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The Drug War: A Roller Coaster to Hell

The War On Drugs, fought mostly in poor and person-of-color communities (despite the fact that whites are more than 70 percent of all drug users) has contributed dramatically to the growth of a prison-industrial-complex that is quickly sapping resources from education, job training and other vital programs. —Tim Wise

The War On Drugs, fought mostly in poor and person-of-color communities (despite the fact that whites are more than 70 percent of all drug users) has contributed dramatically to the growth of a prison-industrial-complex that is quickly sapping resources from education, job training and other vital programs.

—Tim Wise

I’ve taught creative writing in Philadelphia’s maximum-security prison for ten years. I joke with the inmates that most of them are POWs in the Drug War. Of course, for reasons Tim Wise points out, most of the men in the class are African American.

Last week only two men showed up for the class, which gave me and my co-teacher the opportunity to talk with them about their lives.

Both men are in their thirties, one white, one black. Not surprisingly, the white guy was in for drug use and the black guy was in for dealing. Both are intelligent, thoughtful men. They are not saints – but who is anymore in a society where the stone cold killer is a pop culture hero and the so-called “free market” rules?

The white guy, who I will call Bill, was raised in a hard-working, blue-collar family. His father busted his tail and sent his son to St Joseph’s Prep School in North Philadelphia. Bill played football at the school but could not relate to many of his peers, who were often headed for places like Harvard or Yale.

Bill fell into a disastrous cycle of drug use and got hooked on heroin, the tragic horrors of which he didn’t grasp until it was too late. Shame at being a failure further fueled the cycle, and he was a junkie before he was 30. There was the inevitable collision with police, courts and prison. He is now on an in-prison methadone program.

The black inmate, who I will call Ahmed, has much different concerns as he looks toward getting out and back on the streets. Like Bill, his concern is also how to “make it” in the world he finds himself in. But he has no monkey on his back to throw off; his challenge is a matter of earning self-respect.

Ahmed has five kids with three women. When he gets out, he will live with the woman who bore his last two kids. He has a strong parental need to be a protector and provider for his kids. Having his woman’s respect is especially important to him.

While his woman did not particularly like him working in the drug business, she did like what it provided. This is Ahmed’s dilemma. In the inner-city world he was raised in opportunities are scarce and often quite limited. He insists he will not go back to dealing. But how to provide for his woman and kids when he gets out weighs heavily on Ahmed’s mind.

The fact is — our laws, police, courts and prisons aside – selling drugs follows all the precepts of the free market and free-private enterprise. The fact that certain powerful elements of society, for one reason or another, have declared certain substances with a robust market illegal doesn’t change the fact that it’s about providing a product to obtain a profit. Like any business there are risks – in this case, violence and/or prison. Unlike Wall Street finance, the illegal drug business is highly regulated.

Instead of working to be useful members of society, these men sit in prison taking up tax resources. As “cons” they are now marked men. They are POWs in a war that was declared over 30 years ago against the supply side in a supply-and-demand consumer equation. Politically it’s a second Prohibition. And it is a full-blown national disaster.

Who Most Benefits From the Drug War?

My personal experience with drugs is limited to social drinking and, now and then, a hit off someone’s joint at a party. Unlike George W. Bush, I will admit I snorted cocaine once in my 63 years of life. It was at a reporters’ party in the late 1970s and the coke was provided by a guy I was told worked on the recently elected Philadelphia district attorney’s campaign. Everyone snorting lines in the host’s bedroom was white.

The Drug War is saturated with corruption and overwhelmed by hypocrisy.

Cesare Beccaria, an Italian, wrote a famous treatise in 1764 called Of Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria’s treatise is considered by great legal minds from Thomas Jefferson to William Blackstone to Mario Cuomo a fundamental text on how a functional society should address crime.

Two of Beccaria’s key tenets are important. One, prevention of crime is more important than punishment, and, two, when punishment is administered it should be fairly and swiftly applied. Secret accusations, torture and the death penalty, he argued, are counter-productive, since crime is “an injury to society” and not a matter of revenge.

“It is for the man in public life,” he wrote, “to establish the relationship between political justice and injustice, between what is useful and what is harmful to society.”

In this vein, the Roberts Supreme Court and conservative jurisprudence these days clearly favors the established and the powerful. Dropping down the legal pecking order, the realities of the Philadelphia courts and prison system make it clear Beccaria’s Enlightenment tenets are now nothing but a quaint joke. The proportion of African Americans arrested for drug crimes and the months and even years inmates are forced to wait for a trial – in the face of a 180 day rule – makes laughable the notion of fairness and swiftness of justice. As the joke goes, we have the best justice system money can buy.

When you move out into the greater world, the scope of the Drug War disaster becomes even more apparent. I’m reading Charles Bowden’s latest book, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, and it reveals a truly profound stench.

Already known for drug-related violence, Mexico was sent into an incredible paroxysm of violence following the controversial squeaker election of the right-wing Felipe Calderon as President in 2006. Under US pressure, he mobilized the army into northern Mexico. In 2008 alone, Bowden reports, nearly 6000 Mexicans died in the violence, “a larger loss than what the United States endured during the entire Iraq War.”

