Blogger's note: This is the fourth (and final) in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. The War on Drugs (and my objections to it--it's been an abject policy failure) are always on my mind, though recent coverage of marijuana legalization/decriminalization efforts (yes, I know they're not the same thing) across the country and particularly in Colorado and Washington reminded me of this piece, which discusses the intersection of the War on Drugs with educational practice.
Education News Colorado published a series of stories last week on the relationship between legalized medical marijuana, the spread of dispensaries since the law was passed in 2000, and rise (by 45%) in the number of reported drug violations in K-12 schools. Suspensions, expulsions, referrals to police, and marijuana-related school arrests have all risen since 2009. In January of this year, U.S. Attorney John Walsh announced that prosecutors would target medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, including over 100 in Colorado, for violating the federal Drug-Free Schools Act.
According to the series, the problems are manifold. First, students have easier logistical access to marijuana. By hanging around outside dispensaries or asking older family members or friends, they can get patients with prescriptions (which are easy to obtain) to get it for them. Second, because it’s being marketed by the dispensaries as medicinal, some kids are associating it with healthfulness. Legal contradictions further complicate things. According to federal law, marijuana is illegal. Colorado law dictates that dispensaries must respect a 1,000 buffer zone around schools, but also lets localities set their own limitations—with some outlawing the dispensaries entirely, but others allowing them closer than the 1,000 feet. Additionally, this fall, Colorado voters will consider legalizing marijuana altogether.
Those in favor of legalization of marijuana, for medicinal or other uses, say that more regulation of the dispensaries is needed. If students are getting the drugs illegally, that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed. They can still get alcohol, illegally, after all, but this is hardly seen as reason to return to prohibition.
Given Adam Gopnick’s recent blockbuster commentary on the moral shortcomings of our current criminal justice system (I also recommend reading this David Cole piece from 2009 in the NYRB), I would hate to see a rise in marijuana use among students serve as a litmus test for whether legalization or decriminalization should be pursued. I would hope that states like Colorado would keep legalized medical marijuana in place. I hope that they (and the rest of the country) consider decriminalizing marijuana, if not other drugs, altogether, just as has been done in Portugal with fairly positive results.
The entire Gopnick piece is worth reading, but in the meantime, these tidbits should be enough to make us reconsider our current state of affairs vis a vis our criminal justice system, the War on Drugs, and the continued criminalization of marijuana, if not other drugs:
More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. . . there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then [in 1850]. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.”. . . more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year.
Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime.
In New York City, arrests for marijuana possession went up again in 2011 even though Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum in September calling for police to refrain from arresting people with marijuana unless it’s in plain sight. Recently, NYPD members shot and killed after pursuing into his home, an African-American youth due to suspicion of possession of marijuana.
States like Colorado have an opportunity to stop the school to prison pipeline. They should regulate marijuana dispensaries and move them as far away from schools as evidence dictates is effective. But most of all, they should educate kids early on the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse. Schools should treat drug and alcohol abuse not as a crime but as a symptom of a larger problem. When I was a high school teacher, I suspected a few times, though I couldn’t really tell, that some kids were high when they came to my class. Given what some of them faced at home or on the streets, I didn’t conduct any investigations—they hadn’t been disruptive or anything. I preferred to keep them safe under my watchful eye and trusting enough of me to come back to class the next day. What good would it have done them to confront them or report them to police? I referred some students for counseling (and not just for suspected substance abuse issues) and I would much prefer that this approach, free from risks associated with harsh punishment, be more broadly adopted and available. Schools must educate and inform, not facilitate the school to prison pipeline.