David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 6/28/02
Back in the summer of 1986, I had the luxury and privilege of studying at the Aspen Music School in Colorado. Famously idyllic, crime is a very rare occurrence in Aspen. People walk the town at any hour without fear of attack; and while it's easy to spend much more money than you intended, it's extremely unlikely that your money will get taken from you by force. It's pretty hard to find a more peaceful place.
But the town's off-season calm had in fact been violated a few months before, and people were still talking about it by the time I arrived in mid-June. Aspen, in spring 1986, had been the scene of a car-bombing, an Aspen resident and reputed cocaine trafficker the victim. Drug prohibition's violence had invaded the otherwise safe and peaceful Colorado mountain cultural center, ski mecca and party town.
I wish I could say that this was the event which sparked my interest and involvement in the anti-prohibition movement. But I was in college, I hadn't learned much about the issue, and as a 20-year old was pleasantly cocooned within a beautiful college campus, with a little knowledge of what was going on in the world, but not enough to be aware of developments in the drug scene.
It would have been a good year to be paying attention. 1986 saw crack cocaine use reach serious proportions, with the resulting violence and chaos of the inner city crack trade taking a devastating toll on our inner cities. Equally devastating, Congress passed terrible mandatory minimum legislation, subjecting large numbers of low-level drug users or drug trade participants to years, often decades in prison for first-time, nonviolent offenses -- not even holding a hearing to discuss whether their draconian new sentences were a good idea.
The next several years saw drug use decrease but violence continue to go up. The combination of the large numbers of transactions in the crack trade (crack is a short acting drug whose users often purchase it several times a day), combined with Congress' harsh new laws aimed at adults, caused large numbers of minors to be recruited into drug selling and ensured they would be dangerously armed. Guns and violence become the norm among certain sectors of American youth, and the trend spread out to others.
By the time I got involved in drug war politics in late 1993, violence had finally begun to decrease and drug use had begun to go up. Crime continued to drop through much of the 1990s, providing political fodder for "touch on crime" politicians like New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani who were quick to take credit for it. Many cities across the country saw drops in crime, though, some of them comparable to New York's, with very different policing policies in place. Most serious observers of criminal justice saw the national drop in crime primarily resulting from a smaller youth population (most violent crime is committed by the young) and by the relative stabilization of the drug trade and consequent reduction in the number of "turf" battles.
The obvious question, then, is what will happen when the youth population again begins to increase? If the drop in crime was the result of a smaller number of youth, does that mean that more young people, absent fundamental changes in the social and economic forces at work, will mean more crime?
New data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports brings these questions into focus: Crime, including violence, has again begun to rise. It isn't known yet whether this is a bump on the way to further drops in violence, or the prelude of a new crime wave. A sustained rise in violence as transpired during the first part of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton drug war would affect all Americans, but the poorest most of all. Only time will tell, but this may be the future that our country has in store, if we continue our current course and wage the drug war full force into the 21st century.
It would be far, far better to end the drug prohibition policy that directly or indirectly drives so much of the violence our nation faces. After Alcohol Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the homicide rate dropped by half over a period of several years. But decades of escalating drug war have taken the violence to levels far beyond that experienced during that earlier Prohibition. Leaving drug prohibition intact (it had been enacted federally via the Harrison Act in 1914) was a major policy error on the part of our government, from which our country suffers deeply.
We can have a safer society, if we turn away from the foolish course on which we embarked so long ago. Absent such wisdom, violence and the specter of more will always loom large and dark, fear of it clouding our thoughts and our souls.