Point of View Columns

The Lost War on Drugs

One of the many side shows related to the Super Bowl was the passing reference to the fact that the two contending teams came from states where the personal possession and use of marijuana is legal for all intents and purposes. This was treated as a kind of humorous aspect of America’s secular holiday but in point of fact this is no laughing matter. The drug policy of this country has produced barbaric and horrific results on millions of undeserving Americans with no appreciable impact on drug use itself.

There has been a so-called War on Drugs in the United States for over forty years. The “war” has consumed billions of dollars and consumed millions of lives as well. Employing a policy towards controlled substances that would have to step up a notch to be considered antediluvian, the federal government – along with state and local law enforcement agencies – has criminalized huge cohorts of the American people while unwittingly gutting neighborhoods, destroying communities, atomizing families and crippling cities.

One would have hoped that the spectacular failure of Prohibition would have resulted in a national lesson. Using the criminal law to control personal behavior simply doesn’t work, especially when that personal behavior is connected with profit, pleasure and enjoyment by the users. Banning the sale and consumption of alcohol stopped virtually no one from drinking alcohol. But it did provide an opportunity for the capitalization of organized crime and the spectacular corruption of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Yet, out of the ashes of the Prohibition debacle the federal government doubled down on criminalizing personal behavior by categorizing marijuana, heroin and cocaine as “controlled substances”, the possession and use of which called for imprisonment pursuant to draconian sentencing policies. The irony of whiskey (alcohol) swilling, cigar (nicotine) smoking members of Congress passing laws that selectively criminalized certain behavior is lost on most historians but it is certainly clear in retrospect as well as in the present.

Nevertheless, the so-called War on Drugs has never been seen as a bizarre lost cause that would never work and will never work. What the War on Drugs has done is put millions of men and women in prison pursuant to racially skewed sentencing, creating criminals rather than preserving public safety or the safeguarding the social fabric. The War on Drugs has created a permanent criminal class in this country while also directly capitalizing and financing a Prison Industrial Complex.  And, in the process no one is safe and the drug dealers are getting wealthier by the moment.

And now, in the second decade of the twenty first century, this country is still wrestling with the idea of the extent to which marijuana use should be decriminalized. Even though more people die from obesity, lung cancer, prescription drugs and cirrhosis than from marijuana/cocaine/heroin use (by many times), there is this monomaniacal focus on these controlled substances while real people die from real consequences of perfectly legal substances.

Any discussion of a wholesale reformation of this nation’s failed drug policies is  typically met with horror and outrage. Somehow, to some people, it is reasonable to continue to squander billions of dollars annually and to imprison hundreds of thousands of men and women while continuing to shred the social fabric, all the name of a “war” that can never be “won”.

That is why there is really nothing funny about marijuana legalization jokes – whether they are in Denver or Seattle – because they obscure the fact that this country’s sadistic and antiquated War on Drugs continues to destroy more lives than it can ever possibly save.

And while the band plays on, the police Stop and Frisk, the judge’s sentence according to race and class and entire generations reside on the planet owned by the Prison Industrial Complex.

If there was ever a time for change, now is the time for change, not misbegotten jokes.