Lost in a symptom: The Nation on marijuana reform

01 Nov
November 1, 2013

The surest way to ensure the continued abuse of people of color under the auspices of the drug war is to reduce or eliminate any corresponding threat to white Americans.  This seems to me to be such a fundamental of realpolitik in the United States that I’m still a little bit astonished that The Nation, in a recent assessment of marijuana reform efforts and racial bias, can’t see any forest from the trees.

Not a single fact about marijuana use and the racial bias that law enforcement exhibits with regard to the drug is askew, of course.  I agree with the article’s author, Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University, on his entire statistical premise:

“Consider a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that black people are two to over seven times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than their white counterparts, despite the fact that both groups use marijuana at similar rates,” notes Dr. Hart.  “These disparities held up even when researchers controlled for household income. It’s about race, not class.”

Full agreement as far as that goes.  But there is, I believe, a statistical equivocation in the ensuing paragraph:

“Each year, there are more than 700,000 marijuana arrests, which account for more than half of all drug arrests. And now, largely because of the selective targeting of African-American males, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison if we don’t take action to end this type of discrimination.”

Whoa.  While I am entirely aware that marijuana arrests account for over 50 percent of all drug arrests, and while African-American and Latino suspects are certainly arrested at disproportionate rates despite comparable white marijuana use is certain, I believe that the extraordinary rates of incarceration of African-Americans — or all Americans, for that matter — is the result of overall drug enforcement of  heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other hard drugs.

This is not to say that there are not thousands of incarcerated for marijuana arrests, especially at the state level.  In some states, draconian enforcement of marijuana statutes, especially coupled with repeat-offender statutes, has certainly resulted in the imprisonment of Americans, and likely those unfortunates are dispropotionately people of color.  But as many urban and high-population states have for the last several decades been liberalizing marijuana laws and reducing or eliminating prison penalties on the drug, the greater share of those incarcerated – and not merely arrested — under U.S. drug statutes has been comprised of hard-drug defendants.   And those number in the hundreds of thousands.

Certainly, marijuana enforcement is an opportunity for law enforcement to profile, harass and penalize minorities.  And certainly, a marijuana arrest can be used to establish a criminal history, achieve probationary verdicts and put people of color under the control of the criminal justice system.  To the extent that defendants opt for suspended sentences and then are rearrested, or find themselves arrested in that minority of states with retrograde marijuana codes, incarcerative outcomes do occur.  But Dr. Hart’s linkage of the ACLU report of racial bias in marijuana enforcement to the appalling percentage of African-American males who will serve prison time needs to be carefully uncoupled.

One in three African-American boys born today will be imprisoned at some point not because of marijuana enforcement, but because of the entirety of the drug war — and only by dealing with all of drug enforcement and its subtext of racial and class control will that trend ever abate, much less be reversed.  Only by addressing political reform to the use or trafficking of those drugs that drive the majority of prison sentences for drug crimes will the country begin to address itself to the mechanism that has put 2.3 million Americans behind bars and made us the jailingest society in human history.

Which brings me back to my initial political worry when it comes to marijuana reform, which, regrettably, has been over-simplified and mischaracterized in some quarters as it volleys about on the internets.  Here, again:

Yes, marijuana is among the least dangerous prohibited substances in the drug world.  Yes, any continuing criminal arrests for its use are dysfunctional and draconian.   Yes, as with any drug law, such arrests target people of color disproportionately.  But accept as well that marijuana is also the most basic and fundamental place where white, middle-class and affluent America intersects with the drug war.  It is the place where many, many white families of economic means and political relevance encounter even the most moderate risk to their status and future.  For the majority of that cohort, it is the only place where the drug war’s rubber actually hits any stretch of suburban blacktop.

Of course, it is impossible to argue against the immediate practicalities of liberalizing marijuana use and reducing the criminal penalties such.  In a country with our levels of alcohol use, no one should be incarcerated or even criminally arrested for smoking weed.  But in so liberalizing this single sphere of our national drug war, the actual political isolation of the poor, and of poor people of color especially, will deepen.  Having removed much of the white, middle-class interaction with drug enforcement from the equation, those who are championing marijuana reform and ignoring the overall disaster of the drug war will be perpetuating the fundamental and continuing injustice.

