There’s an old saying, “You get what you pay for.” When it comes to America’s abysmal record when it comes to drug policy, nothing could be truer. Many think of our War on Drugs as having started in the 1980’s under President Reagan. While his “Just Say No!” campaign that he and first lady Nancy Reagan backed was certainly a big, renewed push for the War on Drugs, the truth is that since Prohibition Americans have been trying unsuccessfully to legislate and regulate substance use and abuse. Few American paradigms have been as unmitigated a disaster as the War on Drugs.
We’ve all seen the results of this idiotic ideological crusade to rid the land of those pesky junkies. We’ve got a private prison industry that’s booming thanks to the overwhelming disproportionate number of African-American males we’ve locked up for minor, non-violent drug offenses. We’ve gotten the FBI, the CIA and the DEA all involved in hunting down drug traffickers to the tune of billions and billions and billions of dollars every year, and through it all…how many of you still know where you can get some pot if you need to? The War on Drugs simply does not work, period.
Try telling that to all the presidential administrations that have continually added funding to the DEA. Administration after administration ignored the statistics, ignored the failure of alcohol’s prohibition to either curb booze consumption or eradicate the black market they themselves created. No sane or rational person would argue that children need access to drugs and alcohol, but by now it should be clear that a large number of adult human beings by and large enjoy some kind of mood and mind-altering substance, but it’s as if our government has just decided en masse to ignore that universal reality and keep treating drug abuse as a crime against all of humanity, instead of a crime against one’s own body and mind.
When the Obama administration through the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder released their sweeping new sentencing guidelines yesterday, it was a big deal. If that sounds redundant to you, congratulations — you’re not jaded and cynical. For anyone in our government, much less the country’s top and leading attorney to come out and say, “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it,” is a watershed moment in our country’s history. No administration has so tacitly agreed with the notion that the War on Drugs is an abysmal failure.
Perhaps this is just my opinion, but the War on Drugs seems to be the elephant in the room when it comes to poverty and continued systemic racism in America. It’s as if instead of riding Jim Crow out on a rail, we “smelled marijuana” on him and locked him away for eighty years. In fact, racism against Mexican immigrants was a driving force in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which was the first and biggest step in criminalizing the use of pot, so this country has always had a less than pure ideology driving our irrational fear of drugs.
The bottom line to me seems kind of simple. In a country where drug pushers don’t have to sit on the street corner, but instead can just take out large chunks of commercial time on television to get their wares seen, who are we really trying to convince of our moral superiority when it comes to substance use? How many Wall Street bankers do a little white bump before their meetings to get “amped up?” How many moms and dads are taking three too many pain killers a day because they’ve gotten used to that numbed-out feeling that they get while on them?
Progress moves so slowly in this country that you have to really pay attention to see it in progress. The new sentencing guidelines published by the Obama White House are the kinds of things that have a major impact, even though they may not seem like enough. For the record, they really aren’t enough, but you can’t sacrifice the good for the perfect when it comes to the lives of the millions of Americans who are unfairly incarcerated for personal drug habit choices.
The fact that Holder is giving Federal prosecutors much more discretion in prioritizing prosecutions is great, but his admonishment to start releasing older, non-violent offenders is just as important. It’s one thing to admit we were wrong and reverse course in terms of policy. It’s another to not only reverse the policy, but to reverse the results of the previous, immoral and idiotic policies — which is exactly what they did. Now we just have to hope this is just the beginning and that more reforms are coming, because the universe knows just how desperately we need them.