Rarely has an idea moved so quickly from the political loony lands to received truth. Two months ago, the bald fact that the costly 20-year-old war on drugs was not only a complete failure at its stated aims but a spectacular assault on the freedoms of all Americans was literally unmentionable.
A few “nuts” kept hammering away at the obvious—drug use is up, and criminalization makes things worse, not better—but their opinions were stonewalled in the media and invisible to lawmakers. Instead, each new failure was met by ramping up the drug war yet another notch or two.
Then came a popular movie, Traffic, that questioned some—only a few, really—of the absurdities of the drug war. Suddenly, it was as if somebody’s pollster had finally noticed. Noticed that for years, states like California, Arizona, and Washington have passed medical marijuana initiatives by overwhelming margins. Noticed that last fall California passed another initiative, Proposition 36, that was a sweeping repudiation of the drug war, ending prison time for first and second drug offenses in favor of treatment. Noticed that tens of millions of Americans don’t like having their freedoms stripped away, their local police departments transformed into occupying armies, their doors kicked in by mistake at 4am, their prisons stuffed to overflowing with people who harmed no one.
In Washington, somebody noticed that John Carlson, a public figure closely linked to the drug war, soft-pedaled all his tough-on-crime credentials in his run for governor in 2000 and still got a smaller percentage of the voters than the far right, Christian extremist Ellen Craswell did in 1996.
Now it’s as though someone flipped a switch and the race to renounce the war on drugs is on. High-level generals like King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng made sure they were on camera last week as they paraded to the state Legislature to admit that their drug war isn’t working.
In more honorable societies, people like Maleng would have followed such confessions by falling on their swords. However, here in America—formerly the land of the free, but still the land of the unaccountable prosecutors—Maleng was calling for reform. His favored bills, lauded by a vast array of top drug warriors, would cut future prison sentences and use the savings to expand drug treatment programs. The bills would never have gotten a hearing a few months ago; now they’re considered certain to pass.
These bills are, of course, welcome. They will clearly result in fewer lives destroyed by the prosecutorial state. But let’s look at what such bills won’t do:
*Reduce bloated law enforcement budgets or make departments return all those fancy high-tech toys supposedly being used to catch drug dealers;
*Restore provisions of the Bill of Rights—especially the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments—steadily stripped away by Congress, the state Legislature, and the courts, as well as by practices of police, workplaces, and schools;
*Grant amnesty to any of the nearly one million inmates in America imprisoned for drug or drug-related offenses, some of whom—thanks to mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws—are caged for most or all of the rest of their lives for ludicrously inconsequential offenses;
*Address problems caused by criminalization of highly popular substances, or the absurdity of banning drugs (like marijuana) less harmful than alcohol or tobacco;
*Address the racial disparities in drug-law enforcement;
*Alleviate the conviction held by many African Americans and others that the war on drugs has been not a failure, but a resounding success—in that its true purpose was to criminalize and disenfranchise a generation of poor and nonwhite youth;
*Stem the cascade of defoliants, weapons, and money flowing from the US government to the thugs slaughtering peasantry in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and southern Mexico; or
*Hold anyone who has perpetrated this treasonous drug war accountable for their crimes.
Maleng et al. are trying to have it both ways. By trumpeting their recognition of the war’s most obvious failures, they are hoping to get credit for their farsightedness and wisdom; at the same time, they’re explicitly hoping to stop recognition of the other truths that inevitably follow. It’s not going to work.
On the very day after Maleng’s testimony to the Legislature, some 75 anti-war citizens—including lawyers, judges, and people in touch with George Soros, the billionaire who helped fund Proposition 36—gathered to discuss how best to use their momentum. From their meeting, a Proposition 36-style initiative seems inevitable for either this fall’s ballot or next year.
Such initiatives appall government officials. They dislike these laws, not because they’re bad public policy but because they call into question the massive new powers that various tentacles of government have graciously granted one another over the last 20 years to fight the drug war.
That power grab is at the heart of the war on drugs, and it’s been a bipartisan affair, supported by liberals and get-government-off-my-back conservatives alike. It’s time not just to end the war on drugs but to free its victims and dismantle those powers. Now.
Lumpenproletariat Talent Show!
Valerie Jean Rose, a good friend of mine and a fellow writer and editor at the volunteer community paper Eat the State!, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. To help cover her expenses for health care and lost income, some of us are throwing a Lumpenproletariat Talent Show! Wednesday, March 21, 7pm, at the Speakeasy Cafe, $5 (or more) at the door. If you want to perform, e-mail me at the address below. Wish Valerie a speedy recovery!