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Hey Progressives: Why Don't you Care About the "Drug War" Like You Care About Other Issues?

If the 500,000 nonviolent drug offenders in jail had white faces, would society allow it?

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I saw it up front last year when we had a ballot initiative in California, Proposition 5. It would have been the most significant sentencing reform in the country's history, shifting a billion dollars per year from prison and parole to treatment and rehabilitation, reducing the state's bloated prison population by 30,000 drug and other nonviolent offenders, and saving taxpayers billions of dollars overall.

But when the district attorneys and the drug court judges and the prison guards union got together and said this has to go down, what I can tell you is that politicians from across the political spectrum in California did not ask them why. They simply complied.

The real meaning of power is when you tell an elected official to do something and he or she does it without even asking why. That's the power of the prison-industrial complex today.

I hope that we don't have to wait until January 2017 for President Barack Obama to have to give a farewell speech warning about the pernicious power of the prison-industrial complex, and the emerging homeland security industrial complex, like the speech that Eisenhower gave in January 1961with respect to the military-industrial complex. We should not have to wait that long.

Now, what is driving this issue more than anything else is the "war on drugs." It's the presumption that the criminal justice system has to be front and center in dealing with particular drugs in our society.

We have gone from 50,000 people behind bars in 1980 for a nonviolent drug law violation to over 500,000 behind bars tonight. We now lock up in America more people for violating a drug law than Western Europe locks up for all crimes -- and they have 100 million more people than we do.

We arrested 1.8 million Americans last year for a drug offense, 800,000 of those for possessing a small amount of marijuana. We now have 13 million Americans living with a felony conviction -- of which approximately 4.5 million were convicted of a drug offense.

When you look at what happened in the elections from 2000 to 2006, I can assure you that simply focusing on the people who are disenfranchised for a drug law violation, if they had not had their voting rights stripped, if they had retained their right to vote like people arrested for similar offenses in other countries, that the election results would have been very different in the Senate, and probably the presidential elections. This has consequences for our democracy.

There is a movement growing, indeed growing quickly, to end this oppressive war on drugs. I want to talk frankly about this. And please excuse me if you begin to feel a little uncomfortable, because I'll tell you from my days as a professor that people often learn best when they start to get a little uncomfortable.

I need to challenge you about your own views and assumptions about all this, because I believe that among the things that most hold back progressive reform in this area are the prejudices and fears and ignorance that persist and that we perpetuate in our own selves.

Some people look at me, and others like me, and ask, "Are you just some white upper-middle-class guy who wants to get high and smoke your pot -- is that all it's really about?"

My answer is, partially, yes.

But that's not my only answer, because this growing movement to end the drug war is not just those of us who enjoy our marijuana and Ecstasy and psychedelics, who don't cause problems for anyone else, and who resent being treated as criminals for doing what we do.