Our criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population, but houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners. With drug offenders accounting for half of federal prisoners and 21 percent of state prisoners, drug incarceration is a major cause of the burgeoning U.S. criminal justice system.
Many of those serving time are low-level offenders with no history of violence. In a 2008 Zogby poll, three out of four Americans said the war on drugs is failing. This clear indictment of U.S. drug policy falls directly into the lap of Congress. As a whole, Congress has been hesitant to address the shortcomings of U.S. drug policy because of the perception that it is a controversial and politically damaging issue.
With Congress afraid to touch the issue, the need for an independent commission with full investigative powers is apparent. That's why Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, and 35 other senators are sponsoring the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (NCJCA) to establish a blue ribbon commission to review our criminal justice system.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley proposed an amendment to the bill that would prevent discussion or even examination of the possibility that drugs, including medical marijuana, should be decriminalized or legalized. Grassley's weak justification for attempting to suppress these viable policy options is: "The point is, for them to do what we tell them to do." This assertion undermines the very purpose of the commission: For experts to recommend to the Senate alternatives to our current approach to incarceration, regardless of whether these findings conflict with our current "get-tough" approach.
What motivation could he have, save the fear that any real discussion on decriminalization or legalization would reach the sensible conclusion that these policies deserve serious consideration?
Perhaps Grassley is aware that similar commissions have reported favorably on decriminalization or legalization. In 1972, a commission appointed by President Nixon to reexamine marijuana policy recommended that simple marijuana possession by adults should not be a crime. Obviously, this recommendation ultimately was not implemented.
More recently, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime commended Portugal's decriminalization of all drugs by stating, "These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition ... it also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased."
The most disturbing aspect of Grassley's amendment is that it would preclude the commission from discussing medical marijuana, an issue of compassion and mercy that enjoys over 70 percent support across the country in poll after poll. Has Grassley ignored the recent medical marijuana hearings held by the Iowa Board of Pharmacy? Judging from the passionate testimonies given by sick and dying Iowans, this is an important issue for his constituents. Grassley owes it to these people to at least give the commission a chance to study medical marijuana. By silencing debate, he ill serves those whom he represents.
Grassley explained his choice to draft numerous amendments to the bill by saying that "you want everything on the table," so that you can pick and choose which amendments to ultimately submit. If he is so concerned about having a full range of options for amendments to consider, why is he intentionally silencing certain options for solving the U.S. incarceration problem?
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) seeks an open, honest and rational debate on drug policy. If Grassley is so sure that legalization is the wrong course of action, then presumably he can support this assertion.
The University of Iowa SSDP chapter would be happy to provide a forum for just such a discussion. Perhaps there he can demonstrate why he believes these ideas are too dangerous to even consider.
November 14, 2009
Des Moines Register