In the bad old days just a few decades ago, much of the South was still "dry." You couldn't buy a legal beer or cocktail in many counties. With time, people started going to the polls to vote alcohol in and you often saw an unholy alliance of preachers and bootleggers working together — at least informally — to defeat the measure and keep alcohol illegal.
America has been involved in a "war on drugs" since 1970. In that time, we have spent more than a trillion dollars kicking down doors and incarcerating millions of fellow citizens. Our streets have been turned into shooting galleries in the gang wars fueled by the illicit drug trade.
Yet whenever a voice is raised in the name of decriminalizing any drug, we find a new unholy alliance of politicians and cops, in league to keep drugs illegal.
Fear is the politician's most powerful weapon and drugs are a favorite demon to keep the sheep packed together and moving in the right direction. (Communism and terror are a couple of others.) Promising to clean up drugs has kept many a politician in office who had no other qualification to be there. I can think of a couple of people on Charleston City Council who fit that description.
As for cops, they have received billions of dollars over the years in federal war-on-drugs money, for special equipment, training, personnel, etc. To earn these federal goodies, they have to prove that they are on the front line of that war and are winning victories.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Reagan Administration intensified the war on drugs. Nancy Reagan was running around telling school children to "Just Say No" to drugs, without having a clue why they were saying "yes." The Justice Department was calling for longer sentences for drug offenses and doling out money to local law enforcement agencies.
I was writing for The State newspaper in Columbia and had a front row seat to the tragicomedy that was unfolding. Local police departments went on a crusade to "clean up" their respective towns. They put together major drug raids and then announced the arrest of 15, 20, 25 suspects at a time, all of whose names were released and printed in the newspaper, along with their ages and addresses. Of course, the vast majority of these "suspects" were suspected of doing nothing more than using small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. Police departments were in a PR campaign — and competition — to win more anti-drug money from the feds. In the meantime, they were ruining lives, violating civil liberties on a massive scale, and filling up the courts and jails with poor bastards who had hurt no one except — arguably — themselves.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the war on drugs is being used as a policy weapon against blacks. Whites represent more than 70 percent of illicit drug users in America, yet they are fewer than 20 percent of the drug war prisoners. Blacks are barely 11 percent of illicit drug users, yet they are more than 50 percent of the drug war prisoners. In many states, a criminal conviction can disenfranchise a citizen for life. In Florida, in 2000, Republicans were able to take the vote away from enough blacks to swing that state into the GOP column and give the White House to George W. Bush.
I was reminded of all of this last week when I attended a meeting of South Carolinians for Drug Law Reform at Charleston County Public Library. They showed a very informative video by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of retired cops who have seen first-hand the waste and destruction of America's war on drugs. And they came loaded with facts and statistics, charts and graphs:
• The State of South Carolina officially recognized the medical value of marijuana in 1980.
• Marijuana provides effective relief to people suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and other diseases.
• Three out of four doctors and nine out of 10 nurses and 80 percent of the American people believe that marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes.
• Eleven states already have adopted medical marijuana laws.
Perhaps it is a measure of how far our democracy has already eroded, but drug law reform does not even appear to be on the public agenda and as long as the right-wing Christers remain in power, America will not have an open debate on drug policy. To drive home the public apathy and ignorance, there were seven citizens in attendance last week in the large conference room at CCPL. The room should have been full.
To learn more, go to www.scdruglawreform.org.