The Drug War Consensus


Rush Limbaugh is back on the air, and his listeners have, since Monday, been effusive in their welcoming of him, both on his show and on other local and national right wing talk radio programs.

Since I wrote a column last month describing my use of the same prescription drug that got Limbaugh into trouble, I've had occasion to be on a number of these shows in recent weeks. Without exception, the host, callers, and I wound up in more or less collegial agreement: that the War On Drugs was a failure, irrational, and has served as a pretext for a vast expansion of intrusive state powers; that if a drug user violates the rights of someone else (e.g., by mugging them for drug money), the full weight of the law should come down on them, but otherwise, it's an individual's own responsibility to decide what substances he or she puts in their bodies; and that substance users who become addicts -- of either currently legal drugs (like alcohol) or illegal ones, or a combination -- should be treated by society as having a health problem, not as being criminals.

For many of these hosts, and their listeners, this is a nearly complete reversal from two decades of throw-away-the-key rhetoric. The occasion has been the case of Limbaugh -- a man who, as is the case for any successful entertainer, has cultivated over the years an emotional connection with his fans that leaves them feeling that they have a personal relationship with him. They care about Limbaugh's welfare; they want him to get better. If he has run afoul of the law, they are willing to forgive the transgressions because of what they regard as decades of good deeds and good will.

The general response of liberals, progressives, and other long-time Rush-bashers has been to cry "Hypocrites!!" from the highest rooftops. Well, of course -- but no more so than on any other issue of late where conservatives seem to have astonishing memory lapses concerning their past claims. (Iraq, anyone?) But that's not the point. Those of us -- progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative -- who have castigated the War On Drugs for a generation need not to be alienating its newest critics, but welcoming them as allies and figuring out how to forge a consensus as to what type of public policies should replace the failed 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 difficult; tomorrow, it will be flatly impossible.

Among progressives, critics of the War have claimed for years that the War On Drugs has been ineffective, expensive, an invasion of privacy, racist, ageist, 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. And therein lies the potential for a consensus that transcends ideology.

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 through notions like low-income health care and harm reduction models. But the personal responsibility must come first. 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.

I live in a neighborhood called the Central District, a now-gentrifying part of town that for decades has been the heart of black Seattle. It's also been Seattle's poorest neighborhood, and block-by-block, some parts of it -- including ours -- have a serious problem with drugs and the other social ills, like prostitution and delinquency, that seem to go with it.

A case of a nearby police shooting of a young African-American after he'd attacked several others shows why some segments of the public, especially early on, supported the War On Drugs. Forget the fate of Devon Jackson, the shooting victim, and listen instead to the all-too-common description of his life.

At age 20, Jackson had a long string of arrests. A neighbor says cops took countless guns from his 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 previously.

In the apartment across a narrow hall, consider Samunique Wilson (age six) and Tre Vaugn Ford Spruel (age two), children attacked by Jackson after he killed Coleman. Tre Vaugn had just been picked up by his mom, age 19, from his great-great-grandmother's house, and had 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; the boy visited his dad on weekends. His uncle, age 18, was later convicted of first-degree murder during a robbery committed following week. Saminique's dad and step-dad 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.

Even those critics of the War on Drugs who claim that the War has nothing to do with drug use at all, but has instead been a (wildly successful) state tool for social control of the disenfranchised, have a responsibility to explore ways in which we can respond to realities like the world of Devon Jackson. Without such alternatives, it will be impossible to build the broad political coalition needed to curb or even end the War on Drugs.

There was already broad public acknowledgement that the War On Drugs is at best an inappropriate and failed response, and at worst an anti-constitutional outrage. The case of Rush Limbaugh has created inroads of sympathy for those views among the only significant chunk of the public that still believes in the War's premises. But a consensus that a solution has failed is not the same as a consensus on an alternative solution. Without the alternatives, it's all too easy for our society to throw away its Devon Jacksons and Tre Vaugns, and for a destructive mess like the War On Drugs to continue on momentum.

In the world of Devon Jackson, progressives who want to push effectively for a more economically and socially fair society need to be able to acknowledge common sense: a lot of the people involved had life rough, but also engaged in behavior ranging from pretty messed up to grossly irresponsible and destructive. They are not simply victims of society.

Could public policy responses -- health care, day care, education, job training, or (gasp) welfare -- help? Sure. We need more, not fewer, resources for folks on society's margins, resources instead being sucked up in part by the prison-industrial complex the War On Drugs has spawned. But we also must demand that people, families, neighborhoods, and communities -- on the margins or not -- get our own acts together, and hold each other and ourselves accountable for our 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. We need to teach people to value themselves and to be able to imagine (and care about) the impact of their actions on others. We need to invest in each other and ourselves.

Otherwise, as drug use inevitably spreads and inhibitions recede, the body count will only increase.

Geov Parrish writes for Working Assets.

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