The Drug War Morass
Several years ago, the king of Sweden in his far off corner of the world, while reading about America's war on drugs, marveled that a country could be so profligate in the disenfranchising of so much of its citizenry. He was aghast that a nation could embark on such an expensive, destructive campaign. His European brethren unanimously agreed.
At the time of this writing, there are over one hundred and fifteen thousand federal prisoners languishing in federal prisons. Thousands more are languishing in county jails throughout the country awaiting beds or cots to become available in prisons.
The new federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, was filled with 1,500 inmates within thirty days. Rumor has it that there are nearly 200,000 federal indictments pending action. The drug war is a dark comedy: here we are, an allegedly sophisticated, modern, technologically advanced nation nevertheless writhing in the throes of denial of human nature. We are trapped by propaganda and outright ignorance and wage war on a consensual target that cannot be transfixed, one that has the identical contractual mechanics of capitalism itself: one buys from a seller or sells to a buyer. In the allegedly criminal context, look up prostitution for parallel and remember how successful mankind has been at removing it.
Unlike our logical, intuitive European cousins, who are increasingly critical about American postulation over the drug issue, we are tightly locked into acute rejection over the all too human proclivity to alter one's state of mind via drugs-with the glaring exception of alcohol and the very treasured legal pharmacopoeia.
People in America use substances to alter their consciousness. Five percent of the people abuse substances. Five percent before the drug war and five percent in the frenzy of it. Why not accept these realities and deal with them face to face rather than pursuing this mindless status quo where any use is abuse and, parallel to drug damage, we endure drug war damage as well, the greater overall threat by far?
Look at the over-stressed criminal justice system, the eroded Bill of Rights and the spread of gang related violence and influence. The fact is that lots of people enjoy their illicit substances and this is why they will not be eradicated, short of turning this country into a fundamentalist state. Of this group, most even use them with little ill effect, just as the martini for lunch crowd gets along with alcohol. Why not shift drug war funding into addiction research? There are indications that we may be only an injection or a pill away from reducing whatever problematical craving that signals the brain.
And who were the masterminds that defined current policy anyway? Why, it reads like a jester's roll call: Richard M. Nixon and his advisor John Erhlichman who stated that drug suppression was a "sexy" campaign issue; Jessie Helms of North Carolina who will always beat the illicit drug drum while simultaneously representing Big Tobacco. Then we have everyone's moral guardians, Mr. William Bennett and Robert Reed; people like ex-L.A. Police Chief Darryl Gates and Newt Gingrich would simply shoot your son or daughter for having illicit drugs. It was Ronald Reagan and George Bush who muscled tobacco products into the Pacific Rim countries and Japan and then into China itself. Mega sales yes: but with a terrible cost in human lives, and all this was advanced by the Just Say No bunch, cynicism beyond all belief. It is a dismal litany of slick politicians and hangers on who have used hyperbole and scare tactics to foist upon us this phony morality play called the "War on Drugs."
Yet this country would do well to step back and ponder what it has done and is doing. Fueled by drug war fever, Congress fashioned the 1987 U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, a rigid and overly severe sentencing formula that removed discretion from judges and handed it carte blanche to prosecutors. Federal prosecutors, many just out of law school, others with political ambitions and still others who are simply deadwood, are not fit nor meant to possess so much power in the sentencing scheme and this has been glaringly proved now that we are ten years into the "new law" with injustices heaped one atop the next ad nauseam. Prison populations across the country have quadrupled and are rising exponentially even though crime is down overall: the federal government must now in effect build an FCI every two weeks to keep pace. The state of California spends 8.5% of its total revenue on its Department of Corrections!
Punishment for consensual crime - a term which dubiously supposes that consensual activity is criminal - has been inverted over other kinds of crime, even truly violent crime. This foolishness only costs, with little or no real benefit to society. Mass arrests result in mass destruction of families. Generally within two years of incarceration 90% of marriages fail. If children are involved they often become casualties on the battleground of divorce.
The prisoner is at great disadvantage and resentment over an unfair sentence is quickly compounded by domestic defeats which come in battalions: any assets not seized by the government are usually seized by the wife or husband: houses, vehicles, real property, the works. The ex-spouse totally controls visitation -if any - and contact with children becomes arbitrary and even whimsical. Children grow up rapidly and two or three years is crucial; four or five is devastating. Millions of children are growing up or have grown up during weekends in prison visiting rooms. In the rage to punish, these kinds of extractions are rarely pondered upon by those who clamor so loudly for retribution: parents grow sick and old and die, ex-wives remarry and move away; children graduate from grade school, high school, college. Everything in life telescopes farther and farther away from the inmate. He or she becomes an abstraction, a shade, a life reduced to a series of badly done prison visiting room photographs or a dusty album in a box somewhere. Only next to death itself are people rendered so immaterial.
Resentment grows in proportion to the injustice, the irony being that while calls for decriminalizing certain drugs increase, decades of punishment for drug law transgressors are meted out over and again, day in, day out.
It is said that the only true revolutionary is one who has nothing to lose. If this is so, we submit that the U.S., in addition to being the most prolific law factory on Earth, is also maker of potential revolutionaries by the legions. What is left to all these people, veritable millions of men and women, when the government has taken their careers and jobs by arrest, their assets and homes by forfeiture and the vital years of their lives by the unceasing degradation of imprisonment? What is such a person to do when, after serving ten to thirty years, he walks out of prison with no family and no support system of any kind, nothing but a felony record to further handicap his already dim employment prospects? Why is it that Americans are so surprised at the rate of recidivism in this country?
Ours is a government of quixotic moral stances. It fought a war in the name of Big Oil but then refused to admit its troops might have been infected with biological agents it sold to Saddam Hussein (for profit, of course). While veterans suffer, just as they did cover Agent Orange after Vietnam, false denials run the gamut of front pages in government friendly newspapers. When the G.A.O. report verified the cover-ups, the story consisted of a paragraph on page four of the B section. This government has lost its claim to be anyone's moral paragon, and what sort of government is it that insists it shall be done the conservative, "moral majority" way, or prison as the alternative?
The extent that this has happened is apparent, and it continues unchecked. Politicians with personal agendas are criminalizing everything they do not like and make laws to harvest votes. This country has lost contact with what America was founded upon in the first place, and of what humanity is itself. Being human is not just about following endlessly churned out rules and regulations, but about liberty: freedom of choice and experience, to do or not do as you choose as long as it doesn't trespass upon another's rights. In the U.S. today, and perhaps more than any country of Earth, the natural rights of man are being made null and void by legislation and imprisonment. But this conservative intolerance comes with a steep price tag: in lost rights, massive social damage, enormous fiscal expenditure and potential problems yet not seen. How long before the word war becomes the sword with two edges?