Think not?  Consider the draft.

Yes, the military draft of the Vietnam era — as it was implemented, replete with college deferments — fell disproportionately on the working-class and the poor, and therefore on young men of color.  And yes, the transition away from the logic of selective service to an all-volunteer military consigned any mandatory enforcement of that disparity to the ash heap.  It also, as a matter of military practicality, made the volunteer military a much more committed and effective institution, by all accounts, and no one at the Pentagon will be speaking again any time soon of any return to a compulsory draft.

But the fundamental political change in the end of compulsory military service has been the grand departure of our most politically influential class from any organized opposition to military interventions.  Once middle-class and upper-class children were secure from any required military service and the corresponding risks from attritive wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. government had effectively freed itself from any requirement of widespread popular support for maintaining wars of choice, regardless of casualty rates.  The departure of the draft has made U.S. overseas interventions far more likely to be initiated and far more likely to be maintained, even as the overall popularity of the intervention wanes.

If white folk — and middle-class and affluent white folk at that — aren’t directly threatened by a policy or program, the chance of getting them out in the street, or even actively engaging with the government in any campaign for reform is minimized.  So, too, with the drug war.

Mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of federal parole, three-time-loser laws and draconian sentencing matrices were all well and good when the presumed targets were the underclass, the feared drug gangs of inner city America.  Only in the past decade — as prison populations have soared, methamphetamine has entrenched itself among whites in the American West, and the shrugging economy has sent more and more of the white working-class and underclass to the corner — have white folk been swept in greater numbers into the national dragnet, resulting in growing disenchantment with the drug war across the racial spectrum.   Yet even still, for many white families, marijuana remains the singular and most obvious point of vulnerability to America’s obsession with drug prohibition. Eliminate the drug war’s most fundamental perceived threat to the white midde class and the air is going to rush out of the growing national opposition with the drug war so fast that our heads will spin.

Is that argument enough to eschew the very rational removal of marijuana enforcement from the drug war arsenal?  Maybe not.  It’s hard to leave those absurd laws intact when an opportunity exists to mitigate the damage done to those defendants — black and white — who are being prosecuted, however more modestly than with prohibitions against harder drugs.

But the least that people of goodwill can do is to stop pretending that forward movement on marijuana alone is anything less than an accommodation with an existing war of social control that is being waged disproportionately on the urban poor and is utilizing the prohibitions against harder drugs for the greater share of its incarcerative dynamic.  Marijuana is not the core reason for our crowded prisons, and the reform of marijuana laws is, at best, triage for a failed and dystopic system that will be given another lease on life once the politically relevant portion of white America is given a pass.  Removing weed from the overall equation will, in the end, consign increasingly-isolated poor people of color to the brutalities of the drug war for the foreseeable future.  The game will still be the game for them, and a cruel and rigged game it will remain.

44 replies
  1. Jussi says:

    From today’s Guardian: “Philip Seymour Hoffman and a double standard over drugs
    We turn a blind eye to an unworkable law and assume it does not apply to people like us – then take draconian vengeance on others”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/03/philip-seymour-hoffman-drugs-double-standard

    Reply
  2. Thom Langley says:

    Dave,
    Found the blog after viewing your “dangerous idea” vid on Moyer’s & Co. Enjoyed the vid immensely, good luck with your theatre endeavor. I think this is a well reasoned argument you present and one, I have to confess, I hadn’t actually thought through. I won’t posit a counter here as I’ll need to cogitate on it a bit to absorb it fully.
    I do plan to review the blog frequently and mark it as a favorite.

    Thanks for your intellectual honesty. So rare these days.
    Pax,
    TLL

    Reply
  3. Jussi says:

    The statistics cited about the radical change in the percentage of those incarcerated for drug offenses v. violent crimes and the growth/greed of the prison-industrial complex are disturbing and clearly not widely understood…let alone known. Thank you bringing these facts to a broad audience willing to listen and likely to “pass it on.”

