Declaring War on the “War on Drugs”
Creating Just and Humane Alternatives to a Failed Strategy
Some time ago I wrote an article entitled — Black America: A State of Emergency Without Urgency. I suggested that millions of Black people are imprisoned in America´s “dark ghettos,” “catching more hell” than ever before as Malcolm X would put it. There has been a deafening silence in the media and an amazing lack of concern by policy-makers in Washington to address this devastating crisis. Even in Black America, the efforts by civil rights/human rights leaders have been episodic and largely ineffective. There are those who suggest that the silence by the mainstream media and inaction by policy-makers is due to the fact that there is a Black family in the White House, that the election of President Obama and the presumption of a post-racial society makes it difficult to forcefully raise and address racial issues. But, Black leaders, activists and organizers must not equivocate while millions of our sisters and brothers suffer in urban inner-city neighborhoods across this country. It is imperative that we raise our voices and mobilize/organize to transform the conditions of those among us who are left out and in far too many cases locked up. And, as we address the State of Emergency in Black America, we must confront and combat one of the most damaging dimensions of the crisis, the War on Drugs!
Forty years after President Richard M. Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” under the guise of halting trafficking in drugs in the United States, the evidence is clear: The War on Drugs has been a “war on us,” a politically motivated, racially biased strategy which has disproportionately targeted African Americans and other people of color. The truth is, faced with a growing “White backlash” against the “gains” of the civil rights/human rights movement of the 60s and 70s, political demagogues seized upon the misplaced frustration of segments of White America to advance policies calculated to win elective office. Social and economic programs perceived as beneficial to Blacks, vast numbers of whom reside in urban inner-city neighborhoods, were slashed in the name of reducing the burden of government on taxpayers. In effect policy-makers of both political parties turned their backs on urban America, ushering in an era of massive disinvestment, virtually assuring even greater social and economic deterioration of neighborhoods that were already underdeveloped.
In lieu of policies and programs to advance social, economic and racial justice, the War on Drugs became the “order of the day” complete with prescriptions for “zero tolerance,” paramilitary policing strategies, “get tough” laws and mandatory sentencing to pacify crime ridden, “out of control” Black communities.
The unwarranted mass incarceration of millions of mostly young Black males that resulted from this ill fated decision has disrupted families, decimated communities and rendered America´s “dark ghettos” zones of desperation, desolation and despair – neighborhoods where persistent poverty, unemployment, underemployment, inferior education, crime, violence and fratricide abound – conditions borne of decades of blatant neglect of the social and economic needs and unfulfilled aspirations of urban inner-city residents. It must be understood that the “War on Drugs” was a choice, a policy decision to impose a discriminatory law enforcement and judicial strategy on Black communities rather than focus on social, racial and economic justice.
The casualties of the War on Drugs are mindboggling: African Americans make up an estimated 15% of drug users, but account for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison; federal prison sentences for Blacks average 41% longer than those of Whites; at the end of 2007 1 in every 9 Black men in their twenties — the prime age for marriage –was in prison or jail, 1 in18 adult Black men was under correctional supervision control, and Black adults are 4 times more likely as Whites and nearly 2.5 times more likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control and 6 times more likely than Whites to be incarcerated. But, perhaps the most damning indictment of the War on Drugs is that the “badges and indicia” of incarceration can be permanent. A jail/prison term is now equivalent to a life sentence because formerly incarcerated persons are often denied access to jobs, social services, housing and prohibited from voting in a number of states. Having been victimized by a racially biased policy, the formerly incarcerated person bears the mark of prison/jail for a lifetime!
After trillions of dollars misspent, the rise of a prison-jail industrial complex largely constructed and sustained by the mass incarceration of Black people and the devastating dislocations caused in America´s dark ghettos, it´s time to declare war on the war on drugs! As the prestigious Global Commission on Drug Policy recently declared: “Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately, that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.” Black leaders, activists and organizers must act with a renewed sense of urgency to address the State of Emergency in Black America, and this cannot be done without an all-out counter-offensive against the War on Drugs.
