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If you missed the rousing speech delivered by California Lt Gov Gavin Newsom over the weekend at the state’s Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor and take 10 minutes to give it a watch.

Gavin Newsom for Criminal Justice Reform

In the strongest language yet used by any elected official in California, Newsom boldly offered a blistering critique of the criminal justice system and the willingness of too many in California to simply abide by the status quo, arguing that needlessly harsh sentences for low level, non-violent crimes have ravaged entire communities – particularly communities of color – and cost state taxpayers billions of dollars. And, he said, the time has come to have a “serious debate among serious people” about legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana.

“How many lives have to be derailed before we realize the learning curve (on the war on drugs) is too slow and too costly,” Newsom said. “How long before we realize drug addiction isn’t a crime, it’s a disease. There never was, and dare I say, never will be a society free of drugs, as much as we’d like there to be. So it’s time for all of us to step up and step in and lead once again in California.”

Newsom highlighted the astronomical jump in California’s prison population from about 20,000 in 1977, when the state did away with indeterminate sentencing, to over 170,000 by 2007, a reality that mirrors the addiction to incarceration that has plagued the nation as a whole and resulted in the U.S. laying claim to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

“It was in 1971 when Richard Nixon, a Californian, declared a war on drugs as a backlash to massive shifts in cultural values,” Newsom said. “And since the 1970’s, our learning curve on the war on drugs has cost the taxpayers more than $1 trillion and counting. And that’s not even the most significant cost to our failed policies. Over that same period of time, the United States of America has spent over $120 billion to arrest some 37 million people for non-violent drug offenses. Think about that. That’s the equivalent of nearly the entire population of our great state.”

Last year, Newsom agreed to chair a blue ribbon commission convened by the ACLU of California to study the complex legal and policy issues that must be resolved as California considers legalizing marijuana for adults. As Newsom said Saturday, it is imperative that “if and when marijuana is legalized in California it can be done safely and effectively and implemented in a way that maintains our health, our well-being and our safety in our diverse communities.”

“Once and for all, it’s time we realize that the war on drugs is nothing more than a war on communities of color and on the poor,” Newsom said. “It is fundamentally time for drug policies that recognize and respect the full dignity of human beings. We can’t wait. We’ve been walking into the future backwards for too long.”

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Will Matthews 
ACLU of Northern California

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