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Editorial: Poverty and the Drug Laws

David Borden, Executive Director
David Borden
Any given week in the drug war, scanning the news about it will reveal a veritable snowstorm of drug war outrages and calamities. Most of them we don't even report about here in Drug War Chronicle, because they're just too commonplace, and we'd need an army of reporters instead just the one we have. But even just looking here, in any given week, it is vividly clear just how many different directions and in how many different ways the drug laws howl against us:

As we fight against the drug war's many currents, it's also important to look to our roots, the basic wrongs, the awful tragedies, that are inherent in drug prohibition itself. One of those tragedies, one which played significantly in my own choice of cause, is the worsening and the sustaining of urban poverty.

The drug laws keep urban neighborhoods in poverty in two particular ways. One is the violence and the disorder that prohibition causes. As alcohol prohibition last century fed the Mafia, today's drug prohibition laws create a large and ever-present underground market. Because people who are breaking the law can't go to the police to complain when other lawbreakers violate their rights, disputes instead are governed by violence or the threat of it. And because they are already criminals, drug selling organizations, instead of advertising, may willingly resort to violence to increase their share of the market instead. Hence the drive-by shootings, the assassinations from deals gone bad, etc. Even when outright violence doesn't break out, illegal drug transactions, whether on the open street, in a hallway or a schoolyard, affect the climate of life and create a sense of disorder. This creates danger for bystanders, drives away legitimate business, and generally makes life hard.

The second most serious way in which our drug laws contribute to poverty, at least in their current form of enforcement, is the mass criminalization -- arrest, incarceration, criminal records -- that has been thrust through intensive policing upon certain groups of people. Research by the Sentencing Project, for example, has found that on any given day, as many as one in three young black males are under some form of correctional control -- prison, jail, probation or parole. This number is not entirely for drug offenses, of course, but as the Sentencing Project has made the case for, the "war on drugs" has been the driving force in a growth in incarceration in this country going far beyond any historical precedent.

The simplistic "if you break the law, you should be punished" argument pales when set beside the massive shredding of community and family ties produced by this malignantly careening government program; or the training for crime these young people get when imprisoned; or the temptation for so many to take the opportunity when offered to make money now and be part of something that sounds more interesting than the typical legal job that's available to them. Plus what happens, even to those who didn't have to do jail time, when their criminal records show up on a potential employer's computer screen? We hear from people facing this situation all the time, and it is a major national problem. Even mere arrest records can show up and thwart someone's best efforts to go the straight and narrow route. What are some of them going to do then? We know the program doesn't work either -- the drugs are still here, after all, and in force.

In a realistic worldview, substance abuse would be viewed as an expected part of the human condition for some people, an issue with which society would seek the best ways to live with, rather than suppress and "fight" through the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the visible agonies of those struggling with addiction, and of those whose actions they most deeply affect, have prevented a widespread understanding from dawning of the vice grip the drug laws exert in fueling poverty, and the obstacles they place in the way of efforts to address it.

By looking back to our intellectual roots, it is clear that this message is one that must be repeated over and over until it is heard by the many and sinks in. When that happens, legalization will be seen as the wiser course, and new hopes built upon solid foundations will emerge.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Welcome to the success of Jim Crow

I have always been disappointed in the reform movement for not seeing both the economic oppression and its root electoral subversion inherent in the war on drugs. From the day Richard Nixon, in collusion with the Dixie-crats in congress, declared the modern war on drugs its purpose was to economically destabilize already poor and mostly minority communities while providing a pretext for continuing the criminal disenfranchisement for trumped up morals(drugs) laws that was so much a part of the preceding hundred years of Jim Crow laws.

Fighting the drug war, for me, has always been about fighting for civil rights in America.

Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU and now a leader at the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote a cogent piece about this last year in The Nation. Excerpt and links at my blog: Drug Busts=Jim Crow

Aside from the direct loses that poor people suffer from increased crime victimization there is the long term under-handed economic warfare of leaving hundreds of billions in illegal dollars sloshing about on the street enticing under-educated and poverty oppressed children into crime, drugs and disease.

We expect children to "just say no" to the bling, bucks, buzz and power of the drug economy when even the head of NIDA says that that is contrary to human physiology.

Scientist probes teen brains for addiction clues
U.S. anti-drug chief says daring kids to keep off drugs may backfire

WASHINGTON - Call it the science of peer pressure. When teenagers fail to just say no to drugs, Dr. Nora Volkow blames their brains, not their willpower — they lack links between some crucial brain regions that won't fully form until they're adults.

Age matters a lot when it comes to drug abuse. It's an evolving view of addiction that Volkow brings as head of the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse. MSNBC/AP

The government knows that it is sending poor children through the gauntlet of their formative years, addict dealers and gangsters on one side, police, prisons and the threat of mandatory minimums of anal rape tough love on the other and they must overcome their own physical immaturity in the face of all of this without much of any other help.

Jim Crow's enabler

Dear Anonymous,
Well said. Allow me to add that we're bombarded by daily TV advertising with the message there's a drug solution to every discomfort or problem that life brings us. One one's convinced of that then to him or her it becomes which drug works.
Cocaine in Coke-a/cola was replaced by caffeine; now even Snickers candy bars are being advertised as a "pick-me-up" by adding caffeine.

Keep up tho good work.

this is not a comment, it's a question.

Does anyone know what's happening up north with East Vancouvers Safe-injection Site ???

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