After the War

As an exercise in behavior control, the War on Drugs is over. The drugs won. Efforts to ban ingestion of psychotropic chemicals will always be doomed; for too many people, it's either too much fun or too essential a balm. And technology is about to kick the whole effort into its well-deserved grave. So-called "designer drugs" herald an imminent era in which chemists can put powerful concoctions on the head of a pin. Try keeping that from coming into the country, or your teenager's bedroom. Today, it's hard; tomorrow, it will be flatly impossible.

Progressives and libertarians (myself included) have been decrying the War on Drugs for years. It's ineffective, expensive, an invasion of privacy, racist and ageist and and classist, and an excuse for lost civil liberties and an enormous expansion of state power. But we've often failed to acknowledge that abuse of drugs (legal or not) really does hurt both individuals and communities. Prohibition begets violent crime, but so, at times, do the drugs themselves. Car accidents kill users and their victims alike. Lives waste away. Those of us who want people to be free to put whatever they want into their own bodies -- and that day is coming soon, whether the official War on Drugs ends or not -- have an obligation to also propose realistic, effective ways to prevent the harm that might result.

The answer must start with personal responsibility, and expand into community support. This is not a comfortable, or popular, thing for progressives to say; it's terrain often occupied by conservatives in denial about social forces. We, instead, will cite root causes like poverty or socialization as reasons why some people do bad things. But there's truth in both. People also do such things because they choose to.

On August 13, Seattle police shot and killed a young African- American man, Devon Jackson. Because of past SPD killings of non-whites recently, the immediate response by many friends and neighbors -- quickly retracted when the facts of the case became clear -- was outrage. But forget the outcome and listen, for a moment, to the media descriptions of the people involved.

At age 20, Jackson had a long string of arrests. A neighbor says cops took countless guns from the house over the years. Jackson had been smoking "sherms" -- cigarettes dipped into formaldehyde, a concoction which, on its own, was completely legal. So was his heavy drinking. He'd been having increasingly violent outbursts while on a drug binge for 10 days with his girlfriend and pals, including the friend he killed, Dante Coleman. Coleman, 20, also had a history with the law. He worked at a nearby Safeway, having left high school (it's unclear whether he graduated) two years ago.

In the apartment across a narrow hall, consider Samunique Wilson (age six) and Tre Vaugn Ford Spruel (age two), the children Jackson then attacked. Tre Vaugn had just been picked up by his mom, age 19, from his great-great- grandmother's house, and has been dropped off at the apartment of his mom's friend (Samunique's mom) and her boyfriend, while mom went across the hall to the party. Tre Vaugn's mom is Jackson's sister-in-law; he visited his dad on weekends. His uncle, age 18, was arrested last week on charges of first- degree murder in a robbery slaying. Saminique's dad and stepdad weren't mentioned in media accounts; mom is pregnant. Neighbors say the building where Jackson and little Samunique lived has been a notorious, and largely undisturbed, drug and party haven for years.

Media distorts things, and I have no desire to minimize the tragedy and suffering of this incident. But here's how it sounds: years of arrests. Lots of guns. Dead end or no jobs. Frequent, open use of drugs and alcohol, witnessed by small kids born to teenage mothers and fathers who don't have the means to raise them, who don't even live together, with grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers having to fill in.

Progressives who want to push effectively for a more economically and socially fair society need to be able to acknowledge common sense in this case: a lot of the people involved engaged in behavior ranging from grossly irresponsible to pretty fucked up.

Could public policy responses--health care, day care, education, job training, welfare--help? Sure. We need more, not fewer, resources for folks on society's margins. But we also must demand that people, families, neighorhoods, and communities, on the margins or not, get our own shit together, and hold ourselves and each other accountable for damaging behavior. Every U.S. city has plenty of Devon Jacksons visibly waiting to happen. To prevent tragedy, we must insist on a social ethic of personal responsibility--of, first of all, doing no harm to others or to ourselves. Conservatives want us to invest in Wall Street; liberals want us to invest in bureaucrats. But first, we need to invest in ourselves and each other. Otherwise, as drug use inevitably spreads and inhibitions recede, the body count will only increase.

Geov Parrish is the editor of Eat the State!

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