A Closer Look: The Death Penalty is Murder

Like many New Englanders, I waited to see what the Boston federal court jury would determine would be an appropriate sentence for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the  Kyrgyzstan native who, along with his brother, built and planted two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured scores more on a perfect Spring day in the Massachusetts capital city.

I wondered if the Boston jury would show mercy. If they would realize that science shows that teen brains are still developing at 19, the age Dzhokar was when he appeared to casually drop next to a little boy a backpack filled with a bomb designed for maximum destruction. Dzhokhar was a child himself, really, at the time. A college freshman, he was apparently very bright and somewhat popular in high school. But something went terribly wrong, somewhere, and his young life was essentially over the moment that he was caught by Boston police.

I had hoped that decency and common sense would prevail in that jury room. That the men and women who had the opportunity to impose a reasonable sentence of life without the possibility of release would do just that. They did not. Instead, they sentenced this man-boychild to die. He is now the sixty-first person on federal death row.

It made me sick. Physically ill. What does the United States government hope to achieve by putting to death someone who admitted what he did was wrong?

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A Closer Look: The Battle to Decriminalize Sex Work in Canada

Painting by ErinMarie Tankupine
Painting by ErinMarie Tankupine

The question of decriminalization of sex work in Canada has been a hot button issue ever since the recent Canadian Supreme Court decisions in Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society et al. v. Canada (Attorney General) 2012 SCC 45 and the 2013 Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford case. As a result of Bedford, on December 20th, 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three anti-prostitution laws:

1. Bawdy house law – which banned sex workers from hosting clients at an indoor location.

2. Living on the avails – which banned sex workers from working with anyone else (drivers, security personnel, call-bookers, etc.) if that person was being paid.

3. Communicating – Criminalizes any sex worker communicating for the purpose of sex work in a public place near parks, schools, playgrounds or daycares.

In agreement with the sex workers who brought this charter challenge, the Supreme Court found that these laws were harmful to “the health, safety and lives of prostitutes” & that they were unconstitutional. They gave Parliament one year to come up with new legislation -should it choose to do so.

In response to the Court’s decision, on December 6th, 2014 the majority Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper introduced into law Bill C-36, formally called the Protection of Communities & Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). In essence, PCEPA attempts to legislate sex work out of existence. Justice minister Peter Mackay has stated that this law aims to abolish prostitution.

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NORML: A Consumer Rights Advocacy Group with a Difference

NORML LogoThe issue of the legalization and regulation of marijuana has consistently been in the news over the last few years in North America with some major developments occurring. Marijuana is currently legal in Oregon, Alaska, DC, Colorado and Washington with California most probably soon to follow. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans favoring legalization and it has contributed to a wider debate around our current drug laws.

One organization that has been tirelessly working on this issue is the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML. With current developments gaining speed in the United States, I recently chatted with NORML founder Keith Stroup on what NORML does and what role lawyers play in the organization. Here is that conversation.

Progressive Lawyer: Please introduce yourself and describe your role in NORML.

Keith Stroup: I am a 70-year old attorney who first smoked marijuana when I was a freshman at Georgetown Law School in 1965, and I have been a regular smoker since that time. In late 1970 I founded NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a lobby for responsible marijuana smokers, with the goal of ending the criminal prohibition of marijuana and stopping the arrest of marijuana smokers.
I currently serve as Legal Counsel for NORML and the NORML Foundation.

PL: Why was your organization started? What issues does it confront?

KS: My decision to start NORML was based on my experience, right out of law school, working for the National Commission on Product Safety. During the two years that commission was in existence, I had the privilege of working around consumer-advocate Ralph Nader and the young attorneys working with him, known generally as the “Nader’s Raiders.” That experience introduced me to the concept of public-interest law, in which one uses their legal training to try to impact public policy, rather than representing individual clients.

But my real interest by then was legalizing marijuana, not product safety, so once the Product Safety Commission ended; I elected to establish a public-interest organization to represent the interests of marijuana smokers.

Over the last 44 years, we have lobbied state and federal legislators to adopt more reasonable marijuana policies; attempted to educate the public about the relative harmlessness of marijuana; provided a professional voice in the media to counter the “reefer madness” mentality that had been fostered by the government for many decades; and attempted to provide support and assistance to those victims of the current laws.

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