    It’s worrisome however that although, as you say, nothing you’ve written about drug enforcement mitigates against drug abuse being a fundamental health problem for our society, it is clear from this comment thread and others elsewhere, that marijuana is commonly believed to be “safe” or “harmless,” when science proves otherwise.

    Consider the recent piece (link below) by Dr. Mitch Rosenthal, who founded the nonprofit substance-abuse treatment and prevention organization Phoenix House in 1967. The man knows his stuff. I’ve visited a few of Phoenix House’s facilities with Dr. Rosenthal and heard gut-wrenching stories from residents echoing those poignantly presented in “The Wire” and underscoring the failings of the Drug War, “waged disproportionately on the urban poor.” Indeed, I’ve also attended Phoenix House events on Fifth Avenue where families are tackling addiction and the effects of marijuana use—admittedly often facing very different consequences, but no less tragic.

    “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves About Marijuana: Colorado makes pot legal, ‘Rocky Mountain high’ jokes follow. Now watch the tragedies start piling up.” [Wall Street Journal/1.9.14]

    http://online.wsj.com/news/article_email/SB10001424052702304617404579305090110567998-lMyQjAxMTA0MDEwMDExNDAyWj

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I’ve used marijuana and alcohol both as a matter of routine. Alcohol is more dangerous, by far. It is legal for adults.

      Sell that bunk somewhere else. Sorry.

      Reply
      • Jussi says:

        I’ll just have to trust you on that, having never used marijuana. But I have seen the dangers of alcohol up close and personal.

        P.S. Loved “Bunk.” He’s yours to sell…

        Reply
  4. Jason says:

    I am only going to point out where I disagree with David, as I agree with the thrust of his concern, and recognize the truth of his supporting reasons for that concern. It is very much in America’s make up to lose any kind of concern for an issue once the children of the ruling classes are no longer at risk. That is the nature on the beast. Also, from a rightly cynical point of view, a drug war which costs (to the public) $51,000,000,000 to wage annually, while converting much of that money into profits for dividend yielding companies, is too good a cash cow to abandon in favor of “doing the right thing.”

    However, I would posit the mechanics, and make up of the movement to de-criminalize marijuana constitutes more than people in it for the buzz, or to keep Trevor, or Tiffany from ending up in the slammer. The main threads have always been concerns about personal liberty, the folly of enforcement verses liberalization/treatment, and yes, the overall folly of the drug war en toto. In terms of these pillars, the movement to legalize has rapidly flipped public opinion over the last few years, dramatically.

    The most instructive are the polls which ask “has the drug war failed?”, and “should we end the war on drugs?”. These are not questions about marijuana, or the fate of suburban children. These are questions about the efficacy, sanity, justice, feasibility of the entire mindset or enforcement/war, vs. decriminalization/treatment. There is a clear shift in public consciousness about drugs being treated as a criminal matter, as opposed to a health crisis. David Simon should be heartened by this. He has contributed to this shift.

    Now, I recognize, as an activist, that winning won fight means beginning the next. That’s always true. And rapid, cascading moves to legalize marijuana is merely a step. It is a step that leads to the next. Only now, the public is telling us that it is open to hearing about how we’ve been sold a bill of goods on the entire issue of drug criminalization. The momentum is clearly on the side of ending the whole rotten fucking thing.

    Reply
  5. Jason P says:

    I completely agree with this article, it is a very similar argument I use for why my own hang-ups about the legalization of pot. However I am curious in how would one try to change the narrative away from legalization of marijuana to legalizing all drugs? I find in my conversations with other people that most people are completely unwilling to listen to the idea of legalizing heroin. Or do we just have to wait for a greater percentage of suburban white kids to start using crack and heroin (obviously joking)? It just seems like an un-winnable uphill battle, but maybe i’m just being pessimistic.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Try using the word “decriminalize.” No need to argue heroin’s legality, just the rate at which we are imprisoning each other for a health problem.

