Louisiana still loves the war on drugs

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama laughed off an offer of a joint. A legal one, mind you, since this was Colorado.

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We’ve come a long way, baby, since five years ago when the exact same president was making cheap stoner jokes in response to serious questions about changing drug policy.

These last few years have seen — and continue to see — an amazing pushback against the excesses of the drug war. Like the Berlin Wall, the war on drugs seemed like it would stand forever.

The arguable “tear down this wall” moment for drug policy came in November, 2012, when two states legalized marijuana. Now, twenty-three states (and DC!) allow medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington allow its recreational use.

Even mainstream politicians have begun to grudgingly admit that weed is not a schedule one-worthy drug, and does indeed have medical usage for some seriously suffering individuals.

Most astonishing of all — thanks in part to Sen. Rand Paul — sentencing reform has become a bipartisan issue in a Washington, DC which can generally only agree on the fact that nothing in government is nonessential enough to chop.

But while Colorado may be a shining beacon of legalization without Armageddon and while at least mainstream politicians have vaguely noticed the horrifying state of the prison system, there are still so many rotten things in US justice — particularly in the state of Louisiana.

As NPR reported on Wednesday, Colorado ain’t the U.S. In the face of potential reforms, local Louisiana prosecutors are objecting vociferously to reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing.

Mandatory minimums come into play for all manner of crimes, but their most horrifying stories come from the drug war. After a second or third narcotics offenses, people have been sent to prison for decades — sometimes for life.

In tribute to the current national panic over the drug, and flying in the face of gentler way suggestions, Louisiana recently raised the maximum penalty for heroin sales to 99 years in prison.

The truly sad thing about this anti-anti-drug war is that the prison state pushback hasn’t even yet found a toe-hold in Louisiana. In the country with the biggest prison population, Louisiana is the place with the highest per capita number of people incarcerated in the world. There are 39,000 of them.

As a seminal 2012 Times-Picayune series on Louisiana prisons reported, “Among black me from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation.”

One out of every 86 Louisiana adults is behind bars in the state for a reason. Real crime is high, sure, but the weed laws are harsh, and the prisons are mostly for profit.

First time weed possession gets you six months in prison. Second time possession is an automatic felony. Strike three and you could get up to twenty years.

This life-ruining absurdity has lead to talk of changing the law. Yet in April the state senate rejected a bill to change possession of less than an ounce of weed to a misdemeanor.

This would have saved the state more than $20 million a year. Part of the problem was that the bill would not have capped the number of times possession would count as a misdemeanor. The prospect of someone being arrested ten times for a tiny bit of weed without the hammer coming down on him was too much for the politicians.

Louisiana suffers from the most severe form of this incarceration addiction that many other states are trying to kick. There are myriad perverse public incentives that perpetuate bad justice policies. Note the evils done by the California Prison Guards’ Union, or civil asset forfeiture’s status as a drug war honeypot.

Louisiana’s for-profit jails are a $143 million industry. Such a large economy has lead to ballooning employment of deputy sheriffs and corrections officers. Reportedly two thirds of the people in Louisiana jails are there for nonviolent reasons. Get rid of those prisoners, and most likely there would be a whole bunch of law enforcement and corrections officials out of a job.

No politician wants to come out in favor of cutting jobs, and especially not law enforcement ones. This is good news for the prison industrial complex.

Louisiana’s justice system problems aren’t unique, they are just on the extreme end of the issue. Prosecutors in the state dislike the prospect of mandatory minimum reductions because it gives them less power, but that is also true as a general rule nationwide.

Prosecutors like their tools to be hammers. Twenty years in prison hanging over someone’s head is a great incentive for them to rat on someone else for a drug ring, and then plead guilty to something that will get them five years with good behavior.

That Louisiana’s harsh sentences, overcrowded prisons, and foot dragging on reform already feel as if they are from another time is a good thing. Perhaps Attorney General Eric Holder’s tentative clemency program for certain drug offenders, plus Colorado and Washington state, and the benign federal neglect of legalization proves our tolerance for law and order lunacy is diminishing.

This shouldn’t make any of us complacent and overly eager to celebrate the end of the war on drugs. A lot of lives are being ruined and wasted in Louisiana right this minute — and, odds are, in your state as well.

What do you think?

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