Marijuana supporters go to battle against prosecutors with ‘reefer madness’

Can voters upend the status quo on Election Day?

CREDIT: iStock/Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: iStock/Dylan Petrohilos

In 2013, the Welton family of Mesa, Arizona finally found the right treatment for their 5-year-old son, Zander, who experienced violent seizures from the time he was a baby: medical marijuana extract. When Zander began taking the medicine, the number of seizures he had dropped drastically. He was finally able to sleep soundly at night and could hold a fork on his own.

Then, just as Zander’s health improved, Maricopa County’s top prosecutor, Bill Montgomery (R) threatened to prosecute the Welton family. The medical marijuana law passed in 2010 in Arizona, he said, did not include extracts. Fearing prosecution, Zander’s parents stopped the treatment, and the boy’s health regressed almost immediately.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

After seeing the benefits of pot, and the quick transformation their son went through when he could get treatment, the Weltons refused to sit back and let Zander suffer. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the law permitted medicinal use of extracts — a battle they ultimately won in 2014. But Montgomery’s enthusiasm for taking down marijuana users has never faltered, and his treatment of the Welton family perfectly exemplifies his fervor for prohibition.

To this day, Montgomery remains a vocal opponent of marijuana, and aggressively prosecutes people who use it — comparing them to cartel members and enemies of God. Come Election Day in November, that unwavering stance could cost him his job.

Montgomery is one of many district attorneys across the U.S. with “reefer madness,” meaning they treat pot — medical and otherwise — as a vile, destructive, and sinful substance. As public opinion shifts toward a more favorable view of marijuana, and lawmakers rethink tough-on-crime policies, reefer mad prosecutors could get the boot.

Vigorous prosecutions

There are approximately 2,400 elected prosecutors tasked with enforcing the rule of law in communities nationwide. They play a lead role in deciding who goes to prison and why. And almost all elected prosecutors are white men, many of whom wage the War on Drugs and contribute to mass incarceration by aggressively targeting people of color.

Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform, people of color are mobilizing to unseat overzealous prosecutors. Marijuana advocacy groups are doing the same in several counties notorious for cracking down on marijuana offenses.

For instance, advocates are trying to push out District Attorney Devon Anderson in Harris County, Texas, where drug possession is aggressively prosecuted.

In 2013, the ACLU concluded that 11,000 arrests for possession are made in Harris County annually — one person was arrested every 50 minutes. In 2014, Anderson implemented the First Chance Intervention Program (FCIP) to divert first-time offenders arrested for possession away from jail and into drug treatment. In 2015, she announced a pilot program for issuing citations to people with 2 ounces or less of marijuana in their possession, as opposed to jailing them.

Today, data shows that diversion to drug programs under FCIP has produced minimal results. Within a year of the its launch, more than 80 percent of participants were informed of the option to attend treatment after they were jailed and charged — not before, as FCIP intended. Out of 50 police agencies, 2 percent offered FCIP at all.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Advocates say Harris County Jail, located in Houston, is “still bursting at the seams” with people arrested for possession.

“[Anderson’s] very much ‘law and order.’ That’s been her position,” Mary Moreno, the communications director of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), told ThinkProgress. “We haven’t seen enough citations. We still see that people are taken to jail for small amounts.”

TOP is one of several local organizations endorsing Devon’s challenger in the upcoming election, Kim Ogg, who wants no jail time for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Ogg prefers to spend money and manpower fighting violent crimes and wants to reform the bail policies that keep poor people locked up indefinitely for their inability to pay bond.

“That’s tied together,” Moreno said. “If you get arrested for marijuana possession, you get a certain bond, whether or not you can pay for it — even though you’re not a threat to society.” She added that Anderson has continued the policy, which her husband championed as D.A. before her, of broken windows policing — cracking down on minor offenses in an effort to preempt more serious crimes. “Just because you have marijuana doesn’t mean you’re going to commit crimes the next day,” Moreno said.

TOP, a political action committee, formed a large get out the vote campaign that includes canvassing the county, telephone drives, and transporting people to the polls. In collaboration with the Color of Change, TOP recently submitted a joint petition to Anderson, asking her to step down.

Four states over, advocates of marijuana reform in Tampa Bay, Florida are taking a similar message door to door as part of their fight to vote out incumbent Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober.

As a top prosecutor, Ober has embraced outdated claims about the perils of weed and opposes Tampa’s decision to decriminalize pot. Under his leadership, black people are 3.8 times more likely to do time in jail than white people, and marijuana possession plays a big role in landing them behind bars. In some cases, marijuana possession has even proven fatal. Two months ago, 22-year-old Levonia Riggins was killed by a SWAT team trying to execute a search warrant. Law enforcement confiscated about 2 grams of pot from Riggins’ body, a family friend told the Tampa Bay Times.

