A Selective War on Drugs

In the finale of the hit show "The Sopranos," angry mob bosses retaliate against a rogue youngster, Jackie Junior, by executing him near a housing project and letting the blame fall on black drug dealers. One Mafioso who's had drug problems of his own praises boss Tony for the way he handled the situation. On screen, and in real life, black dealers are a convenient scapegoat for America's much larger drug problem, the public face of a multi-racial, multi-national, multi-billion dollar industry.

In fact, an analysis of government statistics by the organization Human Rights Watch last year revealed that in ten states from Maine to Illinois, black men are 27 to 57 times more likely to be locked up for committing exactly the same drug crimes as whites, though five times as many white Americans use drugs as blacks in raw numbers. This system, says the group's executive director Ken Roth, "corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all."

While the focus of drug use in America is on street dealing and street crime, the bulk of dealing and consumption goes on quietly, in private settings far different from the urban street corners depicted on shows like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order." The May issue of Spin magazine ran an article called "Confessions of a Pot Delivery Girl," in which an Ivy League graduate talked about her uneventful time at a high-end delivery service for Manhattan marijuana smokers. She stated, "I soon became convinced that virtually every person on the island of Manhattan smokes pot. I delivered to doctors, lawyers, professors, architects, housewives, and stockbrokers." And while seeing a young black man arrested by police, she added, "for a moment, I felt my heart race. But the feeling passed as I walked by them in my black leather mules and knee-length skirt, a confident felon, young and white and female, handily concealed from the scope of the law."

The delivery girl's tale reveals a fundamental truth about drug use in America. Recreational use of drugs, as well as addictive use, cuts across socioeconomic sectors, but enforcement falls only on a few, in part because of laws that actually reward drug kingpins for turning states evidence on their low-level employees. The discrepancies between use and treatment, and use and punishment, are finally starting to hit some discordant notes with observant Americans and culture mavens. The hit movies "Traffic," "Blow" and "Requiem for a Dream" all turned popular attention to drugs at the same time that stars Robert Downey, Jr., and Daryl Strawberry have been arrested again and again.

The weekend of June 1 in Alberquerque, academics, activists, and high-level government officials--including the governor of New Mexico--are meeting to re-think the future of drug policy in America. The confab is funded in part by billionaire George Soros, whose funds leading think tank the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. Soros and two other financiaers are also funding ballot initiatives in Florida, Ohio and Michigan designed to send first and second time drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. A similar measure, Proposition 36, already passed in California.

America's "War on Drugs" has produced few successes and a number of high-profile failures, including the recent downing of the missionary plane in Peru. Throughout this decades-long "war," we have been willing to accept massive collateral damage in poor, black and urban communities. Now, other Americans are feeling pressure as well. In some states, the prison industry has grown so rapidly that 19 year olds are being recruited as guards for violent maximum-security facilities -- the equivalent of sending teenagers into battlefields. Laws that once provided loopholes for the rich and famous now are snaring them as well, admittedly after they've been given second or third or fourth chances.

And what have been the results? The rates of teenage drug use have recently nudged down slightly. But despite a focus on interdiction, the flow of drugs into the country continues unabated. Only half of America's addicts are receiving treatment, and many are on waiting lists stretching for months. "Plan Colombia" is a $1.3 billion military approach similar to that used in Peru. But when White House officials debated spending just $100 million of that on treatment last year, the suggestion was shot down by "Drug Czar" General Barry McCaffrey. Failing to deal with the cycle of addiction (and support harm reduction and needle exchange programs) has helped prolong the cycle of IV drug use and raise AIDS infection rates. In some cities, including Jersey City, NJ, one in fifty African Americans is HIV positive.

Ignoring the civil rights and public health implications of the war on drugs is like examining the remains of Aloha Flight 243 and saying "Who cares if one of the flight attendants got sucked out the ceiling?" For now, the casualties have mainly been poor, black and brown. That's changing. Will our policies change, too?


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