Colville's Crusade

The November Coalition's war on the drug war is getting national attention

By Mark Harrison, TNC Contributing Writer

THE CITY OF Colville, Washington made Newsweek magazine in February by virtue of the November Coalition's nationwide crusade against current U.S. drug war policies. As one of Colville's largest non-profit organizations, the Coalition is a dominant national voice decrying current drug policies as ineffective, deceptive, and unusually cruel. When sentences for marijuana possession are harsher than those for rape, child molestation, and in some cases murder, there is something suspiciously despotic with these particular laws.

The United States locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation on earth. We have just sent the theoretical two-millionth person to jail last February, which was the occasion for the Newsweek article, "Locked Away and Forgotten." Out of every ten prisoners in the federal correctional system, six are non-violent drug offenders. The policy of warehousing drug violators has resulted in prison overcrowding, forcing the premature release of violent offenders who often repeat their crimes against society.

Drug offenders are not going to be "rehabilitated" or "corrected" when a clear majority of their cellmates are unrehabilitated drug users. Unusually long prison terms are handed out because of mandatory sentencing legislation, such as the three-strikes law. Getting caught smoking marijuana for the third time can bring a life sentence, while raping once can bring just ten years. And after thirty years of harsh sentences mandated by our war on drugs, drugs are more available than ever-even in prison.

Drug abuse is a health problem, but our policies require it be treated criminally. In the Netherlands, where a strong public health approach is taken for drug use, the incarceration rate is just 11% of the United States.

Additionally, 32% of the people in the U.S. have tried marijuana, compared to only 15% of Dutch people. And while ten percent in the U.S. have used cocaine, only two percent have tried it in the Netherlands. The subhead in the Newsweek article affirmed one problem with our war on drugs: We're going to have to face it-the prison system doesn't work.

Citizens of the United States will continue to consume billions of dollars in illegal drugs each year as long as we choose to spend our money that way; yet, our government has been providing military aid to South American countries for the past thirty years in an attempt to eradicate drugs at their source. A recent survey of high school students found that 90% can acquire marijuana easier than beer, and that it is easier to obtain heroin and cocaine than prescription drugs. Somebody is not paying attention to the facts-or doesn't want to.

The Clinton administration proposed an increased aid package to Colombia of $1.6 billion. The logic is, if military aid doesn't solve the drug problem in this country, then certainly more military aid will. This is how current policy reasons away our money that could be spent on effective prevention and treatment programs. Instead, the United Staes has been drawn into a vicious civil war in Colombia that has been raging for over thirty years. Drug czar General McCaffrey admitted last July that it is impossible to differentiate between anti-drug efforts and the war against insurgent groups. In other words, the United States military is not exactly sure who is shooting whom with U.S. artillery-paramilitary factions, narco-guerillas, anti-narcoterrorist death squads, coca growing peasants, indigenous groups caught in the crossfire, priests, nuns and human rights workers-but we do know U.S. presence is important to Exxon, Texaco, Conoco, Standard Oil, Arco, and other oil companies who have a stake in these drug producing countries. Could there be another U.S. motive for granting Colombia our third largest military aid package?

The stated objective in attempting to eliminate drugs at their source through military intervention is to deprive users of their criminal pleasures, and to prevent those who would use for the first time from ever having access. Our policy suggests that if we continue sending helicopters and guns and military technology to every place in the world with a good climate for poppies and marijuana, then eventually we'll be able to stamp out every last plant. But when billions of tax-free dollars are there for the taking, there will always be suppliers. We can count on an abundance of illegal drugs in this country as long as there is a strong demand. Demand is what makes any business successful. There can be an ebullient supply of product, but if nobody cares, business is not so good.

Now that many prisons are privatized, prisoners are big business. And like any enterprise, the more product there is, the greater the profits. There are now "correctional" companies that are competing for entire state penal systems to process and warehouse their prisoners. This has sparked the biggest prison construction boom in history, and Wall Street is delighted. Paine Webber researcher Gary Boston said of these prison companies, "(they are) very powerful performers and have huge potential, even compared to high tech stocks." Since these stockholders and corporations depend on a robust prisoner market for viability, policy makers are influenced by the lobbying efforts from an industry that relies heavily upon nonviolent drug offenders for their fortunes. With tremendous financial incentives to incarcerate, the draconian consequence is selling our citizens to prison enterprises because rehabilitation is not profitable.

Since the November Coalition began its crusade in 1997, and began publishing the nationally distributed Razor Wire that chronicles the drug issue, public awareness about the inhumane and misguided drug war has increased exponentially. Mainstream media is now publicizing the injustices of America's ineffectual drug policies. ABC's Barbara Walter's office dialed the Colville prefix for resources for a drug policy story that recently aired on the network. Numerous source requests by media giants have contacted Colville's November Coalition, including PBS's Frontline, Playboy Magazine, Newsweek, CBS's 60 Minutes, The Nation Magazine, writers for Glamour, a Geraldo news special, daily newspapers across the country, and many more.

The small town of Colville should be proud to be the home of a nationally influential organization that is winning some major battles against the propagandized war on drugs.

This article ran in several NE Washington publications in June, 2000

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