      Reply
      • R.S. says:

        How about a push to try and “re-prioritize” law enforcement goals? I’m afraid the current incentives police have to enforce drug laws can’t be fixed very easily (even without asset seizures that fund departments, there may not be a simpler “crime” to solve than arresting someone for drugs).

        But without getting into arguments about legalization and decriminalization (where at least in my experience it is very difficult to convince people just how ineffective prohibition is at reducing addiction), do you think a message about priorities could have a chance of becoming law?

        Something along the lines of: No/limited resources for non-violent drug crimes unless all rapes are cleared. Wouldn’t most people agree that something like Murder/Rape/Assault > Drunk driving > Stealing iPhones > Drug possession in terms of importance to society?

        Reply
  6. Max says:

    I am reposting / rephrasing a reply I made further down the stream. First, I worked as counselor/foster parent for years, so my insight is based on very direct experience. Second, the campaign I have pushed for 30+ years is the legalization of ALL recreational drugs, coupled with programs made availible to those in need. Heroin, for instance, is FAR less PHYSICALLY detrimental to the body than cannabis… it is the danger of dirty/shared needles that is the downside. Yet, ‘the BIG ”H” ‘ is somehow put up there as the worst danger to the user … nonsense, blatant lies. ALL drugs need to IMMEDIATELY be decriminalized and the public properly educated re. the actualities and history … however, as the money is SO huge, without an overwheming demand from an informed public, the .00001% simply will NOT let go of a 1.cash cow, 2.means of societal control 3. LOVELY, handy way to fund all kinds of nasty undeclared wars 4. general untaxed revenue stream ( or do you actually think that the .00001% does NOT control this industry ? one of the LARGEST industries in the world?)

    Reply
  7. Bryan C says:

    2013 has been a pretty good year for those against the “War on Drugs”. For example, earlier this year Eric Holder announced the Justice Department will no longer charge nonviolent drug offenders with serious crimes that subject them to long, mandatory minimum sentences in the federal prison system. That’s not just marijuana charges either. I think on the federal level that is a huge step in the right direction, especially when you think of some of the bullshit laws that were passed less than 20 years ago in the 90′s. I think the next battle for reformers should be reducing drug admissions at the state level. Honestly, as messed up as our political system is I feel like this is one of the few issues that both parties quietly agree with each other. There is enough information out there that harsh drug penalties don’t work, that even if they reform marijuana laws there is still going to be a push on both sides to continue to rid the prison population of all nonviolent drug offenders.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Don’t oversell what Holder did. While those were encouraging words to hear from a U.S. Attorney General, they offer limited opportunity to reduce the drug war. For one thing, the Justice Department is not saying they will cease prosecuting non-violent drug offenders, only the ones they think are not serious offenders, whatever that may mean. For another, Holder is doing this unilaterally in the last three years of the second term of a presidency.

      He is not seeking to recodify the drug war under the CDS schedules, or under the federal sentencing guidelines, or under statute. The changes are ad hoc and non-institutional. They disappear, effectively, at the next election. The system is intact. The statutes are intact. And neither Holder nor Obama are calling for a systemic review, nor is Congress undertaking one.

      The federal sentencing commission announced that they will look at possible reforms. That’s all well and good until you realize that this was the sentencing commission that recently managed to take the differential between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine down from 100-to-1 — meaning that black urban defendants were no longer sentenced to 100 times more penalty than suburban white users of coke, even though there is no actual pharmacalogical difference betweeen the two uses. They took the differential down to 17-to-1.

      Don’t oversell half-assed reform. I am glad Holder spoke as he did. But very little substantive reform of the institutional drug war is following. We are only being as merciful to our underclass as this attorney general can be for a three-year period. After that, the same laws are on the books for the next administration and the next one after. Real reform brings the fight into Congress and makes people begin to vote on actual legal codification. And putting people on the record for those votes, up or down. That isn’t happening. No one is expending any actual political capital to reform the drug war. Only affirming sentiment offered from individuals after the last re-election campaign is behind this president.

