On March 13, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued a ruling that may provide a benefit for a small but not insignificant number of the people arrested for marijuana in the state. Brandi Jessica Russell had her 2011 conviction for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana overturned, and this precedent could be applied to other specific cases where the defendants had appeals in process when Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in November 2012.
The victory will be small, since most people charged with drug possession plead out instead. But it’s progress. And in spite of some handwringing about the legal precedent set by retroactively applying a law by such dissenters as The Denver Post editorial board, this is a good thing. As Tom Angell, the founder of the Marijuana Majority, told me by email, “The voters of Colorado … declared the war on marijuana a failure on Election Day 2012. It’s very good news that their sensible action at the ballot box will not only prevent more people from being arrested under senseless prohibition laws but will provide help to those who have been caught in the grips of those laws in years past.”
But Angell and his organization’s optimism notwithstanding, the war on drugs is still raging. And we need to keep remembering it’s truly a war. This means half the people in our bulging prisons are both casualties of and prisoners of war. And while we keep progressing with recreational legal marijuana laws and the loosening up of attitudes towards drugs, we cannot forget about the people who are still being punished due to the most dangerous moral panic in U.S. history. Legal precedent be damned; letting every single nonviolent drug criminal out of prison today would be the right thing to do.
The moment the scorched policy of the war on drugs slows at all, it is tempting to pull a W. on the aircraft carrier and declare “mission accomplished.” But in May 2009, the Obama administration’s drug tsar Gil Kerlikowske declared that they weren’t going to call it “the war on drugs” anymore. After all, said Kerlikowske, “people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country.” The Obama administration has made some token shifts towards less draconian methods of fighting, such as drug courts – which have their own problems – but Kerlikowske was basically lying. War is a nasty, disturbingly accurate, word for what the government has done for 40-plus years (mostly with public approval or at least indifference). The Korean War wasn’t a “police action,” and the door-busting, life-ruining parts of the war on drugs did not end after their general decided calling a spade a spade was bad PR.