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.


Point of View Columns

Guns and Drugs – Stuck on Stupid

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, getting the same result, and always expecting a different result. It could also be a useful definition for stupidity. And, it could also be a useful description of American policy towards guns and drugs over the past forty years. Despite steadfast adherence to failed strategies the United States has stayed mired on the wrong road. Stuck on stupid, as it were.

During the past forty years the United States has had the dubious distinction of having the highest death-by-gun rate per capita of any country in the world. Americans die of gun-related homicides and accidents at horrific rates, punctuated by random catastrophes like Aurora or Virginia Tech or Tucson or Columbine. The primary cause of death of young black men is homicide committed by young black men, typically murdered by a gun.

The United States also is a world leader in the illegal use of drugs. Whether the drug of choice is marijuana, cocaine, oxytocin or methamphetamines, Americans ingest drugs at rates that can only be described as amazing. And despite the expenditure of billions of dollars during the past forty years, drug use and drug abuse continues virtually unabated. And the collateral consequence of the drug trade has been the appearance of mammoth criminal enterprises that control entire neighborhoods in American cities and sometimes entire countries that supply the eternal desire for the eternal high.

The United States has assumed world class status by virtue of it being a focal point for innovation and original thought. This is why it is all the more surprising that, when it comes to guns and drugs, America stays stuck on stupid, trying the same failed policies over and over and expecting that somehow, someway, the results will be different someday.

Despite the daily gun carnage that takes place in the United States, the exceedingly vocal minority gun absolutists, led by the National Rifle Association, have totally hijacked any opportunity for debate and sane discussion on the issue on the control of guns. That anyone could seriously connect possession of armor piercing bullets or assault rifles to some contrived constitutional right is bizarre enough. That such a wrongheaded and societally suicidal mindset could set the narrative for gun control is nothing short of appalling.

There seems to be no death toll high enough, no massacre grotesque enough that will empower and enable common sense in the national dialogue when it comes to guns. Presidents have been slain, heroes have been slaughtered, children have been routinely sacrificed at the point of a gun and still, there is no change in the national dialogue. One wonders what ghastly catastrophe would finally get this country to stop being stuck on stupid when it comes to guns.

And all the while, despite a pitifully ineffective multibillion dollar “war” on drugs during the past forty years, drug usage has not been significantly decreased. But this “war” has eviscerated black and Latino communities across this country through the incarceration of young men for decades for charges that have little or nothing to do with drug trafficking or drug manufacture. The illegal status of these drugs has spawned a prison industrial complex that is highly profitable. The illegal status of these drugs has also given rise to local, national and international drug cartels that trade their commodities on a global level in the multibillion dollar stratosphere.

For those who think that a “war” on drugs is somehow better than legalizing drugs, I recommend “Last Call” by Daniel Okrent. Dr. Okrent chronicles the disastrous failure of Prohibition and points out that it was Prohibition that gave rise to the major national criminal syndicates which plague this country to this very day. Why anyone would think that this “war” on drugs would fare any better than the “war” on alcohol is baffling – the expression “wishful thinking” comes to mind. And so does “stuck on stupid”.

Billions of dollars and millions of lives are being wasted by the structurally damaged American strategies regarding guns and drugs. It is plain to see that there is not enough of a law enforcement presence when it comes to guns. It is also quite clear that the absolute criminalization of the use of drugs has only produced failure with toxic impact on entire communities, and in some cases entire countries.

I do not know how long this country can stay stuck on stupid when it comes to guns and drugs. But it is clear that, until and unless there is change, the reign of misery connected to guns and drugs in America will not end.