United States

United States continues executions amid controversy

Last night, the US executed two convicted murderers – Marcus Wellons and John Winfield – within twenty minutes of each other, and a third – John Henry – is due to be killed tonight. Capital punishment is not unusual in the United States – a country that executed 39 of its citizens in 2013. However, these three cases have been controversial, as the last few months have seen several disastrous implementations of the primary execution method – lethal injections – in the US.

 

In January, after being injected, convicted killer Michael Wilson uttered his last words: “I feel my whole body burning”. Several executions later, in April, the state of Oklahoma killed Clayton Lockett – but not before he writhed and convulsed for over 40 minutes after being administered a deadly cocktail of drugs. One reason for these recent debacles is that the European Union, which is staunchly against the death penalty, now refuses to provide the drugs for executions. This is causing US states to experiment with different combinations of chemicals – something that the UK charity Reprieve described as tantamount to “using humans as guinea pigs”. Prior to Wellons’ death, his lawyers appealed against his sentence – arguing that it was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ – as the state refused to disclose the source of the chemicals being used to kill him. However, his appeal was denied; after the lethal injection was administered, Wellons took almost 25 minutes to die in the execution chamber.

 

Further controversies have arisen regarding US capital punishment in recent years, including the relevance of offenders’ and victims’ race in determining the punishment, as well as the discovery that many people who were executed were wrongly convicted by biased juries or prosecutors. Data from the US-based Death Penalty Information Centre shows that 61% of the ‘capital convicts’ to have their convictions overturned, and be found innocent, were ethnic minorities. Wellons and Winfield, who were executed last night, and Henry – who is due to be killed tonight, are all Black – as were the two aforementioned offenders who endured painful deaths earlier this year at the hands of their state. It is worth noting that capital punishment is most prevalent in states with histories of racism; Texas executes the largest number of prisoners per year, while Oklahoma – the home of Black Wall Street before it was devastated by white American terrorism – has the highest per capita rate of executions.

 

Proponents of capital punishment in the United States often argue that it is an effective deterrent for homicide; that if the state promotes killing as a method of justice, it will somehow discourage citizens from killing. Unsurprisingly, a 2012 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows that the US murder rate is far higher than those of developed countries which have outlawed capital punishment. The rate of intentional homicide in the US is 4.8 per 100,000 – in stark contrast with rates of 1.6 in Canada and 1.0 in the United Kingdom, where the death penalty has been outlawed. Of course, there are numerous important factors that affect a nation’s rate of murder and violence, but – seemingly – punishing murderers with unpredictable and torturous deaths is not reducing it.

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The War on Drugs is a tool of state oppression

This article was first published by the Independent.

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(Photo source: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/three-men-arrested-after-police-1470730)

Drug prohibition – the illegality of many psychoactive substances – is an accepted norm in the UK, although this hasn’t been the case for long.

In 1971, Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs Act; the first major national prohibition legislation, and the cornerstone of the British war on drugs. A few amendments have been added since then, particularly in regards to ‘legal highs’, but overall, the essence of the law has remained the same for the past 42 years. It is no wonder that prohibition is so widely accepted; the majority of people in Britain were born after this Act was introduced, and many do not remember a time before it. For this reason, it is vital for people today to realise the relatively recent root of drug policy – as a tool of discriminatory state oppression in the United States.

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”, said Harry Anslinger, the narcotics commissioner in the early 20th Century who was foremost responsible for the prohibition of cannabis in the US, “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races”. Similar racist myths were delivered to the white American public at the time, and they became terrified that opium incites the “Chinamen’s wiles” and that, in the words of one US doctor, “the negro who has […] formed the cocaine habit seems absolutely beyond redemption”.

It was important for the US to introduce laws aimed at subjugating ethnic minorities, because as laws of racial segregation were wearing away, the government desired a legal and less overtly discriminatory way to criminalise sections of society and maintain the established social hierarchy. This is still evident in the US today, where statistics show that black and white Americans consume and sell drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for doing so. Since the beginning, drug policies have not truly been about controlling drugs, they have been about controlling people.

The US pushed for global prohibition of a number of substances, but without being able to intrude on the laws of sovereign states, it used the most effective available tool – the League of Nations. The League was the precursor to the United Nations, and formed at the end of World War I when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

This peace treaty brought order and stability to warring nations, but what many may not know is that it heralded a beginning to international drug control. All states who ratified this treaty in 1919 agreed to a short and discreet note within Article 23: “[signatory nations] will entrust the League [of Nations] with the general supervision over […] illegal drugs”. After World War II, the League dissolved, and the United Nations took control of international law, and introduced the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which has defined prohibition ever since.

Today, in Britain, the oppressive legacy of the war on drugs lives on. Black Britons are six times more likely to be searched for drugs than their white counterparts, and are twice as likely to be criminally charged – rather than receive a warning – for possession. However, unlike the US, Britain does not have a long history of racism (at least on our own soil). The victims of the war on drugs in Britain are predominantly the working class – be they black, white or Asian. The manner in which the war on drugs is carried out protects the wealthy from prosecution; exemplified by the late Eva Rausing, from a billionaire family, who only received a caution in 2008 for the possession of 2.5g of heroin and 60g of cocaine. This sharply contrasts with the case of Daniel Richardson, a 23-year-old Morrison’s worker, who was jailed for four years in August after cocaine was found in his work bag.

Last week, Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton made headlines by claiming that drug prohibition in the UK has “comprehensively failed” and legislation to enforce it has “put billions into the hands of villains”. This week theInternational Centre for Science in Drug Policy put out a report calling for the consideration of drugs as an issue of public health issue rather than a matter for the criminal justice system. Drug addicts should be “treated and cared for, not criminalised”, the report stated.

However, regardless of scientific evidence and growingly progressive public opinion, countless Britons, who never harmed anyone in their lives, have been systematically jailed alongside murderers and rapists for 42 years. Just as racist American leaders once used prohibition to subjugate ethnic minorities, the current British government is using prohibition to keep the working class in their place. Prohibition is the penalisation of individuals because of their personal life choices; drug use is one of the only victimless crimes in British law. It is high time for Britain to withdraw from the UN Single Convention, and to repeal the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act.

Long before his country began criminalising lifestyle choices, Abraham Lincoln remarked on prohibition; “[it] goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control mans’ appetite through legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not even crimes”.