In 1971 Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. But it wasn’t until a man named William Bennett became the first ever ‘Drug Czar’, that the conflict took off. Bennett, with his policies driven by fear and moral conservatism, turned America’s law enforcement apparatus into a machine for chewing up human — mainly Black and Latin — lives.
The Drug Policy Alliance’s Executive Director Ethan Nadelman, reminded us of this in his moving address to the plenary session of the Reform Conference in Washington DC. Nadelman, who has been at the forefront of drug policy reform for ages, has helped evolve the reform movement from the “nascent fringe to one with power”.
With that power comes legitimacy. This was shown by one senator and two members of congress speaking at the conference.
US Senator Cory Booker kicked things off by saying that the War on Drugs was an “enormous waste of human potential”.
Booker dropped solid facts about the generational impact of the US’s current approach. Two point seven million American children with parents in jail. Ten million children who have parents with a criminal record. The lack of reintegration programmes to get people back into society when they get out. Black folk four times more likely than white people to be arrested for dealing. Latino twice as likely as whites. This is despite some evidence showing that white people are pretty much equally represented as dealers.
“Drug policy reflects the worst of who we are,” he said.
Think about that. Because the issues of race, incarceration rates, and the massive scale of human loss are key to understanding the War on Drugs.
As if appealing to New Zealand’s Minister who has responsibility for drug issues, Booker summed up by saying that reforming drug policy was common sense. Communities need to demand action on these issues. The reason why there has been small change is because of the movement, that’s what needs to grow. Leaders will follow.
Picking up on this point, Congressman Earl Blumenauer said that as this movement grew, so did bipartisan support. Rep Blumenauer has been involved in the reform movement since 1973. He pointed out the fact that one of the major crops the founding fathers grew — hemp — was now illegal to grow. “That’s goofy,” he concluded.
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, from New York's 8th District, bought a little bit of Brooklyn to the house. He called the War on Drugs a regressive and reckless crusade. Picking up on Booker’s theme of the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of colour, he said “in 2015 we’ve wasted time, energy, resources, ruined countless lives”.
What can we do to make a more perfect union? The answer was simple: end the War on Drugs. This is something that Jeffries can claim a little bit of responsibility for. As part of the judiciary committee, he helped to retrospectively roll back the differences in mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder. Cos, you know, there is no pharmacological difference between crack and powder. At one point the sentence for crack was 100 times heavier than powder. Why? I think you know the answer.
We then moved from lawmakers to people affected by the shitty laws.
When Kemba Smith started college she met a guy. Fell in love. Turns out he was a drug dealer. He was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive toward Smith. But, like so many women, she was too afraid to leave. The police had been building a case against them. Knowing Smith was his girlfriend, they arrested her even though she had nothing to do with the drugs. At 23 and pregnant, she was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison under mandatory minimums. The enormity of it hit her when her leg was shackled to her bed within 5 minutes of giving birth.
She is only able to talk to us today — her sentence was supposed to be up in 2016 — because President Clinton granted her clemency due to a high profile media campaign about her unfair — but all too ordinary — plight.
Close to tears, Smith talked about what she compared to survivor guilt. She listed the names of just the black women she knew who were still in jail for similar offences. It was too long and just some of the tens of thousands.
So if being sentenced to 24.5 years wasn’t bad enough, the next speaker was sentenced to life … plus more than 100 years.
Jason Hernandez was sent to jail in 1998 for selling crack. He was 21 years old and had a seven month old baby.
Hernandez was one of the first eight people to be pardoned by President Obama, and the first Latino. For that he says he loves Obama like a father, but that he has a message for him:
“It’s a miracle to be up here. He was supposed to die in prison. Woke up every day, went to sleep every day thinking he was going to die in prison…
“Hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, was tell my friends I was going home. At the back of my mind, I knew, that the percentage chance was high they would die right there in their cells.
“I love you like a father for giving me my life back, I know you’re not responsible for War On Drugs, but with all respect, Mr President, you need to do more.”
“Their blood will be on your hands if, and when, they die in prison.”
And Hernadez knows this all too well. He saw sons come to join their fathers, not just in the same prison, but the same cell.
Which brings us back to Nadelman’s point about generational change.
Harking back to the McCarthy era of American politics, Nadelman said that even though the most terrible things were happening, the public stood by. We all went along.
The real start of the drug war, kicked off by Bennett in the 80s and 90s, was “McCarthyism on steroids”.
“Everybody went along,” Nadelman said. “Whites, Blacks, there was a great global consensus. We needed a global war on drugs no matter the costs or consequences.”
And that’s what we got in the last decades of the last century. We saw how venal government could be, and how driven by fear and political self-interest. But with a generational shift, we’re starting to see change.
Nadelman’s energetic delivery and fast pace made it hard to keep up with him. As he bounced across topics he started having an existential crisis.
What happens if (and when) we win, he asked. Cautioning the audience to not be afraid of victory and not to lose sight of the common vision of a world where we have sensible policies that fit our communities around drugs.
And to do that, Nadelman says, we must hold people accountable. Something that can happen now that the movement has power. And in this case power means working with people like law enforcement on the issues where there is agreement – but still hounding them to hell on issues like asset forfeiture. [Something I’m going to write another post about soon].
And sometimes you need to learn to love William Bennett. Because, the War on Drugs was, and is, driven by fear.
“We need to transcend the fear. Parents are more now afraid of what the drug war will do than the drugs will do.
“But until we understand and embrace the fears that underlie the War on Drugs, we cannot ultimately win.”
I, for one, would love to see Nadelman hug Bennett.