      Reply
      • Bryan C says:

        First, I would say we share a consensus that a lot more needs to be done on the federal level. Right now the most serious charge for 51 percent of inmates in a federal prison is a drug offense. I would love to see the year by year breakdown of that stat and revisit that number in 2016. I honestly have no clue how much that number will decline over the next three years because of Holder’s announcement. NBC News wrote that they think it will impact a quarter of all future drug offenders but their analysis didn’t seem well sourced. If any readers have read any reports on possible projections I would love to look at them.

        I am not sure bringing this issue in congress would be productive in this current legislative climate. I feel like if the Democrats made this a big issue, then the House Republicans would reflexively oppose the law. I think you run the risk of turning this into a polarizing issue. Right now there seems to be support among Republicans for lowering the prison population strictly for spending reasons. Although if the Republican base begins to think of this as a “Democrat” issue, I think we run the risk that If we elect a Republican to the White House in ‘16 that the next attorney general could bring back some of the old policies. To the conservative readers on here I am not trying to vilify the Republican Party, and if you have evidence that Republicans in congress would be willing make a bipartisan law happen on this I would love to hear it. Until then, I feel like policies from the Attorney General’s office is the only way to keep things moving in the short term.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          I agree that success in Congress at this point is problematic. I would still call a vote for revisions of the Federal Sentencing Commission and its mandatory sentencing structure and put the Republicans and conservative Democrats on the record as supporting this level of incarceration, and the drug war as a whole. The population is increasingly turning against these policies. Begin the process of making their stand unpopular and tying it around their necks.

          There comes a moment when critical mass is reached, and legislators can no longer abide a reactionary stand given the public temperment. Making people vote on an issue — or even vote against having a vote, if that is the best that the broken branch of American governance can manage at this point — is part of the process, I believe.

          Reply
  8. Kyle says:

    What I wonder is if you believe the movement to legalize marijuana is a cognizant choice in the “existing war of social control that is being waged disproportionately on the urban poor”, or rather that this is a symptom of people being concerned about their individual ability to prosper without being aware or caring about its potential to harm others.

    What I am trying to say is that I feel there is an implication in this article of puppeteers pulling our strings to serve their desire for power, and I wonder if that is something you intended to imply.

    I, personally, think/ hope many of the policies made in this country that are socially controlling or damaging are done with intent of improvement but lack of foresight. In which case getting out articles like this is all the more important.
    Then again, something hell something something good intentions.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      No intent to forward such an implication.

      I believe that the politically relevant, politically influential class of middle-class and upper-class voting whites is signaling its distaste for the drug war at the precise point at which the drug war intersects with their children. And marijuana prohibition is indeed the greatest overreach of the drug war pharmacologically. So we are having success with marijuana reform. And the prisons remain full, and will remain full, of people of color, once the middle-class is able to roll up this marginal victory and smoke it.

      Same as the politically influential class abandoned widespread and fundamental opposition to proxy wars and wars of choice once the fear of a Vietnam-draft scenario was removed from their lives.

      The prison-industrial complex is reactive here. They will yield on marijuana because it is where their social control construct is most vulnerable to popular will. And once it yields on this, the pressure for a more fundamental moral reckoning about the drug war will be released, to a great extent. And black and brown people will, as usual, be on the short end.

      Reply
  9. Katie Ford Hall says:

    Thank you so much, Mr. Simon, for continuing to provide your provocative point of view. I’ve said this before, but well-intended white suburban liberals like myself tend to miss the forest in favor or a tree or two. Time after time I read your posts and think “Duh, why didn’t I think of that.” I greatly appreciate the challenge.

    Take care,
    Katie

    Reply
  10. Andrew says:

    The part that you are not thinking about is if we can’t even get politicians to take the political risk to push for the legalization of something has harmless as Marijuana, even when 58% of the population thinks it should be legal, then how can we expect anyone with any political power to take on the scary notion of ending the drug war? Politicians are still scared shitless of the “think of the children” crowd that would be screaming bloody murder. (just like the 9/11 crowd yells whenever the thought of reducing our endless wars or cutting our bloated defense budget gets brought up).

