Drug Policy and Prison Reform Become Major Issues in Alabama Election
If you listen hard you can hear a rumbling undercurrent of discontent from the Southern United States about the controversial issues of the failed drug war and the massive negative societal damage it has wrought in one of the poorest and most remote corners of the nation.
Welcome to the buckle of the Bible belt, a place long known for its desire to punish with Old Testament vengeance instead of progress with New Testament kindness, compassion and tolerance.
A place where sin has been confused with crime and as a result almost 30,000 of my fellow Alabamians are rotting away inside the prison system, which was built to hold only 12,000.
A place where the first pot offense is a misdemeanor, but a second is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Current law sends nearly 500 people to prison each year at a minimum monetary cost of $5 million to Alabama taxpayers.
According to the prison commissioner, 80 percent of our folks in jail or prison are illiterate or have a drug problem, which is really no surprise, because in Alabama we spend more to incarcerate someone for smoking a joint than we spend per child in our education system. For instance it costs around $10,000 a year to imprison a pot smoker but only around $3000 to pay a years tuition at the University of Alabama. As long as we are willing to spend more to incarcerate than we are to educate we will always have full prisons as lack of education is one of the major factors in determining who goes to jail.
However, Alabama is also known for her rebellious streak and her strong sense of independence from the federal government. I represent that streak and am on a mission to remind Alabamians of that proud heritage.
Hope springs eternal and even in the Deep South things eventually change.
The winds of change began to blow in Alabama in September of 2002 when the drug war kicked in my front door and hauled me off to jail. That supreme injustice is responsible for my entrance into Alabama's 2006 Gubernatorial Election as the Libertarian Party Candidate.
While some people (sadly many of my colleagues in drug policy reform are included in that bunch) see my candidacy as a joke and think I do not have a snowballs chance in hell of "winning" I beg you and them to look a little deeper and perhaps re-evaluate what the definition of "win" is.
When I entered the political arena in Alabama some three years ago no one was working on drug policy reform. No one was loudly calling for an end to marijuana prohibition.
No one was writing or lobbying their elected officials on that issue. No papers were dedicating their editorial sections to the need for change in the way drug use is dealt with in our state or to the fact that our prisons are filled to bursting with people who got caught smoking a joint.
People in Alabama were scared to death to speak up or to step up and say that what has happened here is wrong. With good reason. Speaking up in Alabama is what got me arrested.
The Pot: Recreational
My emergence on the scene has had a dramatic effect however. After three years of letter writing, protest organizing, media interviews, hitting back at the injustice system and finally throwing my hat in the ring for Governor that wind of change has risen to a howling gale.
Here are just a few of the major breakthroughs my activism and my campaign have brought about.
Members of the third task force on prison overcrowding recently recommended making simple possession of marijuana a misdemeanor no matter how many times you are caught. That is a major change for a state who has handed out 10 year sentences by the bushel for possession of a joint to minorities and poor white people unlucky enough to get caught. It doesn't go far enough if you ask me but it is a step in the right direction, a foot in the door, a leg up.
My campaign calls for outright legalization of marijuana for adults, collecting the taxes from sales and using them to fund a scientific and realistic approach to prevention as well as treatment for people addicted to hard drugs.
Their first move across the drug policy reform chess board is a small one and before it is all said and done we will either meet in the middle and agree to something we can all live with or I will win the election and full sanity will reign in this state.
The Pot: Medical
On 4/20/2005 The Alabama Compassionate Use Act was introduced to the Alabama House Judiciary Committee. I sat in on the hearing and thought I had fallen into the twilight zone. Not ever in my life did I think I would hear black Alabama Democrats extol the virtues of States Rights and white Alabama Republicans voice concern about possibly pissing off the federal government. But that dear reader is what happened on that day.
Rep. Laura Hall (D - Huntsville) is a brave and courageous soul for introducing this incredibly controversial piece of legislation into the Alabama House of Representatives. Ms. Hall's son died in 1989 from AIDS. She believes that he might still be alive today if he could have used marijuana to help him keep his medications down and she is adamant that no other Alabamian suffering from any disease which medical marijuana might help should have to do so.
On that day a subcommittee was formed to study the legislation further and a vote was set for 4/27/05. I am happy to inform you that the Alabama Compassionate Use Act passed out of the judiciary committee on a sharply divided voice vote and is set to come to the house floor sometime in Jan. or Feb. of 2006.
After the Supreme Court ruling Ms. Hall was asked if she would bother bringing the bill back to which she responded, "The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday against medical marijuana statutes won't dissuade me."
Hall said she would be back with her bill because she believes it gets around problems that the Supreme Court found with medical marijuana laws in other states.
Come early 2006 Alabama is likely to be the 13th state to enact medical marijuana legislation. 13 has always been my lucky number and it will be even more so when it represents our position in the battle to protect the sick and dying from drug war brutality. Finally our rank will be something other that 50th in the list of things that are good.
The Prison Crisis
One cannot work drug policy reform in Alabama without also becoming involved in prison reform. After all, the failed drug war has fueled the prison crisis across the nation and in Alabama people in prison on pot charges have actually died due to lack of medical care. Since when does a pot conviction equal a death sentence in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?
