The word “war” is often utilized to push people into fighting for a collective goal or against a common enemy. There are classic military conflicts like the Civil War and World War II, and there are the ideological fights like the “War on Poverty” launched by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But what happens when a war is waged against a faceless and intangible enemy? Host Melissa Harris-Perry asked her Sunday panel whether it is time to re-focus and rename the “War on Drugs.” As Eugene Jarecki, director of the documentary The House I Live In, put it, “It hasn’t achieved anything. It’s achieved catastrophe.”
In the 42 years since President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the consequences have outweighed the gains. According to the ACLU, of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, 25% of them imprisoned for drug offenses. There’s a reason why these incarceration rates are so high, according to Kathleen Frydl, author of The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973. “Our incarceration rates reflect the artifacts of our enforcement strategies,” said Frydl on the show.
There is an ethnic divide when it comes to drug arrests. Thirty-eight percent of those arrested for drug offenses are African-Americans, and they spend almost as much time in prison for those drug offenses as white criminals do for violent offenses.
The extent of the consequences from this ethnic divide are devastating. “Blacks get criminalized and the problem then becomes, they become unemployable, their families are destroyed, their children are no longer ready for education, AIDS rates go up,” said former Baltimore circuit court judge William “Billy” Murphy. Murphy said this problem does not extend to whites in the same way. “Whites have to be stupid to get arrested for drugs in America.”
Is anyone benefiting from the decimation of communities of color from the “War on Drugs”? Reason editor-in-chief Matt Welch said, “There are institutions that have been built up over the last 4o years, and even beyond 40 years. And those institutions don’t want this thing to end because it’s kind of a gravy train for a lot of people.” In the United States private prisons mean big bucks, with around 18 corporations guarding 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. While there might be a big boon for companies in the prison industrial complex, the cost to taxpayers has skyrocketed. Annually, taxpayers fork over $70 billion dollars which is spent on both corrections and incarceration.
The 2013 policy put out by the Office of National Drug Policy two weeks ago seems to focus more on science/addiction, but there’s the fine print. The policy reads, “We have re-balanced national drug control policy to reflect the complexity of drug use as both a public and health and public safety issue, dedicating more than $10.5 billion to prevention and treatment, compared to $9.6 billion for domestic law enforcement.”
Regardless of the new focus, during his Friday speech in Mexico President Obama was clear on where he stands regarding legalization. “I honestly do not believe legalizing drugs is the answer.” The president went on to say, “But I do believe that a comprehensive approach, not just law enforcement, but education, prevention and treatment.”
But is that a “new” approach? Not according to Kathleen Frydl, author of “The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973.” “The language and the framework that President Obama is putting forward in this document is eerily similar,” Frydl said. “In fact, in some ways it’s the exact same language as the Kennedy commission in 1963 put forward when John Kennedy was looking for a whole new approach to drugs.”
Frydl’s harkening back to Kennedy on this issue is on point, and can actually go one step further. This is especially the case when the “War on Drugs” was preceded by Prohibition. The failure of Prohibition resulted in rampant corruption and the criminalization of millions. The language may have changed from “Prohibition” to the “War on Drugs” but the results have been the same.
“It’s prohibition that’s causing the problem and if we don’t end prohibition we’re going to have this problem over and over, year by year by year,” said Judge Murphy. “And to make matters worse, all of the institutions that are charged with enforcing prohibition are now addicted to the war on drugs.”