In Pompano Beach, Florida this week, a dozen kids ranging in age from four to eleven were brought to the attention of local law enforcement for playing a pretend game that they call "dope dealer." The game, it seems, is simple, with youngsters trading leaves, which represent money, for plastic baggies containing pretend "drugs." "We play dope dealer all the time," a seven year-old later said, "And tag."
Even the worst excesses of the drug war are justified, again and again, as vital, lest we "send the wrong message to our children." Perversely, however, the drug war and the black market that it creates not only puts the drugs and the drug trade within easy reach of our kids, but also creates a culture of prohibition that inundates their lives.
For the twelve kids from Pompano Beach, the drug trade is no abstraction. Two homes on their block stand boarded as ex- crack houses. One can be sure that a large number of the older teens in their neighborhood, and certainly those who drive nice cars and wear expensive jewelry--in other words, the obvious role models--are involved to one degree or another in "the business."
And the culture of prohibition does not stop at the outer edges of crack-infested neighborhoods. For it is from these communities, poor urban as well as suburban areas, that America's youth culture originates. Rap music that reinforces the "Us vs. Them" nature of relations with the police, the baggy pants and homemade tattoos apropos of prison life, and the cultivated fear that passes for respect on the streets have all found their way into the youth mainstream. The fact is that the music, clothes and language of America's youth all have their origins in the ghetto -- just ask any marketing executive for Nike or Sony Records -- and the experiences of the kids from those communities are dominated by prohibition and its attendant economies.
Children, all children, internalize what they see around them. This might come as a surprise to politicians who think that kids take their cues from whether or not the President inhaled or how many mandatory minimum sentencing bills are passed, but it's true. Prohibition creates markets, which create entrepreneurs, who accumulate wealth, and they do so in open defiance of both the laws of the land and those whom we pay to enforce them. And despite the best intentions of those who want nothing more than to save the children by making prohibition work, the kids, large numbers of them anyway, will always be more heavily influenced by the actions and lifestyles of their direct elders--their siblings and cousins and neighbors -- than they will be by the admonitions of well-meaning adults.
Today, in Pompano Beach, Florida, and doubtless in communities across the nation, kids between the ages of four and eleven are playing "dope dealer." They are, as kids will do, absorbing the culture that they are exposed to. They are, it is safe to assume, not unlike their grandparents or great-grandparents, who probably played at being Al Capone or one of the other Prohibition-era gangsters. What is surprising is that we as a society insist upon fueling this destructive culture in the face of overwhelming evidence that prohibition is doomed to fail.
Our leaders tell us over and over again that they are sending a message to our children, and they are right. But the message is one of lawlessness and conflict and the normalization of violence. It is a message that is reinforced every time that we reaffirm our commitment to prosecuting a failed drug war. It is the message of the culture of prohibition, and it has come through loud and clear. Just ask the Pompano Beach twelve.
Adam J. Smith