“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
So wrote Thomas Paine against monarchy, the morally bankrupt ethos of his day. But then, it was a less fearful time, and the political leaders of Paine’s moment were scarcely risk-adverse. Indeed, they were willing to address the moral questions before them to the point of treason.
Not so today, when we can hold a national political contest and neither candidate — nor their respective parties — can find the courage to speak a word about the policy disaster and dishonorable fraud that is the American drug war.
So here, for the hell of it – and because it can never happen in American political discourse – let’s take a solitary moment to be honest with ourselves about why we remain addicted to drug prohibition.
Addicted is the precise word, too, because as any twelve-step survivor can relate, a sure sign of addiction is when one keeps doing the same self-destructive things and expecting a different result.
Surely, we can’t believe any longer that we are preventing much in the way of drug abuse. After forty years and billions wasted, the drugs available on any American corner are purer, cheaper, more plentiful than ever.
Nor can we think that we are still standing behind any moral imperative. What morality remains for a policy that has led to reduced civil liberties for all Americans? What morality is there in imprisoning damaged and vulnerable citizens in numbers that make us the jailingest nation ever, locking down more of our population – by per capita and raw numbers both — than Russia, China, Cuba or virtually any other totalitarian state? And those we jail? Our prison population is now, by percentage, less violent than at any point in American history – a function of capitalism unleashed, a fixed outcome for a privatized prison industry that now routinely promises growth to Wall Street analysts with every fiscal quarter.
Perhaps we want to pretend that the forces behind drug importation and sale are too violent, too brutal to be appeased, that this war must be ever more ruthless than the gangsterism it breeds. Yet to what end does our every omnibus crime bill create more astounding penalties? When traffickers realize that sentencing guidelines demand twenty- and thirty-year prison terms, what results? Deterrence? Never. Given the penalties, greater violence against witnesses and underlings is rationalized, and juveniles – less vulnerable to draconian sentences – are recruited at younger and younger ages to man the corners. For our every war-like action in this dystopic prohibition, the corresponding escalation is certain and immutable.
And now comes Mexico.
Having embraced the American drug war, having taken our dollars to battle the cartels, the northern states of our southern neighbor have become an abattoir. Fifty thousand bodies in the Mexican streets, and so much drug-war weariness that voters have turned against the incumbent regime and last week restored to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was, in fact, often accused of accommodating, rather than battling, the traffickers.
No longer content to merely blood and jail our own urban poor at record rates, we are now devouring the poor and desperate of a neighboring country.
And why? Tell the truth:
We do it because we – and the communal reference is not merely to the ruling class, but to the middle- and working-class voters who tolerate such craven dishonor – live in abject fear that if we dare ratchet down our drug war, then drugs themselves will come closer: Closer to our communities; closer to our schools, our children; closer to our America.
The real risk? In the same way that the psychic effect of terrorism on a population becomes disproportionate to the actual probability of being a victim of terror, so too does our fear of drugs and drug abuse produce grandiose overreaction.
Think otherwise? If you believe for a minute that all of the brutality and lost treasure and human tragedy that underwrites America’s drug war keeps marijuana, or cocaine, or methamphetamine, or heroin from your children, you are entirely naïve enough to soldier in Pharoah’s army. Because regardless of where your kids go to school, regardless of who they keep for friends, regardless of whatever shaded suburb or gated community you inhabit, the truth is that if they want to get high, they will. They know where to get it, and yes, it is there to be got. Everywhere. We can’t even keep drugs out of our vast prison complex, much less a junior high school; if we can’t win the drug war inside a maximum-security prison, where in society do we expect to emerge victorious?
Yet to preserve the vague and unsubstantiated notion that this prohibition is sheltering us and ours, we have transformed it into an open war on the underclass. Rather than trust in our parenting, our resources, our values to guard against the actual and proportional risks of dangerous drugs, we have instead been willing to consign the children of West Baltimore or North Philadelphia or East St. Louis to hell on earth. In places devoid of all other legitimate economic endeavor – places where half the adult males of color no longer have employment – we have rigged the game: The factories are gone, the warehouses are empty. Only the corners remain. There, the only functioning industry gives daily meaning to the other, lost America even as it destroys that part of our nation. There, we have found a way to hunt, and persecute, and finally, monetize our poor for the benefit of a growth industry that actually spends profits lobbying legislatures for harsher drug statutes and more prison construction.
And now, again, Mexico.
Because it’s no surprise that Americans would brutalize and isolate our own poor, jail even the least violent of them in record numbers, deny them parole, destroy families and fill prisons and wreck state and federal budgets if we thought it even marginally possible that somewhere a middle-class or upper-class kid might not ever be handed a joint. And given that much, it’s even less remarkable that we are willing to support and fund such butchery among the poor and desperate of another nation altogether.
After all, if we are willing to fight our drug war to the last inner-city American – if we are willing to turn our own ghettoes into no man’s lands and devour the men and women, children and families who live there in the process – why would we hestitate before fighting that same war to the last Mexican?
The new president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, inherits a dynamic in which his great neighbor to the north is ready to judge him by his commitment to an endless, attritive tragedy. We are going to shove billions of dollars into his hand and demand that he, too, follow this war to its ugly, diminished returns: More headless bodies on the streets of Nuevo Laredo and Acapulco; more dead police; more dead journalists; more corruption and civil chaos.
If the new president has courage – more courage than us, at least – he will hand the dollars back and say thank you, no mas. He might point out that it is the American demand for drugs that has done this to his country, his people. He might argue further that it is our addiction to a dystopic, amoral prohibition that feeds the black-market economy, the venture-risk volatility, the corruption, the gangsterism.
As an intervention of sorts, the new Mexican president might point to Step Eight, the one in which a recovering addict makes a list of those he has harmed and stands willing to make amends to all. He might point to the northern part of his country, if not to our own American cities. And then, if for a moment, we let go of our most compulsive fears and begin to honestly calculate the actual cost to our society and to the world as a whole, he might direct us back to Step One – the place of truth where every addict begins an honest journey:
We admit that we are powerless over our addiction, and that our lives have become unmanageable.