“We need to teach responsibility and not turn our head one time, two times, three times, because it is contrary to the well-being of our community,” Ober said in April. He also implied that caregivers in possession of medical marijuana, which could be legalized in November, endanger kids’ lives.

According to Christopher Cano, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ (NORML) Central Florida chapter, Ober’s assistant attorneys aren’t even informed about FCIP-style programs that do exist in Hillsborough County, so people are jailed when they don’t need to be.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

That’s why NORML endorsed Ober’s challenger Andrew Warren, who, like Ogg, wants to shift focus away from marijuana offenses to violent and white collar crimes. NORML can’t legally tell people who to vote for, but members are working closely with organizational partners, Faith in Florida and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to knock on doors and educate county residents about Warren and Ober’s policy platforms.

Their current challenge is convincing voters why they need to get to the polls next month.

“People are not excited about voting for Clinton and Trump,” Cano said. As a result, much of the organizers’ work involves teaching people about the hand that district attorneys have in governing their lives. “[The] state attorney is having a direct impact on this community. You need to turn out. You need to vote down ballot,” he said.

In Maricopa County, home of the Welton family, marijuana advocates are committed to dethroning prosecutor Bill Montgomery and legalizing recreational marijuana in the entire state of Arizona through a ballot initiative, Proposition 205.

Billionaire George Soros, a well-known supporter of marijuana reform, is now bankrolling local efforts to take down Montgomery and funneling money into the campaign of challenger Diego Rodriguez, a Democrat committed to ending mass incarceration. Soros also created a political action committee, Arizona Safety & Justice, to fight the incumbent.

According to Sarah Saucedo, the former chapter leader of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at Arizona State University, the organization hasn’t dedicated money to ousting Montgomery, specifically. But individual members of SSDP are collaborating with the Arizona Democratic Party and its affiliates to get out the vote for Rodriguez.

Stuck in the past

A Gallup poll released this month concluded that 60 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana — not just decriminalizing possession. Research confirms the benefits of pot and debunks the myth that it is a deadly gateway drug. Medical marijuana is already legal in half of the country. Recreational use is legal in four states, plus D.C., and nine states are poised to approve it on Nov. 8.

The shift in public opinion extends to the people of Harris, Hillsborough, and Maricopa counties. So why hold on to outdated arguments about the dangers of pot?

“It’s mostly a myth that local preferences drive the policy decisions that prosecutors make,” Robert Smith of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School told ThinkProgress. “In too many counties, it is the personality of the elected prosecutor — and not the will of the community — that drives the things that prosecutors say, who they prosecute, and what kind of harsh punishments they seek.”

Smith belongs to a team of people following prosecutorial behaviors and trends, including reefer madness, which influence criminal justice throughout the country. A recent report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch concluded that there were more than 574,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2015— roughly 68,000 more than the total number of arrests for violent crimes, including murder and rape.

“This disconnect is not infrequently the result of outsized egos or masculinity performance, but it also flows from a lack of trust and open communication between prosecutors and the communities most impacted by their decisions,” Smith said.

SSDP Executive Director Betty Aldworth pointed to the inability of people to recognize their failures.

“For many in the broad field of law enforcement who are holding on to outdated thinking about the drug war or crime, they are so immersed in a tough on crime perspective that it’s difficult for them to look at all available evidence,” she said. “For many, it’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that their professional approach to their work has failed and that they should be taking a fresh look at the available evidence.”

Personal motives also get in the way of leadership, she said, noting Montgomery’s “religious crusade” to round up and imprison users.

NORML’s Cano pointed to budgetary goals. “The more people they can lock up, the more demand they can create, the bigger a budget they can validate,” he said. “‘Let’s create demand, so we can inflate our budget and we can continue the status quo.’”

Cano, Aldworth, and Smith agreed that people simply don’t realize the amount of power prosecutors have over their lives.

“People are so focused on state and national level justice reform, but the prosecutor in your community has so much more power over your life — and how justice is administered in your neighborhood and city — than your state legislator or congressmen or president,” Smith said.

In many cases, longtime district attorneys run unopposed, so they’re elected over and over again. But organized efforts to inform people of their policies could drastically alter the status quo in the near future. Education and GOTV campaigns are crucial.

“What decisions do they make that influence safety, justice, and prosperity in your neighborhood?” said Smith. “And what alternative decisions, perhaps less costly and more just, are available? When is the elected prosecutor up for election next, and who is challenging her? These are questions that relatively few Americans know, but they matter greatly to the functioning of everyday life in many communities.”