The violence is horrific, with corpses boiled in 55-gallon drums and, in one case, a man’s face stitched to a soccer ball sent to his relatives. Bodies are dumped everywhere. Young poor woman working in the many small factories in Juarez are regularly found raped and murdered. Women who survive horrendous gang rapes often end up mad at a mental clinic in the desert.

No one talks; the police stay in their offices; reporters just stick to the facts – lest they be gunned down or worse. The cartel seems to have the military out-gunned.

Bowden, a man who has immersed himself in this harsh world for decades, writes that there are two Mexicos.

“There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war against the evil forces of the drug world.” It is equipped with newspapers, courts and laws and is seen by the US as “a sister republic.”

This Mexico does not exist, he says, except in our minds in North America.

“There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, for the enormous money to be made in drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between government and the drug world has never existed.”

The US Drug Enforcement Agency has 87 field offices in 63 countries. WikiLeaks revelations reported in The New York Times show how it maneuvers in this cesspool, often moving, as a US intelligence agency, into non-drug areas of activity. Two examples:

The right-wing president of Panama asks the DEA to tap the phones of his enemies. The DEA refuses. Meanwhile, a leaked cable reports the president’s cousin is smuggling tens of millions of dollars’ worth of drug money each month through Panama’s main airport. In Paraguay, the DEA agrees to use its phone tapping technology to counter a guerrilla movement.

In Guinea, the biggest dope dealer at one point is the president’s son. A DEA cable reports on the hoopla surrounding the public burning of $6.5 million worth of cocaine and marijuana. It is clear to the DEA they are burning manioc flour and a substitute for marijuana.

The roots of our disastrous Drug War are to be found decades ago when the decision was made to attack drug suppliers with police and military violence and prisons. Demagogic rhetoric and popular entertainment did the rest. We now find ourselves tightly belted-in, riding a roller-coaster to Hell. Arguably, we are socially more addicted to police and the military than we are to drugs.

The Global War On Drugs is becoming indistinguishable from the Global War On Terror. As Mexico makes clear, what started as a policy to close off the supply of drugs into the US has become a flat-out killing war between ruthless and grotesquely armed factions. Soon it will be: Bring in the lethal drones.

Dealing With Our Drug Problem “as if People Mattered”

It’s long past time to address the drug problem in the United States — in the United States. If we expended half the resources we spend on the Drug War on serious harm-reduction programs we’d be much better off. My inmate friend Bill is the perfect example. Spending many thousands of dollars warehousing him in prison is an utter waste. That money would be more useful in real-world programs addressing his problems and helping him cope. The money we would save could help create jobs, improve education and re-build a crumbling infrastructure.

As for Ahmed and those arrested as dealers, one thing I’ve realized teaching my prison class is that men like him are entrepreneurs and capitalists at heart. They may be from poor and black communities, but they like material things and often have more in common with Wall Street financial operators than they do with someone like me, a firm believer that self-examination and a greater dedication to social concerns would go a long way to saving America from itself.

To paraphrase the subtitle of philosopher E.F. Schumacher’s famous book Small Is Beautiful, it would be good to see the problem of drug demand in the US addressed “as if people mattered.” Right now all that seems to matter is patriotism, the flag and propping up a weakening empire.

The Global War On Terror is ten years on and we still don’t publicly address the question why would Saudi Arabians and other Muslims want to attack us? In the Global War On Drugs, we have a similar long-repressed question that needs to be publicly and politically addressed before a solution is even possible.

That question is: Why do so many North Americans fall prey to the demand for drugs? Why is demand such a huge problem? Why such a huge market here?

The socially sane alternative to the current Drug War is well researched and based on what is known as Harm Reduction. Instead of throwing more and more money into police and prisons to address the supply side, direct those resources to the demand side and create well-designed, working programs in drug rehabilitation, job creation and job training — plus the governmental teeth and follow-up necessary to make the programs work. What we do now in this realm is simply inadequate to the task.

The Netherlands is a very small nation, but they have largely solved their drug problem. Several years ago in Amsterdam, a Dutch psychologist told me the key was how the Dutch mother instills in her child an “internal locus of control.”

Amsterdam is an ancient port city and temptation is everywhere. It’s a fundamental aspect of the Dutch social contract that the individual is responsible for maneuvering through all these temptations. Marijuana, of course, is legal in The Netherlands. For those who stray and flounder from harder drugs, guidance in reinforcing their inner locus of control is available (or court-ordered) in seriously funded programs within the Dutch social system. For the Dutch, drug abuse is a social problem.

Here, we are different. For one, the idea of addressing something as a “social problem” seems to suggest to many a communist plot. We’re a society rooted in Manifest Destiny and conquest with a deep-seated legacy of racism. As a society, we sometimes verge on being a cult of winners and losers. We revere “the American Dream,” but truth be known, much of it depends on the cards one is dealt. As my father used to tell his kids: “In America you have the right to starve.”

Still, distraction is everywhere. Winning may be vital, but escape and pleasure are encouraged for everyone. If you fall off the winner-take-all merry-go-round you’re still an American and you still have the option to escape your frustrations and find pleasure.

And that’s a helluva market to fill.

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