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!
Many environmental activists are in shock over last week's House vote permitting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For better and worse, green groups big and small, moderate and radical have made ANWR their flagship battle, the issue on which they were so confident that the American public agreed with them, rather than the oil-soaked White House, that they would force the Bushies into a more timid spree of environmental depredation for the next four years.
They may have miscalculated.
At the moment, the focus is on Republican-bashing, but that's not the full problem. Nowhere in the entire U.S. political system is there any base of advocacy for environmental concerns. Quite the opposite. All of the key decisions ultimately lie in the hands of two parties, neither one of which contains many environmental champions.
Poll after poll shows that support for environmentally sound policies is highly popular in much of the country -- especially when the questions are abstract. But those questions aren't a good measure of most of the issues politicians (and, increasingly, judges) are being asked to decide. In those cases, green policies are increasingly carrying a serious economic cost.
Most polls also suggest Americans think jobs and houses are good ideas. Pols are betting, sensibly, that a lot of folks would pick jobs and houses over yellow-striped bellywarblers. Big campaign donors certainly do.
Thirty years ago, when America's great environmental president, Richard Nixon, ushered in the era of reforms like the EPA and the Endangered Species Act, the population of the U.S. had just passed 200 million. Today, it's 270 million, and growing. Moreover, we've added another generation of damage to our natural environments. A law like the Endangered Species Act might have only mattered in a few cases in 1973. But today, were the ESA to be strictly enforced, economic activity in the entire U.S. would grind to a halt; species are dying everywhere, including everywhere that developers and industries want to locate. Personally, I'd kinda like to see nature take precedence over money for a change, but few politicians will make that call.
Including, these days, most Democrats. The truly alarming part of the ANWR vote wasn't its House passage, but the block of Democrats who opted for drilling. Largely, they were pro-labor Democrats responding to pressure from the Teamsters and AFL-CIO. All that "Teamsters and Turtles" hooey from two years ago can now safely be buried. On what many enviros defined as the biggest battle on their list, labor, citing "job creation" (in the Arctic!), was the key to their defeat. And no more "moderate" Democrats will rush in to fill the void.
The very fact that Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- famously described by David Brower as having been worse for the environment than 12 years of Reagan and Bush Sr. -- would be adored by Big Green groups shows both how corrupt those groups are and how few friends they have in D.C. The failure, for 30 years, of mainstream environmental groups to court the public, preferring instead to have their egos and salaries stroked inside the Beltway, is making an enormous difference. Sure, the bogeyman of Dubya is helping them raise money now -- but what can they spend it on, besides salaries and more fund appeals? A whole generation of mainstream America has been taught to fight for environmental justice by writing a check, and now it's being asked to mobilize.
If they show up, few in a position of power will be interested in listening. Pols have spent decades refining the art of writing press releases that look green-friendly while privately reassuring the despoilers in question that their needs have been fully addressed. They're not afraid of the environmental movement. The United States could not possibly embrace -- as it did under Clinton/Gore, long before Dubya came along -- global warming policies the rest of the entire planet considers certifiably insane, unless its leaders weren't worried about either international opinion or domestic environmentalists. Ralph Nader's three percent didn't exactly scare them into line.
The saddest part is that issues more critical than ANWR drilling aren't getting nearly as much attention. But ANWR was thought to be among the most winnable. It still might be winnable, but meanwhile, the paradigm that green advocates have assumed to be true since Silent Spring and before, of steadily improving environmental policies, clearly needs rethinking. Before even battles to stem the backsliding can be consistently won, a new environmental movement -- one whose public face is neither Beltway frauds nor dangling hippies with "forest names" -- will have to be built from the ground up. For the short term, it doesn't look good.