As the primary author and campaign director for Initiative 502, Alison Holcomb was instrumental in legalizing marijuana in Washington state. She then transitioned into a national role as the ACLU’s director for the campaign to end mass incarceration.
Today, she’s back as the ACLU of Washington’s Director of Strategy, still fighting injustices that afflict the nation at large. When DOPE called to speak with her, Holcomb was between meetings, discussing newly-imposed restrictions on women’s access to birth control—only the latest assault on civil liberties from an administration that’s made work at the ACLU eventful, to say the least.
DOPE Magazine: How did you transition from working on I-502 to being the national director for the campaign to end mass incarceration?
Alison Holcomb: It flowed from that work—from our perspective, the effort to end cannabis prohibition is the first step to ending the War on Drugs, which is a critical component to reducing the overuse of the criminal justice system to address what are essentially public health matters.
When the national ACLU had an opportunity to impact that at a broader scale, I was invited to go work with them in October 2014, tailoring policy proposals to reduce incarceration. I did that through the end of 2016, and a big piece of the work was working with stakeholders in Oklahoma to get two ballot initiatives passed last year—one that reduced the penalty for possession of any drug from felony to misdemeanor, and the other directing the savings of the state criminal justice system back to the counties for investment in preventative and rehabilitative community programs.
Q: Did you learn anything from working on I-502 that you’ve applied to a broader scale?
A: I think so. A lot of what’s important with these large problems that seem immovable is to spend the time upfront, identifying the questions and concerns that voters and stakeholders have about major changes in policy—especially with cannabis legalization, since you’re talking about something that remains a crime under federal law. Doing the work to engage with a really broad spectrum of stakeholders was critical to moving that campaign forward, and I think it really helps us in terms of minimizing the amount of fear and opposition we might otherwise have faced.
Q: In 2010, the ACLU set a goal of cutting incarceration rates in half by 2020. How’s that goal looking, seven years in?
A: When I was working on it last year, we were trying to achieve that ambitious goal working on a state-by-state basis. Oklahoma became a significant target, because it has the second highest incarceration rate and is a very conservative state. So trying a policy a shift there that could be adopted elsewhere was a way we saw catalyzing broader change, by investing in one location.
Q: Under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a major proponent of expanding the war on drugs, how has the fight against mass incarceration changed?
A: While there’s a lot of concern about the rhetoric, the reality is that most criminal justice law enforcement happens at the state and local level. The states have been ahead of the federal government for a number of years in making significant criminal justice reform, and I don’t see that changing. I don’t see any states deciding to jump on the bandwagon and return to the status quo that hasn’t been serving anybody particularly well.
“. . . the effort to end cannabis prohibition is the first step to ending the War on Drugs, which is a critical component to reducing the overuse of the criminal justice system . . .” – Alison Holcomb, ACLU of Washington’s Director of Strategy