Drugs

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?

The following is the text of Drug Policy Alliance Director Ethan Nadelmann's speech to the Momentum Plenary at the America's Future Now conference in Washington. It has been edited for length and clarity.

The issue of over-incarceration and the overuse of the criminal justice system in America strike me as one of the most horrific violations of human rights in the United States today.

What I'm also struck by is the extent to which our American exceptionalism in this regard is unknown to so many who should know.

I'm going to throw some numbers at you:

    * We have increased the number of people behind bars from roughly 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.3 million today.

    * In the U.S., we have less than 5 percent of the world's population, but almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

    * We rank first in the world in the per capita incarceration of our fellow citizens. First in the world -- We are No. 1.

Keep in mind, we are not so different as people sometimes think when it comes to crime, and even drug use: Our rates of crime, apart from homicide, are not that different from other industrialized nations, and our rates of illicit drug use are somewhat higher, but not dramatically higher than these other countries.

Yet we incarcerate people at five to 10 times the rate of most other nations. We are quicker to put people behind bars when they commit an offense; we keep people behind bars for longer once they are there; and once they come out, we put our heels in their faces and keep them down for as long as we possibly can.

Keep in mind it's not just the 2.3 million people behind bars but 5 million other people under the supervision of parole and probation in the U.S. right now. We deprive them of the right to vote like no other democratic nation does; we subject them to other sanctions and discriminations like no other country; and we make it very easy for them to get sent back to prison once again.

I want this issue to be part of the progressive coalition. I want to come to next year's progressive conference and hear the issue of prisons mentioned at least once on an opening plenary. What, after all, does it mean to be a progressive in America and live in a society that has this kind of exceptionalism? What does it mean to live in a society where over 2 million of our fellow citizens are behind bars tonight?

The issue of race is an inescapable part of this -- because we know that if the color of the faces of most of the people behind bars were white and not black, the reaction of the public would be different. There's something that clicks in our heads, that somehow when you see a black or brown face, especially a young male face, behind bars, there's that element -- even among all of us who do not consider ourselves racist and believe in fighting against racism -- there's that little click that accepts that on some level.

When you're talking about economic opportunity -- and approximately 50 percent of young black men in many cities already have a criminal record, already have a better chance of going to jail than university -- you realize this is not just an issue of race or of human rights but also an economic issue.

When you look at the growing power of the prison-industrial complex in our society, when you look at the prosecutors and the police, the prison guards' unions and the private prison builders -- that coalition has become a profoundly powerful and pernicious force in our society.

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.

This movement is also the people who hate drugs, who have seen the worst that drugs can do -- people who are living with addiction or holding on to sobriety, who have seen their family members become addicted, who have seen loved ones die of overdoses -- but who nonetheless believe that the war on drugs is not the way to deal with drugs and addiction in our society.

And this movement includes all the people who don't give a damn about drugs one way or the other but who do care about preserving the Bill of Rights and our constitutional liberties, who are angered and embarrassed by the racial injustice of our prison system, who hate what the government is doing with our tax dollars, who are horrified by what the global drug war is doing to Mexico and Colombia and Afghanistan, and other nations as well.   

So when people ask, "Who is this emerging drug policy reform movement?" I respond that we are the people who love drugs, we are the people who hate drugs and we are the people who don't give a damn about drugs, but every one of us believes that the war on drugs is not the way to deal with the reality of drugs in our society.

Now, the fact of the matter is, there has never been a drug-free society in human history, and there never will be one. Our challenge therefore is not how best to build a moat between our children and drugs; our challenge rather is how to learn to live with drugs -- the reality of drugs -- so that they cause the least possible harm and the greatest possible benefit.

How do we do that in ways that are consistent with our values about freedom and justice, fairness and human rights? How do we do that? I know that in this audience here, many of us are still afraid to reconcile our political values with our personal lives and viewpoints.

How many of us used to smoke pot but now fear our children smoking it? How many of us used to think it should be legal but now no longer do? Why do we become hypocrites? It's not because we're afraid our kids are going to do things that we never did -- it's because we're afraid our kids are going to do the same dumb things we did do, but that they won't be so lucky.

But that's not a basis for keeping the drug laws the way they are. I am astounded at times at the hypocrisy of the people whom I went to college with and got high with, and now we all have teenagers, and oh my god, we start sounding like right-wing reactionaries when push comes to shove on this issue.

