The idea that mass incarceration and the war on drugs are racist as well as massive failures has gained a lot of traction over the years. But it wasn’t until the past few days that the movement to end the drug war achieved the mark of every mainstream...
I’ve been reading about how bad the war on drugs is for so long that I’m not actually sure what the arguments in favor of prohibition are other than, “Drugs are bad, mmmmkay?” The government's efforts to use law enforcement to get people to stop getting high costs of billions of dollars a year, results in nonviolent people being sent to prisons that ruin their lives and, in many cases, stick them in a cycle of recidivism that’s nearly impossible to escape, decimates poor and minority communities disproportionately and deprives many children of fathers. The war on drugs is racist, cruel, expensive, and it doesn’t even work, since people are still getting high—in the past few years, illegal drug use among kids has increased, while legal drug use (in the form of tobacco and alcohol) has declined. We need to get people out of an overcrowded prison system and back to productive society and their families, and we can do that by releasing those convicted of drug-related crimes. Fuck the law-and-order conservatives who have pandered for votes for decades by describing a world full of violent criminals who need to be locked up for life; fuck the for-profit corporations and prison-guard unions who make money off of human misery. Close the prisons, legalize drugs, stop trying to solve every societal ill with a badge and a gun, end the war on drugs. And so on and so forth.
You probably agree with a lot of the above paragraph—according to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, and Michele Alexander’s great, bestselling book, The New Jim Crow, brought widespread recognition to the idea that mass incarceration and the war on drugs are racist as well as massive failures. But it wasn’t until the past few days that the movement to end the drug war achieved the mark of every mainstream political cause in America—a bunch of celebrities attached their names to it.
The petition that’s been signed by everyone from Jon Hamm to Harry Belafonte to Cedric the Entertainer to Kim Kardashian—along with an assortment of academics and public intellectuals (including Alexander), businesspeople, religious leaders, and a depressingly small number of elected officials—is a letter to President Obama that calls on him to “leave a legacy by transforming our criminal-justice system to an intervention and rehabilitation based model.” It repeats a lot of anti-drug war rhetoric that you’re likely familiar with, and actually it goes a little easy on Obama, who has not been a friend to drug-war doves during his first term in office. But I see why they didn’t want to criticize him too harshly—many of the signatories are pretty staunch Democrats who probably voted for Obama twice and may have even campaigned for him. And it’s great that people in the public view all got together and spoke out against the terrible, terrible policies of the war on drugs—the more times #EndTheWarOnDrugs trends on Twitter the better, as far as I’m concerned, even if the reason it’s trending involves a Michael Moore-Marlon Wayans-Isiah Thomas alliance.
I just wish they had been a little more specific in what an end to the war on drugs entails. The letter endorses increased funding for drug treatment and prevention programs and the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which went towards fixing a disparity between sentences handed out for crack versus those for powder cocaine. It also asks Obama to support the PROMISE Act, which would help fund community programs to reduce violence and gang activity, and the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give judges some ability to throw out mandatory-minimum sentences in some circumstances.
All good stuff, but it still feels too vague.
There’s no mention of legalization, not even of marijuana, which should be a no-brainer. There’s nothing in there about the problems with drug court, nothing that indicates that the celebrity signees think that we need to stop prosecuting all nonviolent drug offenses, as the writers of The Wire, among others, have said. Should we legalize heroin, as some libertarians, including Ron Paul, suggest? Should we embrace jury nullification and refuse to send users and dealers who’ve never committed any crime but using or selling to jail, even if it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they broke the law? Those are radical ideas and maybe bad ones—but if we’re serious about ending the war on drugs, we should probably consider them, because we need some major changes.
I hope we see more petitions like this, and more bills that have a chance of passing, and more books and articles about how fucked drug policy is in this country. But we also need to think about what an end to the War on Drugs would look like, and what laws need to get passed (or repealed) to make that happen. Otherwise, what should be strong anti-drug war statements end up sounding too much like, “The War on Drugs is bad, mmmmmkay?”
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