following is the fourth part of an ongoing Color of Law series.
here to read any of the commentaries
in this series.
In a recent online town hall meeting at the White
House, President Obama was asked by the online audience whether
he thought legalizing marijuana would create jobs and help the economy.
It was the most popular question asked at the meeting. “I don’t
know what this says about the online audience,” Obama remarked,
then adding, “No, I don’t think this would be a good strategy.”
He seemed to give a little chuckle, as did the extras who were cast
as audience members in the background behind the president.
But this is no laughing matter, and America’s failed
war on drugs is serious business. Dead serious, in a literal sense.
The United States has a voracious appetite for drugs, this is without
question. Over the years - in a move tinged partly with greed, partly
with boneheadedness and shortsightedness, and partly with racism
- the nation has treated drugs as an issue of morality and criminal
justice. As a result of this war on drugs, poor communities and
communities of color have been decimated. Rather than target the
places where most of the drugs are consumed - in the White suburbs,
middle-class areas and wealthy enclaves - law enforcement targets
the areas where drug sales and drug use are most conspicuous: the
inner city. As a result, 1
in 99 adults is behind bars, including 1 in 36 Latino adults, 1 in 15 Black
adults, and 1 in 9 African Americans between the ages of 20 and
34. Yes, I said 1 in 9. Generations are spending their most formidable
years in prison over drugs, sometimes most of their lives, when
they should be raising their families, contributing to society,
getting an education, what have you. Like the effects of the Vietnam
War, the damage visited upon these communities by the drug war is
irreparable. America has become the most incarcerated nation, with
a rate of imprisonment five times higher than the rest of the world.
The effects of these harsh punitive policies, and
the criminalization of drugs, have implications beyond the borders
of this country. Mexican drug cartels, meeting America’s drug demand,
are wreaking havoc on Mexico. That country is in trouble, big trouble.
Over 1,100 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico
so far this year (6,200 in 2008), due in no small measure to the
use of American firearms. Decapitations, kidnappings, torture, the
use of hand grenades, and murders with military-style assault weapons
are standard fare. And this crisis is spilling over into the United
Although America’s weapons policy has created the
carnage in Mexico, the Obama administration will face formidable
opposition from the gun lobby if it tries to ban assault weapons.
Don’t get me started with the Second Amendment and the so-called
right to bear arms. This farce represents a vehicle by which arms
manufacturers hide behind bogus and dishonest interpretations of
the U.S. Constitution, and get rich by profiting from human bloodshed.
No good comes from the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.
Poverty in Mexico is the context by which drug cartels
gain their recruitment foothold. I suppose that NAFTA, with its
empty hopes of prosperity, did not work out as well as some people
envisioned it. With poverty fueling the drug trade in Mexico, and
America’s appetite for drugs creating the demand, is it really any
different from poor people in the U.S. who are lured to the drug
trade? I speak of people in this country who lack economic and educational
opportunities and are lured by a materialistic culture that tells
them to obtain money by any means, without regard for the consequences
and who is harmed. You know, kind of like Wall Street executives.
These days, the economic crisis, failed drug policy
and failed criminal justice policy threaten to intersect in the
form of demands for drug decriminalization, particularly the legalization
and regulation of marijuana. I wonder what took so long. Already,
legislation has been introduced in the California state assembly
to legalize the cultivation, possession and sale of marijuana and tax the $14 billion annual crop. Such a move
could allow California - a state that cannot afford to pay its state
employees amid a budget crisis, spends more on prisons than on public universities, and has been ordered to set one-third of its prisoners free due to overcrowding
- to potentially rake in billions of dollars in desperately needed
revenue. Prohibition did not work, and fuelled gangsterism in the
U.S. Now, alcohol is legal, and some states regulate alcohol through
taxation or by selling through state controlled stores.
time seems ripe to change America’s attitudes towards the criminalization
of drugs, and the behemoth prison system which grows from current
drug policy and feeds on society. The failed war on drugs has created
a 1200% increase in drug incarceration rates since 1980 (from 41,000
people incarcerated to over 500,000), and has disproportionately
hurt African Americans. Further, a significant percentage of those
who are locked up have no history of violence or high-level drug
In light of this reality, Senator William Webb (D-VA)
has introduced a bill called the National
Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.
The legislation provides for a commission to review
the entire criminal justice system (state and federal), and make recommendations regarding
the reform of incarceration policy and drug policy, among other
things. We do not know what will become of the senator’s legislation,
but we do know that the current ways are unsustainable. And the
definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and
expecting different results.
here to read any of the commentaries
in this series.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service,
In These Times
and Philadelphia Independent Media Center.
He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St.
Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK
spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference
as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and
served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.