    Case in point California. Jerry Brown and seemingly good governor caved on drug reform passed in both his states house and senate. http://reason.org/blog/show/jerry-brown-vetoes-modest-drug-poli

    Also the Cops Association recently attacked Eric Holder for the DOJ’s stance on Colorado and Washington’s legal marijuana. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/eric-holder-marijuana_n_4138579.html

    These are small steps in the war on drugs, and they lead to mass hysteria. Now just think of what would happen if they said anything even 1/5 as “radical” as you would like to see happen. It would be career suicide. We need small steps before anyone even dips their toes in the water.

    Reply
  11. Bruce says:

    Some law-enforcement types are convinced that pot itself is relatively harmless, certainly compared to alcohol. The problem seems to be the vexed notion which persists despite mountains of evidence to the contrary that marijuana is a gateway drug, i.e. that it leads to abuse of nastier stuff like heroin and cocaine.

    Part of this seems to be weakness in reasoning skills. The evidence shows that among those who abuse hard drugs, a large fraction tried marijuana first or still do. But a much larger group stick to pot. In other words, there is no evidence that use of pot is a predictor of use of harder drugs.

    The DEALERS are another story. The retail suppliers tend to supply what the market wants, whether soft or hard drugs. The policemen see dealers as the outer edge of the drug problem and so since most dealers offer hard drugs, they could be misled that not every buyer wants hard drugs.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      The gateway drug nonsense is an equivocation fallacy.

      Fully 99.4 percent of all sociopaths who murdered others were involved in shoving a playmate before the third grade. And yet only .004 percent of those who shoved a playmate before the third grade ever managed to kill.

      I’m making those statistics up by the way. But the absurdity of the gateway-drug argument is so predicated.

      Reply
    • CIEC says:

      “But a much larger group stick to pot. In other words, there is no evidence that use of pot is a predictor of use of harder drugs.”

      Not only that, but I think common sense would suggest that a greater availability of marijuana actually prevents people from using harder drugs. I don’t know whether there have been any studies that have supported what seems to be this obvious conclusion. Many people just need to use some type of substance to get through the day. If they have less of an ability to get their hands on a harmless or relatively harmless drug then they are more likely to use a more harmful drug, like heroin or meth. Not only is the “gateway drug” theory bogus but it almost certainly is the complete reverse. And that’s also why I think all the government efforts throughout much of the country to increase the taxes on cigarettes and limit their ability are also bad ideas.

      Reply
    • kt says:

      “Gateway drug” is nonsense because it’s reverse logic. Yes, almost everyone that becomes addicted to heroin first tried marijuana or a different “softer” drug. However, take it another step back — almost all of the people that used marijuana drank alcohol, or smoked a cigarette before that. And nearly all of those people drank soda before that. Or ate fast food. Or…you can take it on back to mother’s milk, or breathing air.

      Oxygen is the gateway drug!

      I don’t necessarily disagree with your point about dealers/cops but I would put it a slightly different way — what dealers are interested in is profit. It’s not so much that they are interested in supplying what the market *wants*, as that they are interested in encouraging or even creating a market for what makes them the most profit. Most people that want uppers would much rather have pharmaceutical cocaine at a reasonable price than crack or meth; but the profit margins on crack and meth are much, much higher — they cost little to produce and don’t require much expertise in chemistry (BREAKING BAD notwithstanding). Thus why these drugs are such an epidemic in this country…

      Pot, on the other hand, has a very low profit margin, and is the highest-risk of any drug to smuggle, due to its relative bulk and odor. It’s low-hanging fruit for law enforcement.

      Reply
      • kt says:

        And now that I’ve typed that, I realize that although I do think pot should be legalized — for a number of reasons — this does highlight an aspect of the point Mr. Simon is making: people that are solely involved in the marijuana dealing game (and nothing else) are people whose incentives aren’t just financial. They use it themselves and want it available, or it’s part of their social network, or they believe in it philosophically, or whatever.

