With all the talk about the debt ceiling, it would be easy to forget that America is enmeshed in military engagements in Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Middle East, not to mention the broader “War on Terror”. There’s a whole lot of war going on, and at least some of us are becoming war weary. Particularly since the killing of Osama Bin Laden, there are increasing calls for us to change course in of Afghanistan for example. Even before Bin Laden’s demise, support for the Afghanistan conflict was eroding. A CNN poll in January found 63% of Americans opposing the war. Some are predicting a resurgence of the anti-war movement as the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks arrives and the war in Afghanistan nears the beginning of its second decade.
For all the weariness with seemingly endless war abroad, the U.S. recently passed a grim milestone of an even longer conflict largely fought at home. Forty years ago, our government declared war, essentially against its own people, and has been fighting ever since at a cost of 2.5 trillion dollars. Referred to during the Nixon administration metaphorically as the “War on Drugs” and literally militarized on a massive scale during the Reagan administration, this policy was recently declared a failure by the Global Commission on Drug Policy:
“The global war on drugs have failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers, and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.”
According to the extraordinary new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, the “devastating consequences” have included the mass incarceration of African Americans and the emergence of a system of racial caste. This racial caste system has been built under the veneer of “law and order”, fueled by the Drug War and literally locks thousands of black folk in a position of racial marginalization. The author, Michelle Alexander, refers to this system as the New Jim Crow. The horror she reveals through page after page of research data, jurisprudence, and personal narratives reminds me of the powerfully imagery of ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921:
“The fires of conflict have blazed so high that never in early times, not in the Middle Ages, not in recent centuries hath there ever been such a hideous war, a war that is even as millstones, taking for grain the skulls of men…Loud are the piercing cries of fatherless children; loud the mothers’ anguished voices, reaching to the skies.”
Alexander argues that nothing short of ending the War on Drugs will be sufficient to dismantle the New Jim Crow. Given the staying power of this policy, this will be no easy task. Thankfully, voices are being raised and forces mobilized for what could be a new kind of “anti-war” movement. Recently, the NAACP passed a resolution calling for an end to the Drug War, specifically citing its negative impact on African Americans. Like past wars, veterans of the Drug War are also speaking out such as the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. As the group’s executive director eloquently put it, “Who ever heard of curing a health problem with handcuffs?”
It’s important to understand that seeking to end the War on Drugs does not require a person to support the recreational use of drugs or alcohol. Such support would be experienced as problematic by many people for spiritual, moral, or even medical reasons. The issue, which the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report makes clear, is what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge of drug use and abuse? Is it spiritual, moral, ethical, or even scientific to continue an approach which 40 years of experience suggests has not achieved its stated aims? Is it spiritual, moral, or ethical to continue a policy which, intentionally or not, perpetuates gross racial inequities? A young veteran of another war poignantly asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” We should ask ourselves, “How can we ask a man or woman to be the last incarcerated for a mistake?”
I believe it is time for a new anti-war movement to emerge in America; a movement to end the War on Drugs. I believe it is time for public health to take precedence over the prison-industrial complex. I believe it is time for compassion and commonsense to replace “tough on crime” political posturing. I believe it is time to just say no to the Drug War.