

So let's assume that marijuana is as dangerous as any other legal drug.

Somehow I feel that the USA should not legalize drugs. Compared to European countries, there are far more addicts in the USA. If you legalize other drugs than marijuana you will wipe out a large proportion of the addicts and multiply the present social problems (I again refer to the link on my first comment).
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on April 4, 2009 at 3:11pm
You don't have to be a drug user to support decriminalization, Sandra. As with other libertarian concepts, this is less about whether something is good or bad. This is about whether you should be punished for doing something that, at its core, does not harm another. If I get high on marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, PCP or whatever (this is only an example), I have not harmed another. I may harm myself, but that is my business. One might argue getting high on these drugs puts money into the hands of violent criminals. Decriminalization would put my money into legitimate business owners' pockets, who have a vested interest in NOT killing people.

Don't get the impression, however, I think drug users should get a pass. If a person using drugs steals, murders, rapes, injures or damages property, they should go to jail. Use whatever substance you want. That's your right. Infringe on my rights, or anyone else's, and you should go to jail. I have just as much right to be secure in my person and property as you do.

It's worth noting Portugal recently decriminalized possession of many narcotics. Kudos to them. In the past day or so, Carlos Santana called on President Barack Obama to legalize marijuana.

Sorry, this stuff gets me all worked up.
Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 4, 2009 at 11:49am
I want to add that I'm not promoting the use of marijuana. I don't drink or use drugs because I enjoy having a clear head and being in control of my actions. But I don't like seeing people's lives ruined because they smoke pot. I've seen, up close and personal, the horrifying damage alcohol can do, and I don't think marijuana is even close to being in the same league.
Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 4, 2009 at 11:44am
Here's a link to a story about 15 different studies -- lasting from three months to more than 13 years -- that showed no significant brain damage caused by frequent, even daily, use of marijuana.

Alcohol, on the other hand, kills brain cells to the point of causing dementia if you drink long enough and heavily enough, and its effect on other organs such as the liver are well-documented.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 4, 2009 at 4:20am
Good point, Dana--I actually think the gateway argument is complete bullshit, and that the real indicator for drug/alcohol/tobacco use is probably peer-group identification combined with a tendency to take certain kinds of risks and/or do self-destructive shit. I've watched a young relative of mine go through a world of shit with minor drug infractions over the last few years (caught stoned, caught w/ pot in school, caught selling a joint to another kid) and it's mostly been about wanting to fit in with the skate-punk scene and, more fundamentally, being mad as hell at his parents. Divorced parents are probably the primary gateway for most teen stupidity.

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