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Drug War Talk

by Dr. John Beresford


Why do some people feel uncomfortable at the thought of talking about the War on Drugs? Probably because there are more pleasant things to talk about. Possibly because of an unreasonable fear that talking about the War on Drugs will put one in the spotlight, single one out for questioning by the police, or cause one's name to be entered on a back room database. Perhaps through fear of ostracism: talking about drugs in a frame of reference that leaves out words like "addict" and "narcotics" is like violating a powerful taboo. For example, don't expect a job with the Department of Justice if you are happy with the idea of medical marijuana, or don't think the idea of a "drug exception" to the Bill of Rights is a good one.

People with a professional obligation to speak out on the War on Drugs tend to do so with an eye to politeness. Terms of a debate are set that are not likely to give offense. The aim is to sound reasonable, if at times mildly challenging, to guide debate in a direction that does not risk getting out of hand.

One answer is to harp on the cost. The Drug War is expensive. So much per annum for housing a Drug War prisoner. The federal government give a figure of $30,000. Some state figures are closer to $20,000. Take an average, make it $25,000 to house a Drug War prisoner for a year. Multiply this by the number of Drug War prisoners. Talk in the billions. Add court costs per case that goes to trial. Continue in this vein, but don't be surprised if the person you are lecturing complains that the room is starting to get too hot. People have a low tolerance for statistics. They don't like lectures either. You won't have trouble getting people to agree that the Drug War costs too much. They will agree readily, to get you off their back. You have "hit them in their pocketbook" all right, but this is as far as the conversation will go.

The Drug War is a "failure." It can't be "won," or it has already been "lost." But if the Drug War can't be won, then why is the government pouring billions into it? You say that with all these billions spent, still the price of drugs has not gone down. (This is meant to show that the supply is as plentiful as ever.) But, you may hear, at least they have got all these pushers off the street. And besides, is there not something murky about saying that a war America has taken on can't be won?

The cost and fighting an unwinnable war are side issues. People agree or disagree on the polite questions. Either way, they do not get steamed up. Drug War information officers and their partners in the press help to dampen controversy. The L.A. Times reports that the rate of increase of the US prison population - that it is fueled by the Drug War the paper does not mention -slowed down last year compared with the year before. More people were still shoveled into prison than the year before, only the expected speed-up slackened. The Times reader could hardly care less.

Touch people's hearts, however, and you get a quick response. Talk about this man or this woman whose face you know from photos, whose story you know from the letters you have received, letters you can never throw away. Tell the story of the tribulation this someone has been through, the nothing-to-it crime and the enormous, tragic consequences. Pretty soon your hearer is swept up by emotion. They did this to this person? It can't be true. It "can't be," but it is.

That ordinary, decent Americans are subject to the barbaric treatment that is the norm for Drug War operations is so shocking to the ordinary, decent American who has not met this fate, that the heart is touched no matter how ineffectual you think your speaking is. You don't need to be a brilliant speaker. Be nervous, it's natural. Tell one person about one POW and you do more than quoting from a hundred books and articles can do. It is not conveying information but telling a story that gets your listener on your side.

The dagger that strikes swiftest at the Drug War is the dagger of injustice. People know what justice is, and the difference between justice and injustice. Picture a child. Do something unfair to the child, and you hear about it. The child knows that you have been unjust. The sense of justice is inborn. We could not function as a social species if it were not.

The Drug War is unjust. There is no need to go further than to tell people about the injustice suffered by the prisoners of the War on Drugs. No rationalization justifies what America is doing to people and their families in the name of fighting drugs.

Last issue I suggested that the more people talk about the War on Drugs, the sooner it will be over. I should have said that the more people talk about the prisoners of the War on Drugs, the sooner the war will shut down, prisons empty, and calm return to the land.

Next issue: "Why does it have to be me that does the talking?"

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