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Rolling back the tide

By Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, DRCNet

There comes a time in every wrongheaded crusade that a critical mass of opposition is reached. Excesses that just moments earlier were celebrated are suddenly crass, the "all-clear" sign is taken down, and cries of "full-speed ahead" are widely recognized not as leadership, but as zealotry. It is a time of redemption for those who had already been bucking the tide, a time when their ranks are joined by people who give credibility to their lunacy and justification to their efforts.

This is such a time.

In March, Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), himself a long-time drug war hawk, held a press conference. Flanked by a dozen of his colleagues as well as representatives of numerous justice organizations, he announced his intention to eviscerate the system of mandatory minimum sentencing at the federal level. Rangel, who is not the type to tilt at windmills, is starting with a bill that will remove first-time crack offenders from the mandatory minimum requirement, and will narrow the sentencing gap between powder and crack cocaine by raising the level at which crack possession merits a five-year prison term.

Rangel also added his name as a cosponsor of H.R. 1053, Barney Frank's bill which will repeal a provision of the Higher Education Act of 1998 stripping drug offenders of eligibility for federal education aid.
It begins like this. For the first time in more than two decades, there are serious efforts afoot to roll back drug war legislation. That the names of the people who are joining the effort are surprising is testament to the fact that there has been a monumental shift in the political zeitgeist. The drug war, so recently regarded as sacrosanct, is beginning to look extremely vulnerable.

A couple of hundred miles north of the nation's capital, in New York City, the crowds of people getting arrested in front of One Police Plaza grow larger by the day. Al Sharpton was first, but he has since been joined by ex-mayor David Dinkins, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a group of Rabbis, social workers, city council members and others. They are protesting police brutality and seemingly random searches of people of color. And while the drug war itself has not been attacked by the protesters, there is no way around the fact that it is the drug war in which everyone-in certain neighborhoods-is considered a suspect, and law enforcement is asked to do the impossible, that leads to such abuses.

On March 13, even the venerable New York Times editorialized against the drug war. It is now no longer radical to question the status quo. From this day forward, it will no longer be possible to effectively neutralize the voices of reform by calling them "pro-drug" or by intimating that any excess is justifiable in the name of "sending a message to our children." Because, as it turns out, "our children" was never meant to mean everyone's children. And the people whose children are being harmed, and killed, and incarcerated for terms of years and decades, are coming out of the woodwork, and setting their feet, and joining in the task of turning back the tide.

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