DRUG WAR TALK
Dr. John Beresford was one of the first to leap into the fray on the injustice of imprisoning people for drug use. He started the Committee on Unjust Sentencing in March, 1993. The Committee has since put on events such as the First International Conference on Drug War Prisoners in February, 1996 and the Awards Nite ceremony in San Francisco last October.
We live in a time of tragedy. The Drug War has the mythic ring one associates with classical Greek drama. Back then, the idea was that if you interfere with Fate, too badly or too long, Fate's retribution will be serious. Not just will be, is serious, right now. Oedipus entered a scenario not of his conscious making. He killed a man who happened to be his father, and slept with a woman who happened to be his mother. What happened was not, in the conventional sense, his "fault." Nevertheless, to compensate for his offense against Fate, Oedipus knifed out his eyes and wandered sightless into exile, led by his daughter Antigone.
For comparison, Shakespeare tragedy depends on an imbalance of character. Here retribution is not the work of Fate but the inevitable fall-out from being part of a dysfunctional society. Lear is a power-tripper who won't listen when Cordelia tries to tell him the truth. Lear's line is: "Don't tell me, I don't want to hear." In the play the moment comes when Lear starts to listen. Not having recourse to meditation, he goes off the deep end, taking his country with him.
The Drug War has a quality of unstoppable Fate and a quality of character defect also. It is a tragedy in the Sophocles sense and in the Shakespeare sense, both at once. It is a tragedy because terrible things are done to people in the name of the Drug War and nobody until recently has lifted a finger to stop these things from happening. Apathy to the reality of the Drug War is part of the tragic picture. After all, isn't the public blind to the truth of what is being done to people in the name of the Drug War, and isn't the ruling cliché "Don't even think of talking about it?"
It follows that if we want to stop the tragedy, before things get worse, we all must come out of the closet and admit, "Yes, I am going to talk about it." Because when a sufficient number of people are talking about the Drug War, the Drug War is going to stop. The trick, if it is a trick, is to get people to start to talk about it.
Once this happens, people will want to know what to say, how to respond to the terrible things they have found are being done to ordinary, decent Americans. We who know the Drug War is wrong must be ready to help people find out the truth.
What is the single most powerful source of information about the Drug War? Obviously, prisoners of the Drug War. The prisoners know more about the Department of Justice and the ways of its prosecutors and secret police than anyone-more than the Department itself, because a slice of corruption has to be added to descriptions of official duties. More than the courts where cases are tried, because a judge may not know when a witness is lying but a future prisoner of the Drug War does. Certainly more than the inexperienced or sometimes downright crummy defense lawyer assigned to a "drug case" after other lawyers have drained the family fortune or the fortune has already been confiscated by the government. Not to belabor the point, prisoners are the ones who know best.
When the American public knows the truth about the Drug War, it will have two choices. One is to remain silent , deaf to atrocity, to side with the forces of repression, and to plant the seed of the destruction of their country. Or, avoiding the calamity that befell Germany in, say, 1938, Americans can stand up and insist that the sordid reality of the Drug War be exposed. Assuming that members of the public do the sensible thing and act before the situation gets worse, the Drug War will end by itself. Politicians craving election will see which side their bread is buttered on and vote for the bill that gets Drug War prisoners out of prison. That is the first step.
Let me go over this again. I have said two things, and they need not be confused. One is the means to an end, while the other is the end. The end is a stop-order on the War. (For reasons for this, wait a minute.) The means, the simplest version of the means I can think of, is for the latest story on the Drug War to be on the tip of everybody's tongue. To repeat, when ordinary, decent people talk about the Drug War in sufficient numbers, the point will be reached where the revulsion level is so high that the back of the Drug War will snap like a rattlesnake's.
The other question has to do with reasons for bringing the Drug War to a halt. There is not room to mention all the reasons, but here are some:
The Drug war is wrong. It is wrong to put people in prison for using drugs. Four percent of the population is addiction-prone and will be skewered by a drug like heroin, or, in another sense of "addiction," licked by a drug such as cocaine. The vast majority of people who use drugs for whatever reason do not incur the problem of addiction. The smaller group consumes the greater amount-80 percent of the heroin and cocaine in use, according to one report.
These unfortunate people may not respond to "treatment," i.e., therapy, but treatment and not prison is what they need. The remainder are people who generally mind their own business and do not intrude on anybody else. There is no reason for them to be in prison either. The fact is, nobody belongs in prison for a violation of today's drug laws.
Besides unjust imprisonment, conditions in America's prisons are notoriously bad. A Swedish government commission compared and rated prison conditions in industrial countries. I remember the word so well. Conditions in America's prisons were rated the most "barbarous" in the industrialized world.
Take health. Incarceration in an American prison can amount to a death sentence. Medical conditions are hopelessly bad. Talk to a prisoner, ask the right questions, and you will hear something like this: FCI Tallahassee, a federal prison, at last count had one physician (M.D.) on the payroll. The population of imprisoned individuals in FCI Tallahassee fluctuates around 2000. Imagine how easy it is to see a doctor (I mean doctor, not doctor's assistant). A short time ago there were two doctors, but one left. He left because so many restraints were placed on what he did that he could not practice medicine properly. Next time you think of a man or woman in prison for a drug law violation, think of that. Would you like to compete with 2000 others for the attention of one doctor-and one who by inference does not practice medicine properly? If that's not right for you, what makes it right for a prisoner? Obviously, nothing.
The Drug War is wrong for many reasons, but let me mention one more. It is children. I read that one school-age person out of nine in the US today has a parent who is a prisoner of the Drug War, or two parents who are Drug War prisoners. A fool could predict that many of these young people will grow up to become adults who harbor deep anxiety and feelings of resentment for the country that has done this injury to them. If this isn't a disaster on the tragic scale, think of the picture in a few years' time, when the figure is one in five school-agers traumatized by parental Drug War incarceration, or one in four.
I must stop here, or the column will get to be too long. A column has to be pithy, or it won't fit the description. Wait till the next issue of the November Coalition's News and join me in talking about the Drug War then.