        These concerns are the luxuries of middle-class people. Those that sell hard drugs are probably doing so solely for economic reasons.

        It does seem unfair to favor the people that are involved in the trade of an illegal substance for social or personal reasons over the people who are doing so because they need to pay the rent.

        Reply
  12. Arthur says:

    Bravo. That’s a concise summary of why I feel uncomfortable with many Marijuana decriminalzation enthusiasts, despite agreeing with their fundemental points.

    Concerning the draft though, I’d argue that the Pentegon’s objection to its reinstatment would hinge more on the very point you raise than a belief in any innate ability fostered by the volunteer system. Mind you, given that I’m not an absalute pacifist, I can imagine a situation where the isolationism fostered by a equally shared burden would produce a foreign policy I’d disagree with, it sure beats a status quo where the underclass is sacrificed at the whim of a system in which it’s drastically underreprosented.

    Reply
  13. Other David says:

    What if marijuana reform is simply the first steps in the tectonic shift of our national conscience regarding the War on Drugs? This is what worries me. Are we looking at a static case where, as you argue, the War on the Drugs has expanded beyond its initial targets (poor minorities) and if we refocus it then the powerful will forget about it again? Or are we looking at a dynamic case where decades of momentum and unsustainable policies have forced the powerful to look at how damaging the War on Drugs has been and maybe just a little push will bring it all toppling down? I hope it is the dynamic case, because I don’t think there is anything that is going to stop the momentum of marijuana reform. And I hope the success of marijuana reform shows how hypocritical and foolish the drug warriors have been and that they end up so discredited and disgraced that the rest of the War on Drugs is quickly dismantled.

    Reply
  14. Dave says:

    Maybe, but when the world doesn’t collapse after people are freely allowed to buy cannabis it will blow the whole thing open. Meth, crack, and heroin are far too visible to be ignored when a successful country wide liberalization is right there for everyone to see.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Just as American military interventions became more or less plausible once the politically influential class of Americans were able to shield their children from risk?

      Reply
  15. RJ says:

    Plenty of cogent points here… anyway, as imperfect as the situation is, it’s a step in the right direction.

    Reply
  16. TimmyB says:

    Outstanding essay. Seems as though when our government puts draconian policies in place, such as throwing people in jail for drugs or invading countries abroad for empire, it is only when those policies have negative impacts on white middle class voters that we can get those policies changed.

    However, as the middle class becomes the new poor, this becomes less true. More and more, the only people who matter are those who fund elections. These people in great part have made themselves immune to many of societies’ problems. The problems more and more Americans face, such as underfunded schools, massive unemployment, poverty wages, the drug war, ect., simply are not problems to these people. “What to do?” about it is the question. And frankly, I don’t have any answers.

    Reply
  17. Jonathan says:

    There might be another place where the rubber meets the road:

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2013/1007/Prescription-drug-abuse-now-more-deadly-than-heroin-cocaine-combined

    I think your vietnam analogy was a pretty great one. The root of most of the problems we see seems to be separating the people who make decisions from the consequences of those decisions. In drugs, it’s mandatory minimums. In war, it’s not having a draft. In the “too big to fail banks”, it was the ability of a bank to sell a mortgage and not have to keep it. In schools, it’s the administrators making rules that they won’t have to deal with. For us american consumers, it’s having our stuff built by people over in china that we will never see so we don’t really care how they’re treated. The same thing, over, and over, and over. Guess it’s always been this way and probably always will be but it seems to be pretty “institutionalized” at this point and I don’t think that’s always been the case.

    Reply
  18. C.Michol says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent. Thank you.

    Reply
  19. R.S. says:

    I think this is an important point, and one that has been difficult to make (seems funny that supporting the removal of laws and practices that disproportionately impact minorities may not have the anti-racist effects one might imagine).

    There’s a similar pattern in the support for gay rights. After fairness is restored to upperclass white homosexuals, and especially those that benefit financially by saving money on estate tax, etc.., much of the support for minority and transgender rights that impact less people and far less politically powerful people will fall significantly.