I have been working with Roberta Franklin who heads up Family Members of Inmates and is host of The Morning Show which I often co-host as well as The Ordinary People Society headed up by Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, a former inmate who served 10 years of a life sentence for crack cocaine in an Alabama prison. Earlier this year we helped organize a Prison Reform March on Washington D.C. with the November Coalition.
When Governor Bob Riley ran in 2002 one of his promises to the people of Alabama was that he would honor the recommendations of the Sentencing Commission. Those recommendations included making marijuana possession a misdemeanor, treatment instead of incarceration for drug offenders, early release of non-violent offenders and more community corrections and drug courts so that judges would have more options than jail for people who pose no danger to the community.
Governor Riley has failed repeatedly to do all of those things. At one point around 4000 non-violent offenders were released from Alabama prisons but since the laws that landed them there in the first place were not changed many of them wound up back in prison for a failed drug test or for missing an appointment with their probation officer and the number of people in prison quickly rose above those prior to the mass release.
Instead of acknowledging the obvious reasons for this and doing the right thing Gov. Riley has formed two additional commissions/task forces to look at the prison problem and they have all come to the same conclusions. I guess Riley meant he would follow the recommendation of the Sentencing Commission, but neglected to add that he would keep forming them until they told him what he wanted to hear. Unfortunately for Naughty Boy Bob they have all said the same thing.
1. Stop locking up non-violent drug offenders
2. Make treatment and community corrections an option in every county.
On November 16, 2005 their message apparently got through that thick Republican skull of his and Governor Riley announced that he plans to dedicate the first two weeks of the next legislative session to prison reform.
I'll be there every single day to speak for our people who are rotting away in cages.
My campaign platform calls for releasing all non-violent drug offenders from prison and expunging their records so that all of the extra judicially imposed obstacles placed before them are removed. Again I expect a compromise but I have a weapon that my opponents do not have and that weapon might be just the thing to win me the Governor's Office.
In May of 2005, Alabama Attorney General Troy King issued an opinion declaring that people convicted of drug crimes could vote even while incarcerated. He said drug crimes are not crimes of "moral turpitude".
That means that around 8,000 inmates currently in Alabama's prison system never lost their right to vote nor did the tens of thousands who have served time and are now back in society lose theirs.
In about two weeks I will be teaming up with Reverend Kenneth Glasgow to go into the prisons in Alabama and re-registering drug convicts to vote. We will also be contacting former inmates who may not know about this new ruling so that they can also register to vote. Considering the large number of people in Alabama who have been illegally disenfranchised over the years I fully expect their support in next years election. The Republicans and Democrats wouldn't be caught dead soliciting the vote of "prisoners" and you can take that to the bank.
While the Governor and the prison task forces appear to be moving in the proper direction to some small degree they still have it all mostly wrong. It looks as though treatment instead of incarceration is rearing its ugly head. Without my continued push for real reform here is what will happen in Alabama.
Marijuana users will be forced into treatment centers simply because marijuana offenders make up the bulk of drug offenses in this state and there is money to be made in the treatment industry. They will still be arrested, dragged through the court system and forced into treatment when they do not need treatment. That will still be a gargantuan waste of our very limited resources and will take up much needed space for people who do actually have an addiction to hard drugs.
The following proposals are what I vow to push for in the upcoming legislative session and throughout my campaign for Governor.
1. Marijuana should be separated from hard drugs and regulated in a way similar to alcohol and tobacco. There should be no threat of arrest, fines, drug testing or any hardship or any other form of punishment imposed on adults who use marijuana responsibly in the privacy of their own homes.
2. Drug courts and treatment resources should be directed at helping those who are addicted to hard drugs. There exists in Alabama a large group of people willing to pay tax on marijuana. The tax money collected could be used to fund drug courts and treatment for hard drug addicts just as the money collected in tax from the sale of alcohol is used to help fund D.H.R.
3. As for start up funding for drug courts and treatment centers, how about doing what Morgan County recently did on a statewide level?
" Morgan County Commission Chairman John Glasscock said he has identified money needed to start the program.
He said the money will come from the law enforcement fund that the county uses for matching funds for drug task force grants."
As you can see my work in Alabama has raised awareness of the drug policy and prison crisis to a much higher level than previously existed here. While I consider all of the debate about these issues a small win for our side there is still much to do.
A key test for being a viable candidate is raising enough money to get your message out. I'm writing to you for your support. Alabama law allows candidates to receive unlimited contributions in any amount from the public and up to $500 from corporations. Any amount you can give will be appreciated. Raising money now will help add credibility for my campaign.
The campaign itself will advance the drug issue and other causes in my platform. I'm sure no other candidate will raise some of the issues I will be raising. How effectively I can raise those issues depends in part on the level of financial support I can achieve.
And, while I realize the tremendous challenge of actually winning office in this race, if I am merely successful in turning this into a three-way race our issues will get coverage in ways they have never gotten before. And, if we are successful in winning -- an incredible political feat -- then the drug issue and other issues I have been advancing will progress to a new level of political importance. Suddenly, politicians will see these are issues people can successfully run for office on.
Please make a contribution to my campaign. You can do that in one of two ways.
Or if you prefer you may send a check or money order to:
Nall for Governor Campaign
4633 Pearson Chapel Rd
Alexander City AL 35010
Remember that my freedom is also your freedom and together we will gain it across America.
Candidate for Governor of Alabama 2006