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It’s time to end the war on drugs in Massachusetts

UPDATE: See the video above to hear ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal discuss the latest developments in this scandal. A prosecutor apparently had inappropriate communications with the former chemist at the heart of the scandal, who was found to have falsified and manipulated drug samples. The prosecutor has resigned.
 
Have you heard about the scandal brewing in Massachusetts? As many as 34,000 people might be released from prison because one chemist working at the state drug lab at the Department of Public Health had "her own set of rules and operated within those" (the Governor's words) during her nine year tenure. The chemist, Annie Dookhan, "mishandled drug samples by altering the weight of the drugs, not calibrating machines correctly, and manipulating samples so that they would test as drugs when they were not," according to the Boston Globe.
 
The scandal, "one of the biggest criminal justice scandals in the Commonwealth’s history…[should] mark the beginning of the end of our state’s drug war," writes ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal in a Boston Globe op-ed (behind a paywall here).
 
Segal says identifying the mistakes in the 34,000 tainted cases and reassessing the penalties served does not go far enough. The Governor has pledged to do the hard work to go through each and every one of these cases — clearly the right thing to do in the service of justice. "But to what end?" Segal asks.

So that we can return to the orderly churning out of drug prosecutions?

Let’s hope not. Despite spending more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs, we have produced only an exploding prison population. Driven in significant measure by prosecutions of nonviolent drug offenders, the U.S. incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1980, and it now dwarfs the rates for all other democracies. As writer Adam Gopnick has observed, “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.”
 
Yet we’re no closer to winning the war. In fact, Drug Enforcement Administration data shows that cocaine, for example, is now 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago. According to a June 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, many public officials now “acknowledge privately” that “the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.”
 
If those officials are right — and of course they are — then continuing the drug war is worse than pointless. It is immoral. It means locking up countless people who could benefit from treatment instead of imprisonment. It means fueling deadly drug-related violence throughout the world. And it means inviting inevitable scandals, like the one at the Jamaica Plain crime lab.
 
It means that most of the money devoted to the drug war would be put to better use if we just set it on fire.
Read about the connections among the war on drugs, the war on terror, the surveillance state and the militarization of the police.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.