Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ending the War on Drugs is the key civil rights struggle

No, I do not believe that racism has disappeared from the USA, nor that the struggles for equality are no longer needed.

But the War on Drugs (a term coined by Richard Nixon in 1972 as he instituted new, sweeping, even more fierce, and socially destructive national drug prohibition polices) is not only a major civil rights concern to white hipsters like me, it is at the center of racial inequality and racist global imperialism as well.  Noam Chomsky has called it the war on poor and indigenous peoples.

The War on Drugs is key to keeping blacks and other colored peoples down.  It perpetuates prohibition-related violence which is one of the key remaining centers of violence in poor communities.  It perpetuates racial discrimination in education and employment (through such policies as denying student aid for a lifetime for those convicted of ANY drug offense).  It perpetuates the destruction of personal lives through useless criminal law enforcement, which falls disproportionately on the poor and colored.  Black drug users, for example are 13 times more likely to end up in prison than white drug users, despite equal rates of illegal drug usage.  Drug users as a whole are the majority of prisoners held in the USA, and the USA incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world and world history.

Novices to the anti-prohibitionist literature are amazed to find the unending succession of blue ribbon commissions, social and intellectual leaders, and others who have called for drug legalization only to be brushed aside by pandering and corrupt politicians.  Nixon's own Schaffer commission called for drug decriminalization in general and marijuana legalization in particular.  Nixon's DEA law judge declared marijuana to be one of the safest medically useful drugs known to mankind and also called for immediate legalization.  Nixon ignored these recommendations when he launched the War on Drugs during his re-election year.  This new War featured tough new federal criminalization specifically for marijuana along with other drugs.

I've just stumbled across another such call for legalization in what at first may seem a very unlikely place...Consumer's Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, published a very long and comprehensive examination of drugs, drug abuse, and drug laws in the USA in 1972.  Now you wouldn't expect Consumer's Union to glorify drug use, and in fact they don't recommend non-prescription drug use at all.  But they determined that drug prohibition is exactly the wrong response to drug use problems, tending only to make them worse and dragging whole communities down in the process.  Their recommendation was complete drug use legalization at all levels of government and commercial regulation through localized rather than federal initiatives.  A policy recommendation which still makes the most sense today.

Now, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr day in 2012, one might as, what did Dr King say?  Of course, Dr King was firstly and always a Baptist minister, and the Baptist religion has always been expressly opposed to non-medicinal drug use of all kinds.*   You are not likely to unwind sharing a stiff drink or toke with a Baptist minister.  But despite that, I have been unable to find any directly applicable remarks in King's public oeuvre.  Note that Nixon's War on Drugs didn't begin until 4 years after Dr King's death, and the effect on black incarceration and community destruction have continually increased since then.  So Dr King really didn't live to see what an enormous civil rights issue extreme drug prohibitionism has become, and we can't expect him to have been a seer on this issue since he was focused on three others: poverty, inequality, and war.  I have no doubt that if he were alive today, he would be among the leading black civil rights leaders today calling for an end to the drug war the same as all other wars.

(*Others have pointed out that  is also very likely Dr King would have heartily endorsed the medicinal use of marijuana when recommended by a doctor, and recommended his 4 part civil disobedience strategy for dealing with the laws that oppose medicinal use.)

Nevertheless, both pro-drug-war crusaders and anti-drug-war reformers find choice quotations from King to support their respective positions.  It's remarkable how vague the quotations used on the pro-drug-war side are (most often, pro-drug-war sites use this quotation: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that...").  Surely if Dr King had railed against recreational drug use, as one might expect from any Baptist minister, and called for tougher drug laws, they could have found him saying something more explicit, but no.  In fact, that very quotation could be equally well used to describe the futility of a War on Drugs.  If you continue that same quotation, you find "Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."  So how is a War on Drugs supposed to be consistent with King's love-based and non-violent approaches?  Even center-right President Barack Obama has rhetorically called for treatment of drug misuse as a public health problem, not a criminal problem (though unfortunately, in practice he's simply continued funding the same old stamp-out-drugs approach which has been nothing but disaster and a growing one since the Harrison Act of 1914).

On the other hand, anti-drug-war reformers have many beautiful quotations and strategies to choose from:

"Let Freedom Ring!" is one of my favorites.  But probably the King quotation most used by drug law reformers comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Personally I find that a bit tenuous to support the recreational use of drugs, since I don't imagine Dr King endorsing disobeying laws against drug use by...using drugs.  He was a Baptist after all.  I believe he would call for drug legalization for the civil rights reasons I outlined above, not to enable recreational drug use (though he would likely endorse the medicinal use of drugs such as Marijuana) but to treat drug users of all races and income levels fairly and equally.  Later in the same letter, Dr King does get to such civil rights issues:
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. 
This gets to a major aspect of the civil rights issue regarding drug prohibition.  No war on drugs is ever going to eliminate or even significantly reduce the use of relatively harmless drugs such as Marijuana.  Marijuana use has done nothing but increase vastly since it was outlawed in the USA.  Marijuana drug use* was not a significant part of historical western european culture, and in the USA it used to be a very marginal thing restricted to small numbers of adventurous mexicans and blacks in the early 20th century.  Now it is one of the leading cash crops in North America (widely used by rich and poor Americans alike)!  But the War on Drugs does enable persecution of blacks, mexicans, and others who are less able to defend themselves from unjust legal persecution.  Many, including Noam Chomsky, have seen that as the true motivation for Nixon's War on Drugs, and an extension of his Southern Strategy for the Republican Party.

The Beyond Vietnam speech of Dr King is the best presentation I've ever read regarding the story and facts about Vietnam up to the US Vietnam war.  He gets right to the heart of the matter, bypassing all the usual bogosity.  In this speech, King sounds very much like Noam Chomsky.  But actually King does even better than Chomsky, who is one of my favorite authors.  This is another reason for me to believe that if King were alive today, or even 30 years ago, he would have seen the War on Drugs just as Chomsky does, as a war on poor, colored, and indigenous peoples.

(*Not to be confused with the other uses of the same plant species, Cannibis Sativa--aka Hemp, which was a leading crop in Europe, the USA, and everywhere for it's incredibly useful fibers (soft yet durable) and seed oils, until after WWII when synthetic fibers such as nylon were capable of displacing it.  Hemp was one of the earliest plants under human cultivation, from about 6000 BCE, and it was grown on the estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and most others at that time.  New american settlers from Europe were once actually mandated to grow hemp by law (so they would have enough fiber for clothing and other purposes and thereby not require hard currency depleting imports such as cotton from India and silk from China)!  But wrt recreational drug use, European descendants have always been much more interested in the use of alcoholic beverages which goes back before the ancient Greeks and Romans, so the recreational and medicinal use of hemp was largely ignored in Western Uncivilization until the late 19th century, at which time the medicinal uses first became widely appreciated. The recreational (and religious) drug uses of Cannibis Sativa did have a much longer history in the middle east and asia.  Marijuana specifically refers to the resinous flowering tops of the hemp plant--which may be bred and cultivated differently to maximize either the stems for fiber or the resinous tops.)

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