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Op-eds

The Unequal Justice of Stand Your Ground Laws
By Collyn Stephens

The United States of America is a conflicted country.  There are over 300 million guns in circulation and counting, around 16 million active conceal carry weapon permits, and legislatures continue to pass statutes that allow more deadly force to be used as an acceptable method of conflict resolution; it is difficult to imagine that the sum of these equaling a less violent society.  Instead, a culture of fear and normalization of gun usage, outside of war time and marksmanship, has taken hold of this country and it is the people that will suffer.

Janai Wilson and Cody Devine were sleeping in a vacant duplex when the owner fired eight bullets at them, killing Devine.  They were unarmed, and still, the owner claimed self-defense and was found not guilty of all charges.  Could Cody Devine’s life have been saved with a phone call to the local police department?

Marissa Alexander was denied the defense of Stand Your Ground law when she fired a warning shot during an argument at her abusive husband days after she had given birth.  Instead, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but after a successful appeal a new trial was granted.  A plea deal was reached when prosecution stated they would pursue charges of up to 60 years in the new trial.  She was free after 3 years of time served and 2 years of house arrest.  Do women truly have equal protection under Stand Your Ground laws?

It is not just one story that is unjust and heartbreaking, but several stories of unarmed individuals being killed by people bearing arms claiming Stand Your Ground defense and women being denied the same defense when they use deadly force against their abusive partners.  These two cases, one in Nevada and the other in Florida, are only drops of injustices that Stand Your Ground laws have been implicated in.  Jordan Davis, Diren Dede, Jacquelin Dixon, Pamela Smith, Markeis Glockton and many others were unarmed and killed by individuals bearing arms claiming “Stand Your Ground” or were not protected under the same defense when they were defending their families.  They are not the exceptions, but a pattern of inequality. 

Marissa Alexander’s story is a testament that when women use deadly force against their male abusers, they have no equal protection under Stand Your Ground laws.  So, who do these laws supposed to protect, if not the most vulnerable populations in societies? Nevada, has the fifth highest rate of domestic violence gun homicide in the country and has been traumatized by the biggest mass shooting in our history.  Nevada could change everything.

Nevada voters have set the stage and could lead the charge in eliminating their own Stand Your Ground law.  After recent mid-term elections, democrats have secured a majority in the state’s Assembly, Senate, and Governorship.  Although Florida passed the first Stand Your Ground law in 2005, it currently does not have the numbers in its legislature to repeal the law.  Florida’s legislature has been controlled by one outside interest group for decades, but that could change in 2020.  This past November, people with felonies were given back their right to vote after the successful campaign by Floridians for a Fair Democracy called “Second Chances.”  This success was achieved by the direct voice of the people through a ballot initiative.

When deadly force was confined to one’s “castle,” or home, against an intruder there was legal consensus that the intruder was doing something illegal or was a deadly threat.  Self-Defense cases were easier to navigate and more understandable before 2005.  Now, Stand Your Ground laws permit deadly force to be used outside of the home without the duty to retreat and in certain cases, presumption of reasonable fear is given to the defendant.  Often during Stand Your Ground cases guns are used and, unfortunately, only one person is armed.  Proportionality or an “fair fight” is not weighed as heavily as one would think it should.  The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was not a “fair fight.” 

More people bearing arms in public will not deter violence from happening, it will create a culture of false safety and paranoid individuals.  If we are a country that values life and liberty, then Stand Your Ground laws are an obstruction to both.  We cannot experience liberty and live in fear, they simply cannot live in harmony.  The people must have first and final say in the decisions of its government and it is up to us to demand change.

Marijuana Legalization Is Not Enough
In Wake of Defunct Laws, We Must Enact Post-Conviction Relief Reform
by Alanna Fusco

Marijuana, an historically controversial subject in American policy, is finally having its day in the sun. As our national leaders come to grips with the failed “War on Drugs”, states have taken the lead in legalizing marijuana. Although marijuana remains federally illegal, 33 states and Washington D.C. have reformed their marijuana laws, setting a clear path to widespread legalization. Gallup recently released a poll indicating an all-time high of 66% of Americans supporting marijuana legalization. Given majority support and long overdue progressive reforms, America would be remiss to ignore the criminal justice implications for now defunct laws. It’s time to federally legalize marijuana and enact post-conviction relief policies to begin to repair the lives disproportionately damaged by the War on Drugs. 

Marijuana prohibition is rooted in racism and xenophobia. Prior totheearly 20th century, marijuana was known by its plant and pharmaceutical name “cannabis” (that’s right, cannabis was actually a legal medicinal aid in the early 20th century).  It was only after an influx of immigrants to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that it became commonly known as “marijuana”. Increased prejudice towards immigrants coupled by rising unemployment due to the Great Depression sparked a wave of marijuana prohibition. By 1931, 29 states had cannabis prohibition laws

Since that time, marijuana has been scapegoated in the racist agenda of the War on Drugs to incarcerate people of color. A study conducted by the ACLU showed that black individuals were 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010, despite comparable rate of use to white individuals. To add insult to injury, law enforcement has focused its crackdown efforts on punishing relatively minor crimes, while profiting drug dealers continue to fly under the radar. Of the 659,700 people arrested for marijuana law violations last year (40% of total drug arrests in 2017), 91% were arrested for possession only, not distribution. 

For almost 50 years, marijuana has been inappropriately classified as a federally illegal Schedule I substance. Schedule I substances have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the U.S. For perspective, marijuana is accompanied by highly dangerous drugs such as heroin, LSD, and ecstacy within this classification. Cocaine – the highly addictive drug typically associated with rich, white people – falls under the less severe Schedule II category. Even NIDA, a federal research center, can’t reconcile the logic of classifying marijuana under Schedule I stating on its site “there are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone”, and “majority of people who use marijuana don’t go on to use other ‘harder’ drugs.” 

Marijuana must be taken out of Schedule I and federally legalized. Its evident medical benefits have proven it to be a useful and valuable substance, but much is still unknown about its myriad properties. Federally legalizing marijuana would lift excessive research barriers, allowing scientists to conduct studies to inform federal, uniform guidelines promoting safe use and production.  It would also enable law enforcement to divert resources to higher priority issues, as states spend over $3 billion annually regulating marijuana prohibition

To begin repairing the devastation of the War on Drugs, we must go a step beyond legalization and enact post-conviction relief reform. States can do this a number of ways, i.e. by allowing resentencing or release for individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana violations, while increasing access to housing and employment opportunities by expunging possession convictions from criminal records. To ensure long term and sustainable progress, states can begin to tackle implicit bias in law enforcement by allocating a portion of tax revenue from marijuana sales to race training for law enforcement. Additionally, it can fund the production of a public annual report and analysis of drug arrests with the intent to measure degrees of racial disparity.  This transparency would enable advocates and the media to hold law enforcement and state governments accountable for insufficient improvement. 

Achieving these reforms is not exactly out of reach. In fact, cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle have enacted post-conviction relief measures this year, expected to impact over 13,000 people. As more states legalize, the marijuana industry is expected to profit $11 billion this year. We must follow the lead of municipalities and right wrongs inflicted disproportionately on Americans of color. To allow this industry to flourish without directing tax revenue to communities devastated by the failed War on Drugs would be hypocritical and a grave failure to deliver justice and reparation.