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January 25, 2008 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Editorial: Poverty and the Drug Laws

By David Borden, Executive Director

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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:

  • No-Knock Raids
  • Lying Snitches
  • Stolen Medical Marijuana
  • Firing Over Medical Marijuana
  • Drug Taxes
  • Harassment Of Aids Prevention Workers
  • Corruption Of Police Forces, With Civil Conflict
  • Nonsensical Diplomacy
  • And many, many more.

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.

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