The Drug War’s Crossroads | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Drug War’s Crossroads

Jackson Assistant Police Chief Lee Vance is fine with legalizing marijuana, but said crack cocaine destroys families and should not be legalized.

Jackson Assistant Police Chief Lee Vance is fine with legalizing marijuana, but said crack cocaine destroys families and should not be legalized. Photo by Courtesy Kenya Hudson

Cedric Willis, who was arrested in 1994 and charged with murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated assault, and was exonerated 12 years later, doesn't buy the argument that law-enforcement officials don't have enough money to stop the illegal trade.

Willis said police departments and prosecutors seemingly have all the money they need to lock people up, but it's often in cases like his, where the justice system failed, that justice officials claim inadequate funding exists to correct the system's mistakes.

"I believe that if they wanted to stop drugs, drugs would stop," he said last week.

Willis joined a roundtable discussion with Assistant Police Chief Lee Vance, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith and Assistant Hinds County Public Defender Alice Stamps.

Vance agreed in part with Willis' assertion that policymakers should rethink its strategy in the war on drugs, adding that he would favor legalizing marijuana to help unclog case backlogs in the courts. But Vance, a Jackson native with more than two decades of law-enforcement experience, draws the line there.

"I will fight to my death not to legalize crack cocaine," Vance said.

Vance attributes the majority of crime in the capital city to the introduction of crack in the late 1980s. Although violent crime has subsided from the numbers seen at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s, Vance estimates that drugs are at the root of most of Jackson's approximately 50 homicides this year.

"Crack turns honest people into criminals—burglars, armed robbers," Vance told the audience at the summit.

While Vance's view is conventional within law-enforcement circles, drug-policy experts assert that the criminalization of crack and other drugs fuels a cycle of mass incarceration and continued drug use.

Statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance show that law-enforcement agencies spend approximately $50 billion on the drug war and that 1.55 million people were arrested in 2012 for nonviolent drug offenses. In addition, two-thirds of people incarcerated for drug offenses are black or Hispanic even though drug use is about the same for all racial groups, data show.

Alice Stamps, an assistant public defender, and Robert Shuler Smith, the county's top prosecutor, argued that the Mississippi Legislature should provide more funding. Stamps called for more funding of the state's public-defender departments so that attorneys can better help clients fight drug charges. Smith said he plans to ask lawmakers for more money for drug courts, which are designed to provide an alternative to prison.

Asha Bandele, director of the advocacy grants program at Drug Policy Alliance, moderated the panel discussion. She said that drug laws also disproportionately affect young people of color.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, Bandele said that such policies as stop-and-frisk that sometimes turn up drugs also fuel the jail and prison population; a court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy. Bandele said law-enforcement officials and the general public should rethink perceptions of young people.

"We're more mad that they're sagging (their pants) than whether they had breakfast," she said.

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