In part one of this subject I took a look at America current status as the world's number one jailor. Now let's take a look at what helps fuel that status: the war on drugs. Putting it bluntly, the war on drugs has been a disaster in this country. It stands for everything the US does wrong: it's racist, classist, wasteful, ineffective, hypocritical and puritanical. And what better argument can be made for its failure than the fact that, despite our huge prison population, our country remains the number market for illegal drugs in the world. (According to a recent Frontline report, the government estimates that the US spends around 60 billion dollars a year on illegal drugs). To be blunt once again, the only possible way that the war on drugs can be seen as a success is if its goal was to jail as many poor minorities as possible.
The term war on drugs was created by the media in 1971 after president Richard Nixon called drugs "public enemy number one", but it really took off in the early 1980's with the arrival of crack cocaine. For those of us who can remember that time, the spread of crack was indeed frightening, with nearly every inner city neighborhood in America having a serious problem with crack related gang violence virtually overnight. While the negative effects of the drug were often overestimated (a recent article in the New York Times showed that the media's fears of a generation of crack babies leading horrible lives were overblown at the time), it was a undeniably scary drug. But, sadly, our reaction to it was to greatly increase drug sentencing laws, which were inevitably used disproportionately against minorities; in 1986 President Reagan signed the Anti Drug Abuse act into law. It contained a whopping twenty nine new mandatory minimum sentences, and even worse, punished crack cocaine violators more than powder cocaine ones at a ratio of one hundred to one. Although this law was repealed in 2010 by President Obama, the damage had been done, and for years crack users, overwhelmingly minorities, were given long prison sentences, while mostly white powder cocaine users were given a slap on the wrist.
Sadly, the blatantly racist aspects of the war on drugs continue to this day: current polling shows that although white people are more likely than black to smoke marijuana, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested for that crime. From the stop and frisk laws in New York City to the automatic pulling over of any nonwhite male driving a nice car all over the country, the war on drugs is mostly about jailing non white men. While in jail they are forced to survive in an environment filled with murderers and other brutal criminals, which often results in their coming out far more violent than when they entered. And jail time is just the beginning: after their release a prison record hangs over their head for the rest of their lives, making them second class citizens with limited job options. In 2012 author Michelle Alexander published a book about the drug war entitled THE NEW JIM CROW : MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS, and really, the name says it all.
Let's face it, for a lot of people in this country, youthful experimentation with drugs is seen as right of passage; while most parents certainly don't encourage it, many of them expect that their kids will try drugs at some point in their lives, like in college, and that most of them will not suffer any long term ill effects from their experimentation. Just look at our last three presidents, Obama, Bush and Clinton, who have all admitted to using drugs in their younger years, without it having a serious effect on their electability. As Bush put it, "when I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish", essentially shrugging off an illegal activity by implying that everybody does it. So why are Americans willing to accept former drug use in our leaders, but still think that non violent drug users should go to jail? And why aren't we angrier about the hypocritical way that those leaders punish others for doing something they themselves did?
Also, there is the simple question of freedom: if someone is an adult in a free society, and they willingly choose to take drugs, and that drug use does not involve harming or threatening anyone else or anyone else's property, why is that person a criminal? Why can their freedom be taken away? Are drugs potentially harmful and even deadly? Obviously. But consider that is perfectly legal for an adult to buy an entire bottle of vodka or Jack Daniels with the intention of drinking it all in one day, which would be just as harmful or deadly as taking any other drug. Alcohol kills thousands of Americans every year, sometimes slowly(like through cirrhosis of the liver) or quickly, through alcohol poisoning(the center for disease control states that binge drinking alone kills around eighty eight thousand people a year in this country) , and when a person is addicted to alcohol, trying to stop can be agonizing and cause drunken tremors and hallucinations. Given all of that, why are other drugs illegal and alcohol isn't?
|"Alright men, we dumped out four barrels. I guess we got this alcohol problem licked!"|
Speaking of alcohol, we all know that this country had a prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, and you would be hard pressed to find any historian who would call it anything other than disastrous. Making liquor illegal only increased its usage while opening the door to an extremely profitable illicit bootleg market in which rival criminals often violently protected their turf from others. Sound familiar? Why can't America learn from its past mistakes and realize that the real problem with drugs isn't the drugs themselves, but the enormous amounts of money to be made off transporting and selling them? And that as long as that money is there to be made, there will always be people trying to make it, especially in a money worshiping culture like ours?
So how should we legalize drugs? It's a difficult question: I am certainly opposed to the idea of privatizing drugs, so that corporations could actually profit from getting people addicted. One need look no further than the horrible behavior of alcohol and tobacco companies, who downplay the dangers of their products and sometimes blatantly aim their advertising at children, to see how terrible an idea that is. (I'm old enough to remember candy cigarettes that were sold to kids in packages with real tobacco company labels. What could be more evil?!) What I propose is that we have government run stores that adults could enter and buy drugs in, with signs that clearly explain the negative effects of each drug, and safe rooms for them to take the drugs. They could also take the drugs home and use them there, or at specially designated bars or cafes, but not in public. And the crucial element of the stores would be that the drugs would be sold at a very low cost, putting all the drug dealers out of business. Meanwhile, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency could be modified to only go after drug dealers who try to sell to children, for whom I certainly have no sympathy for, and the money saved from incarcerating less people can be used to make federal drug rehab centers bigger and better. I will freely admit that most of this idea comes from the late conservative icon William F Buckley, which shows that ending the war on drugs can be a conservative position. After all, the drug war is a wasteful big government program that interferes with people's lives, everything that conservatives claim to hate.
Like the gay marriage issue, there has been a sea change in public opinion concerning the legalization of marijuana, with Washington State and Colorado passing outright legalization while twenty other states allow it for medical use. Along with that, more and more Americans are coming to the common sense conclusion that it's better (and cheaper) to put non violent drug users into rehab than jail. Hopefully, these trends will continue and America's dreadful war on drugs will become a thing of the past.