The Writing on the Wall: Calendar Portrays America's Longest War

It's easy to say and easy to document, but quite difficult to really internalize, the human suffering and the outright absurdities wrought by our 40-year-old war on drugs. Sometimes it takes a picture to drive the point home.

The Drug Policy Alliance has teamed up with award-winning artist Ricardo Cortes to produce an engaging, eye-catching 2011 wall calendar about the history of drug prohibition in the United States.

Each calendar month’s image and accompanying narrative tell a story – from jazz musicians persecuted in the early 1900s, to the political hysteria of the 1980s, to today’s growing movement to end the drug war – that scratches beneath the surface to reveal the little-known history of our nation’s bizarre relationships with drugs, jails, and the politicians who exploit them.

Almost 40 years ago, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” – foreshadowing the start of an unprecedented era of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, evisceration of constitutional and human rights, militarization of routine police work, and disgraceful racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Today, thanks to the drug war, more than 1 in every 100 American adults is behind bars – the highest rate of any country in the world – and, as a result, 1 in every 28 American children has a parent in jail or prison. Trillions of dollars have been wasted, but the pain and agony inflicted on Americans and people all over the world is truly immeasurable.

In January, Cortes pays homage to the people targeted by drug prohibition – mostly immigrants and African-Americans. Why are some drugs legal and other drugs illegal today? It’s not based on any scientific assessment of the relative risks of these drugs – rather, it’s based on who is associated with these drugs. The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, were directed at black men. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest during the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Artists and performers – especially black jazz musicians – were common targets. Today, Latino and black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.

While Nixon may have initiated the modern drug war, the Reagan administration was primarily responsible for ramping it up to its current scale. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law violations increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.

In June, Cortes depicts the meeting of Ronald Reagan and his associate attorney general, none other than Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani. Soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, First Lady Nancy Reagan began a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, coining the slogan “Just Say No.” This set the stage for a political hysteria that led to the zero tolerance policies and draconian laws that were implemented in the mid-to-late 1980s. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” founded the DARE drug education program, which was quickly adopted nationwide despite the lack of evidence of its effectiveness.

Politicians now routinely admit to having used marijuana, and even cocaine, when they were younger. In the month of December, Cortes takes on President Obama and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When Bloomberg was questioned during his 2001 mayoral campaign about whether he had ever used marijuana, he said, “You bet I did – and I enjoyed it.” Barack Obama candidly discussed his prior cocaine and marijuana use: “When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently – that was the point.”

The assault on American citizens, however, has persisted. Bloomberg oversaw a higher rate of low-level marijuana arrests than any mayor in New York City history. Obama, despite advocating for reforms – such as reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs, and supporting state medical marijuana laws – has yet to shift drug war funding to a health-based approach.

Today, the momentum behind drug policy reform is unprecedented. A growing movement across the country and around the world is working to end the drug war and apply the principles of science, compassion, health and human rights to our drug policies. This captivating 2011 calendar will stimulate discussion and bring the little-known history of the drug war to light. There’s something in here that you didn’t already know – we guarantee it!

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