"The Drug War has arguably been the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy since slavery." —Norm Stamper, Retired Chief of Police, Seattle
In the long history of human folly and futility, America's War on Drugs has surely earned a special place of honor.
Not satisfied that America was fighting a no-win war in Vietnam, in 1971 President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, creating the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention. Nearly 40 years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, we are still fighting that war, with no end in sight. And the casualties keep piling up. The first, of course, was truth, as Aeschylus reminded us long ago. Other casualties have been our civil liberties and our trust in our government and leaders.
Another casualty came to my attention recently when I opened my e-mail to find a message from Skip Johnson, announcing that South Carolinians for Drug Law Reform was shutting down.
Johnson is a retired newspaperman, so he loves a good fight and he knows a few things about tilting at windmills. "My hero is Don Quixote and my saint is St. Jude," he said last week with a wry chuckle.
He and Sharon Fratepietro organized SCDLR in Charleston four years ago — though that may be overstating it. There was never any membership roll or dues. Meetings were somewhat irregular.
"The problem was that people didn't want to put their name on a list as being a member," Johnson said. "They said, 'What if my boss finds out? What if my wife finds out?' That's the kind of fear we were dealing with."
SCDLR may be out of business, but Johnson's still hard at work. He can cite dates, names, and statistics in his soliloquy against America's disastrous drug policies.
"The first thing you need to understand," he said, "is that the drug war is a war against black people. Black people are 13 percent of the nation's population, but they represent approximately 25 percent of all drug arrests, 50 percent of all drug convictions, and 75 percent of all drug incarcerations."
States with large black populations have used drug laws to control and disenfranchise their black populations, Johnson said. "Look at what happened in Florida in 2000. More than 20,000 black people in Florida were disenfranchised from voting because of drug convictions, most of them for possession and distribution of marijuana. These 20,000 nonviolent citizens were denied the right to vote. If they had been allowed to vote, George Bush would not have carried Florida and would not be president today ... That's how the drug laws are used in this country."
The War on Drugs has spawned a huge prison-industrial complex, Johnson said. Companies that build and run prisons lobby for longer sentences and support legislators who support their agenda. It is a vicious cycle that corrupts the democratic process, enriches a special interest industry with public money, and incarcerates millions of non-violent people in this country. Today, Charleston County is preparing to spend millions of dollars on a new jail to house its burgeoning inmate population. Johnson believes that the jail will be overcrowded on the day it opens.
America calls itself the Land of the Free, yet its drug laws have made this country the largest jailer in the world. At the end of 2006, 7 million people — one in every 32 U.S. adults — were behind bars, on probation or on parole, according to the Justice Department. Of that total, 2.2 million were incarcerated. About half of those inmates were serving time on drug-related charges. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million behind bars, though China has over four times the population of the U.S.
Conservatives wail that Americans are surrendering our freedom to economic and environmental regulation. Yet, I have rarely heard them complain about the War on Drugs, about the doors that are kicked down, the citizens harassed and arrested, the property seized, the constitutional protections infringed in the name of protecting us from drugs.
Johnson does not regret his battle for enlightened drug laws in South Carolina. He still speaks at civic clubs and has spoken out against building the new county jail. He testified before state Senate subcommittees in favor of a needle exchange program and medical marijuana. Of course, our beloved state has neither today and is not likely to in the near future.
Ultimately, the solution to the "drug problem" is to legalize them all and control their sale and use, as we do tobacco and alcohol, Johnson said. That will take the profit out of drugs and with it the romance of the "gangsta" culture.
"Prohibition is the problem," he said. "It didn't work with alcohol, and it is not working today. I don't know why people can't see the logic of it."