It is in that spirit that the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), in conjunction with the Black Family Summit, has decided to join the fight to dismantle the repressive and discriminatory strategy that has disproportionately damaged Black communities. Working collaboratively with organizations like the African American Drug Policy Coalition, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Criminal Justice Program of NAACP, Black Leadership Commission on AIDS and groups affiliated with the Drug Policy Alliance, IBW will seek to broaden the base and intensify the opposition to the War on Drugs with a focus on the Black community.
Through strategic conversations and orientation sessions with a broad cross-section of national leaders, workshops at the national conferences of participants in the Black Family Summit, Town Hall Meetings in selected cities and the regular dissemination of educational information through the Black press, IBW will mobilize support for a 10 Point Action Agenda including: Ending the criminalization of drug abuse which disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor and utilize a public health model to create just and humane alternatives to the War on Drugs; Supporting the promotion of evidence-based approaches to address drug policy, including treatment instead of incarceration, harm reduction and decriminalization models; Ending racial profiling which results in Blacks being stopped, frisked and arrested more often than other races, causing the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of Black people; Supporting changes in laws and policies to allow people with felony convictions and criminal records who have served their time to be gainfully employed, adequately housed, successfully reintegrated into society and have their voting rights restored; Supporting a dialogue on the pros and cons of the regulation of drugs to decrease crime, violence and fratricide in Black communities.
The latter point is controversial because it involves consideration of legalizing and regulating drugs, perhaps beginning with marijuana to remove the drive for illicit profits, criminal activities and horrific violence often associated with the trafficking of drugs. Drugs trafficking and drug abuse/addition has caused so much damage in the Black community that for some it is inconceivable that drugs should be regulated. The cold reality is that prohibition has not stopped drug abuse or trafficking in drugs in our society in general and in the Black community in particular. What has occurred is the targeting of Black communities and the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people. Therefore, at a minimum a reasoned national dialogue on regulation of drugs should be on the table. The bottom line is we must find a way to end the scourge of the war on drugs and heal our communities.
However, healing Black communities will require more than ending the War on Drugs. As noted earlier, the War on Drugs became a calculated substitute for the kinds of investments required to achieve social, economic and racial justice in America´s dark ghettos. Therefore, the fight for just and humane alternatives must include a demand for the end of the era of “blatant neglect” which has characterized urban policy for decades. Nothing short of the adoption of “Domestic Marshall Plan” type social, economic and jobs initiatives is needed to create wholesome urban inner-city communities. As Richard Moore, a Latino environmental justice activist once put it, the people residing in the urban inner-city areas of this nation are “the wrong complexion to get the protection!” Race still matters in American society. Accordingly, the demand for targeted social, economic and jobs programs is an indispensible part of IBW´s Action Agenda.
To implement the Action Agenda, IBW is launching an online petition campaign to recruit an “Army of Advocates and Organizers” to End the War on Drugs (www.ibw21.org). Winning the war against the War on Drugs will not be easy. There are entrenched forces that have a vested interest in the policies that have produced mass incarceration of African Americans and spawned the prison-jail industrial complex. Moreover, it is difficult for segments of the American electorate, including some liberals, to confront the reality of the racial dimensions of crime and punishment in our society. Despite these misgivings, study after study has shown that racial bias in America´s criminal justice system is a fact of life. Indeed, in a brilliantly researched and written volume on this subject, Dr. Michelle Alexander has called the phenomenon of mass incarceration of African Americans the “New Jim Crow.” Accordingly, something akin to Martin Luther King´s “coalition of conscience” will be required to inform, educate and persuade a majority of Americans to press for reforms to rectify the wrongs of the War on Drugs and decades of blatant neglect that have wreaked havoc on so many communities and ruined the lives of so many families. If we are to achieve the “dream” of “a more perfect union,” then the “New Jim Crow” must be abolished!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com