    Last thing, would it be okay to plug the “Wire poster project” – They’re selling cool posters with the epigraphs from each episode to support the Baltimore Urban Debate League.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  20. Max H. says:

    Great piece, and very thought-provoking, as usual. Like many people, I’ve found the shifting poll numbers on marijuana legalization encouraging, but your comparison to the end of conscription in the U.S. is chilling. There’s really no hope for the other America, is there?

    Reply
  21. Max says:

    yikes … sorry for messy writing ! :^)) … just had my morning toke and it takes about 20 minutes to get to fully mellow/functional // I smoke to ameliate the affects of my Alzheimers. In B.C. I can buy at a store, tho weed remains official illegal. This certainly makes it easier for me/someone in similar circumstances, as weed remains superior treatment for a few conditions .. more effective … ridiculously cheap … hell you can easily grow it anywhere

    Reply
  22. Max says:

    I worked part of my life as a counsellor/street worker/foster parent (level2) for 15 years. My other lifetime vocation is musical performance. // What’s the long term affect of heroin use? Which country is currently charging 1$ an ounce for legal weed? and MOST important question of them all ….. WHO actually is making the money from keeping drugs illegal? (this is much more difficult to find get a real answer to).

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Nothing I’ve written about drug enforcement mitigates against drug abuse being a fundamental health problem for our society. But locking up more human beings than any other nation on the planet — in real numbers and in percentage — is the specific issue in play here. That isn’t achieving anything of merit and it is destroying a great deal. What the drugs themselves do not destroy, the war against them does.

      Reply
      • Max says:

        yes .. and .. heroin itself does very little damage physically … constipation. Dirty needles do the damage. Meth is vile. But prohibition of it makes it more glamorous to the youngster I used to work with. All in all, even with terrible substances, prohibition acts to glorify, especially to the most vulnerable segments of society…. such as abused kids of addicts, pedophiles .. girls and boys out on the street selling themselves for dirty needles.. pimps in control of the whole thing .. when it COULD be .. walk into a clinic, get your clean, pure fit, and a counselor if you want to talk to someone.

        Reply
  23. jack mccoy says:

    Nice article.
    Here’s the view on weed from a prosecutor in a very large city in the south:

    First, nobody is doing any time if they are only dealing or using weed. Even if they are dealing and using ALOT of it, they are still getting either probation or prison time that is quickly paroled.

    Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact (and this is what anyone that investigates or prosecutes violent crime will say if they are being honest) it should be totally legal. You legalize weed in my city and the murder drops 5% if not more. Why? The money. I prosecute so many cases where a weed dealer is robbed by a stick up kid because the word on the street is that the dealer has “fat stacks” it would make your head spin. Why weed dealers? They are usually not part of an organized drug gang and have little armed back up. We prosecute so many , that we refer to them as a “combo #1″. Legalize it, lower the profit margin, and that goes away.

    As far the harder stuff? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that, I’m a blue collar lawyer that went to night school. I’ll say this though, what we are doing now does not work, and will never work. We can’t arrest our way out of what is really a public health issue. All I know is it’d be nice to divert some of the money used in the drug “war” to poverty, access to guns, and some of the other factors driving real, violent crime. I also know if we did that, a lot of agencies, and “task forces” would be real mad, and a lot of politicians wouldn’t have a dead horse to beat at election time.

    Reply
    • Max says:

      spot on Jack .. we just have to quietly spread the work, as dispassionately, sanely as possible in this insane situation. As you well know, so much MORE than drugs laws are at stake. Making it legal, with sane access would take away such a vast amount of financing for the bad guys …

      Reply

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  1. […] We don’t have to legalize marijuana to stop locking people up. We can decriminalize marijuana (basically, we can make it like speeding). We could free up police to work on real case work (a point that David Simon has made over and over). […]

  2. […] Kingpin Russell Simmons, as well as creator of “best TV show ever broadcast” The Wire David Simon, who recently said “there are now two Americas. My country is a horror […]

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