The issue of removing marijuana from the criminal justice system has to be a progressive issue. Forty percent of Americans now say that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, and it's closer to 50 percent among Democrats, independents, people under the age of 30 and the electorate in a growing number of western states. 

Just last month, [California] Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger said it's time for a real debate on making marijuana legal -- and he's not the only elected official saying this. The time to move forward on this issue is now.

When we look at the rest of the criminal justice system, I'm happy to see the movement in Congress to eliminate the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity. I'm happy to see Republicans and Democrats, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, all saying the time is now. It took 20 years, it was a tragedy, it wasted uncountable numbers of lives -- but at least we can count on major reform sometime soon.

But let's understand the more profound racial injustice of this drug war. Let's understand that when you look at the question about why some drugs are legal and some drugs are illegal today, it doesn't have to do with the relative risks of these drugs.

Don't imagine that some early version of the National Academy of Sciences made a serious study 80 years ago and concluded that alcohol and cigarettes were safe enough to be legal but that marijuana, hallucinogens, cocaine and heroin and others were not. It's not about that.

If you look at why we criminalized some drugs and not others, it had everything to do with who used these drugs. The first anti-opium laws in America were not put in place when the average drug user was a middle-aged American woman taking opium and laudanum to deal with all her aches and pains, no -- it was when the Chinese came.

The first anti-opium laws were in Nevada and California, in the 1870s, and they were directed at the Chinese minorities. The first anti-cocaine laws were in the South, early in the last century, and they were directed at black men -- people were afraid they'd take that white powder up their noses and forget their "proper place in society."

The first anti-marijuana laws were in the Midwest and the Southwest, in the 1910s and '20s, and they were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans who would work those long hours, go back home and smoke those funny-smelling reefer cigarettes.

In every case, good white people feared what those dark-skinned people would do to our women and our children.

Even alcohol Prohibition was to some degree a struggle between the "white" white Americans and the “not-so white" white Americans -- between the people who came from Northern and Western Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the hordes of “not-so white” white people who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe with their beer and their vino and their slivovitz.

This cultural struggle, so tied up with race and ethnicity, persists to this day. The fact that the drug war and the drug laws were not just a bipartisan but a biracial movement, the fact that these horrific laws were championed not just by white members of Congress but by black members, too, is no excuse not to dig deeply into this and pull it out by its roots. Because ultimately this issue is not just one of racial justice, or of racial fairness. Ultimately, this is about something else as well.

It's about a couple of words that I also am sorry that I didn't hear once said during this morning's plenary panel, and that I have not heard uttered through entire days of progressive meetings among people I regard as my allies.  What are those words?

Liberty and freedom.

The progressive movement in America cannot abandon those words.

I have the unusual distinction of being one of the few people, if not the only, to have spoken on a plenary panel at both this progressive conference and at the annual meeting of CPAC -- the Conservative Political Action Conference.

And what I can tell you is that support for reforming our nation's drug policies is building from the left, right and center. My own personal values may be at home in this community, but we only succeed if this movement builds upward and forward across the political spectrum.

Our advocacy for fundamental notions of fairness and compassion and science-based policy must always be linked with a commitment to principles of freedom and liberty. I'll tell you -- once we start looking at what young people care about -- those words, liberty and freedom, mean something.

This growing drug-policy-reform movement is a movement for individual freedom and social justice. We see ourselves standing on the shoulders and following in the footsteps of other movements that fought for individual freedom and social justice -- the movements for gay rights, and women's rights, and civil rights, and even the movement to abolish slavery and the slave trade.

In every case, it's about advancing freedom and justice. In every case it's about fighting powerful vested interests in our society.

And in our case, it's specifically about articulating a core principle that underlies much of our work: that no one deserves to be punished -- or discriminated against or amongst -- simply for what we put in our bodies, absent harm to others.

Hold people accountable. Punish those who hurt others or put others at risk by driving under the influence of drugs. But don't subject someone to the criminal law simply because they opt to ingest one substance rather than another.

It's on this basis that we can build a movement for freedom and justice that ends America's exceptional reliance on incarceration and the criminal justice system and that embraces a drug-control policy grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. I hope all of you who care about the Campaign for America's Future will own and embrace this vision and commitment as well.

Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.