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40 Years of a Pointless, Tragic Drug War -- But As Feds Crack Down, Reformers Fight Back

Tension between popular will and the political establishment makes this a time of hope and frustration for the drug reform movement.

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Where public policy and moral arguments failed to curb ever-increasing rates of incarceration, that strategy has now run into the brick wall of the country’s ongoing economic stagnation. Between 1984 and 2004, California built 23 major new prisons, a rate of more than one per year. But that was no match for the more than 600 percent increase in the state’s prison population between 1980 and 2006. In May, the Supreme Court, ruling that conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons failed to protect inmates from “cruel and unusual punishment,” ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 37,000 over the next two years.

Meanwhile California’s competitor for leading jailer, Texas, has also begun to shrink its prison population with the support of small-government leaders like Grover Norquist. As states look for ways to curb prison spending, they are turning away from incarcerating non-violent drug offenders.


While drug policy reformers welcome this change, they point out that as long as drug use remains illegal, those convicted will continue to suffer the lifelong consequences of a drug conviction. This punishment comes in the form of social stigma and the thousands of laws and practices that legally discriminate against people with criminal records for the rest of their lives. These laws deny people basic rights including employment, education, housing and voting. Many laws single out people convicted of drug violations. As Jack Cole, a former narcotics officer who co-founded Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition (LEAP), says, “you can get over an addiction, but you’ll never get over a conviction.”

Susan Burton’s story is indicative. After cycling in and out of jail for drug convictions, Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project to help women like her transition from prison to healthy, productive lives. “I’ve helped over 600 women walk out of a prison door back into the community. I’ve helped those 600 women reunite with over 200 of their children. I could not get my nephew out of the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services because I have a criminal history,” says Burton whose own son was accidentally killed by a Los Angeles police officer.

“For many of us, the drug war was more harmful than the drugs,” says Tina Reynolds. Before she co-founded Women on the Rise Telling Herstory (WORTH), an advocacy group for current and formerly incarcerated women, Reynolds was repeatedly jailed for crack use rather than treated for her addiction. One day she asked a district attorney if she would consider releasing her if she found a treatment program. The D.A. told her to find a program and come back. Two weeks later, Reynolds returned, excited to tell the D.A. about a program she had found. “She sat in front of me and she says you will always be a crack head, you will never change, you will be going upstate. At that point,” says Reynolds, “I was silenced no more, and we as formerly incarcerated people have to resist being silenced.”

Increasingly the voice of the victims of the War on Drugs is being heard within the policy reform movement. “You can’t keep having a theoretical dialogue about a drug war that don’t have any victims,” says Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services For Prisoners with Children. “We’re the ones that’s occupying the cases. We’re the ones that’s getting gunned down by the police. We’re the ones that’s injuring ourselves through the overuse of it.” Nunn, and other advocates for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, credit the Drug Policy Alliance, which organizes the biggest drug reform gathering in the world, the Biennial International Drug Policy Reform Conference, for welcoming them to the table.