Against reason: The ‘war on drugs’ continues, will Trump make it worse?

While activists have won some important battles in putting an end to the costly debacle of the drug war, the fight will continue.

"Colored" drinking fountain (Oklahoma, 1939). Photo credit: United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

“Have you ever noticed that the only metaphor we have in our public discourse for solving problems is to declare war on them?”

—George Carlin

Like all wars, ‘the War on Drugs’ is quite profitable for certain interests. This explains why it continues to expand, despite all the evidence showing it’s a failure that has ruined countless lives in North America and throughout the world.

With all his talk about “law and order” on the campaign trail and since taking office, the new U.S. President seems likely to double down on this unwinnable ‘war’ that’s also in some ways a modern manifestation of the unscientific views on race that have long polluted the country’s civic life.

Although we might like to see Trump’s positions as unique, the media, including entertainment media, and mainstream politicians of all stripes have a share of responsibility for spreading the fear of crime associated with banned substances. This, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence showing that, while flows of banned drugs have remained constant or grown, violent crime rates are at historic lows.

One of the few positives to come out of the U.S. election were successful ballot initiatives in several states legalizing marijuana for either medical or recreational use. This probably enraged law enforcement unions and advocates, including the Fraternal Order of Police, who were some of the earliest and most prominent Trump supporters.

Anyone who has watched ‘The Wire’ knows that municipal police in cities like Baltimore have long relied on the arrests of small time dealers and users to provide statistical proof of their organizations’ effectiveness. Worse, the more arrests they make, the more funding they receive.

As Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow”, one of the most important recent works discussing these issues, told NPR a few years ago,“Federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses… giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out and look for the so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’: stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible pulling over as many cars as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream will continue or increase.”

The wages of mass incarceration

The current mass incarceration regime, itself largely a byproduct of the drug war, is the legacy of decades of bipartisan legislation. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was easily signed into law by then President Bill Clinton, a man supporters used to call, without a hint of irony, ‘America’s first black President’.

Later legislation included sentencing guidelines that created a 100 to 1 disparity in the sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine, for all intents and purposes the same drug. Until President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act 15 years later, 5 grams of crack would result in a mandatory five years in prison while 500 grams of powder was needed to receive the same sentence.

The work of earlier prison reformers and even recent studies show that the most effective way to prevent recidivism is the most obvious one: to give prisoners the skills and treatment they need to succeed outside of prison. This appeal to common sense is lost in the cacophony of politically expedient cries for more and more punishment, even for what we might call crimes against the self.

A more recent innovation has been to put the incarcerated to work in prison call centers, stitching garments and laboring at other for-profit jobs for which they receive little or no pay.The sad truth is that America’s prisons produce some goods more cheaply than factories in China and Bangladesh.

This was one of the main motivations for a widespread prison strike last year which may or may not be continuing in some facilities as the media has been too busy creating hysteria about Russia to report on it.

With all the talk about punishing undocumented people, yet another pillar of the President’s simplistic law and order approach, expect this cruelty to be expanded as many are held in for-profit detention centers awaiting deportation. Perhaps they will also be put to work and then the President can add them to the list of jobs he’s been taking credit for creating.

“American carnage”?

Proving that he values loyalty more than optics, Trump chose Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as his new Attorney General. Although he seems to be well-liked by his Senate colleagues, Sessions has a long history of drug war advocacy and seeming racism.

In fact, the longtime Junior Senator from Alabama was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 due to perceived racial bias, at that time only the second nominee in half a century not recommended for confirmation to the bench.

After being sworn in as America’s top law enforcement official, Sessions made the kind of absurd statement that has become normal under the new administration, “I wish the rise that we are seeing and crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgement, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.”

The idea that rising crime rates in the very short term, especially while the numbers are still at historic lows, are seen by Sessions as a “permanent trend” should send a chill down the spine of every American citizen. Like his new boss, the Attorney General seems to put what he wants to believe (whether for political or ideological reasons) ahead of the facts.

This also applies, unsurprisingly, to the drug war. Speaking about his time as a prosecutor before seeking office Sessions said, “When I became a part of this Department of Justice as U.S. attorney in 1981 we did commence a war on drugs, and some said it failed, but it did not fail. It was a success.”

Not to be outdone by his Attorney General in terms of throwing out unprovable and unlikely assertions, on January 8th President Trump blamed the long running and complicated problems in Chicago and other large urban areas on “gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country.”

The day after saying this, the President signed three executive orders, including one creating a task force to combat violence against the police.

Conservatives have long been experts at turning the ideas of the left on their head, thus Christians become a persecuted minority and white people suffer from ‘reverse racism’. Still, the Blue Lives Matter campaign, which began in response to the legitimate concerns voiced by African American activists about unaccountable police power and militarization, seems to take this silliness to a new extreme.

As Vincent Warren the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights recently explained to Democracy Now, “We’ve been seeing this in states where there are increased penalties that people, criminal penalties for assaulting, sometimes even insulting, police officers, the idea that – built on the idea that if you’re black or if you’re gay or if you’re a woman and someone assaults you, that is worse and there should be penalty enhancement for that. We’re seeing that with police officers, which doesn’t make sense.”

While activists have won some important battles in putting an end to the costly debacle of the drug war and, more importantly, bringing the racial and class issues associated with it into the spotlight in recent years, the widespread victory of Republicans at both the state and national level in November’s elections, alongside an erratic new President, show that the fight will continue, and likely intensify, over the next few years.


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