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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

Drugs, Addiction and the War on the Poor

By Bonnie Weinstein

The administration of justice does not fall equally on the poor and the rich alike. The rich are at a distinct advantage and the poor don’t stand a chance. And while the war on drugs penalizes the poor with disproportionately harsh sentences, the wealthy go unpunished for crimes of a much more serious nature, proving that the American justice system really has nothing to do with justice at all but is a form of tyranny over the poor.

Recently the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, Bishop Thomas O’Brien, 67, cut a deal with prosecutors that gave him immunity from prosecution if he admitted that he allowed priests to work with minors even after he knew of sexual molestation charges against them; and he had to admit that he simply transferred those priests to other ministries without disclosing those charges to anyone, putting other children in danger.

Bishop O’Brien was in the news again after he was involved in a hit and run accident that killed 43-year-old Jim Reed. After being arrested, the Bishop was released on $45,000 bail.

This story stands in contrast to one I have personal knowledge of. It involved an arrest of a young man for the suspected sale of $20 dollars worth of marijuana. The incident took place recently in downtown San Francisco.

This young man, I’ll call him Harry, stood talking with a group of six of his friends at about 11:30 pm one weekday evening. They were not intoxicated but were talking together for a few minutes while deciding where to go to eat after a show. His friends are all good, hard working kids. Two have graduated from college and have good jobs; the others are struggling to survive even though they are working most of the time. It’s a typical mix of young people in a city like San Francisco.

On the evening in question, a young woman with purple hair approached Harry and asked him if he knew where she could get $20 dollars worth of marijuana. And, yes, he knew where she could get it.

Unfortunately, for Harry, she was a police informant and he was arrested. His bail was set at $45,000—the same amount set for the Bishop involved in multiple child molestation cover-ups and a fatal hit and run! The Bishop had the whole Catholic Church behind him and Harry had on his side his granddad, his mom, the bail bondsman, and the public defender. And as a result of this arrest and first conviction ever, he was sentenced to three years probation (during which he can be stopped and searched at will) and a $4,500 debt. (The fee charged by bail bond companies for posting bail is 10 percent of the amount loaned.)

The war on drugs has criminalized a generation of poor working class people who grew up in a drug culture and live in such a culture today. Illegal drugs are a multi-billion dollar business. Its use is not going to go away anymore than alcohol use went away during prohibition.

Marijuana has been used by every culture on the planet for centuries and has become the drug of choice for tens of millions of young people and adults here and around the world. Madison Avenue and Hollywood know it and have capitalized on this culture and adapted their advertising and their most popular television shows and movies to appeal to and profit from it. They slip it in whenever they can because it’s today’s recreational drug of choice and attracts larger audiences and thus higher profits from advertisers.

They show people using it and having fun getting high—just as Nick and Nora Charles always held a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and Humphrey Bogart always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. But behind these cute TV shows that depict good kids harmlessly getting high on a joint in your average Midwest home in the ’70s, is the sinister reality the poor face today in the booming American justice system.

Millions are being incarcerated and lives ruined, at a cost of billions of dollars in tax money, for doing the very same thing depicted as benign youthful experimentation in TV shows and movies. And while white middle class folks, young and old, use pot just as much as anyone else, the police are concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods and communities of color where most of the arrests are made.

The war on drugs has nothing to do with solving the problems surrounding the real horror of drug addiction. There is a blatant double standard of drug treatment for the rich and the poor. Drug addiction among the wealthy is treated as a family matter. Their well-paid lawyers see to it that they are sent off to “Betty Fords” or some other extravagantly expensive rehabilitation center. There, in serene and beautiful surroundings, they get 24-hour psychiatric care while living in the lap of luxury—swimming pools, sauna’s, massages, etc. Their families can afford to pay all of their bills for as long as necessary until they make a complete recovery.

A poor person, sick with drug dependency must wait as long as a year to get into a drug treatment program. Meanwhile both casual users and medically impaired addicts are treated as more serious criminals than child molesters and hit-and-run drivers.

Almost none of the money that is spent on the war on drugs is spent on rehabilitation. While the awful plague of addiction especially impacts the poor—who desperately need medical help and economic assistance, not jail sentences. In an article by Scott Shane in The Baltimore Sun (June 1st, 2003) entitled, “Locked Up in the Land of the Free,” he writes: “With a record-setting 2 million people locked up in American jails and prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country….” And according to the same article quoting Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, “…sentencing policies have had a glaringly disproportionate impact on Black men. The Justice Department reports that one in eight Black men in their 20s and early 30s were behind bars last year, compared with one in 63 white men. A Black man has a one-in-three chance of going to prison…”

The same article confirms that, “A major cause of the increase is the war on drugs. ‘In 1980,’ says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, ‘about 40,000 Americans were locked up solely for drug offenses. Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them Black or Hispanic, although drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites.’”

“Drug abuse cuts across class and race,” says Mauer, “But drug law enforcement is focused on low-income neighborhoods.”

Support for the war on drugs, moreover, is definitely bi-partisan. According to Eric Schlosser’s book, Reefer Madness, “The number of marijuana arrests more than doubled during the Clinton years, reaching their highest level in American history. Far more people were arrested for marijuana during the Clinton presidency than during any other U.S. presidency. Although Richard Nixon seemed to be the great nemesis of pot smokers, more than three times as many people were arrested for marijuana while Bill Clinton was president.”

Not only are the young, poor and non-white the targets for drug punishment even though wealthy kids use it just as much. The huge increase in unemployment among the young. (The fact that the unemployment rate of 16 to 19-year-old’s went from 12.4 percent in June of 2000 to 19.3 percent in June of 2003, compounds the situation driving more poor kids out into the streets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Meanwhile, recreational use of marijuana and other illegal drugs has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment among the young whether they are rich or poor, Black or white. And while some do experiment in alcohol, cigarettes and other addictive drugs, a comparatively small number of them actually become addicted. Most use it socially, as many others drink a glass of beer or wine.

The history of exactly how marijuana became illegal sheds light on the purpose for the war on drugs and why it is still illegal today. It started around 1910, after the Mexican revolution. At that time many Mexican immigrants emigrated to the United States to escape the social and economic disorder of war. That’s when the U.S. government declared marijuana illegal.

It was a convenient means of control over Mexican farm workers who had been using it for centuries and naturally, brought the seeds of this easily grown weed with them in order to relax after a hard-day’s labor in the fields of American agribusiness. It is also used as a medicine for many ills

Farm workers who complained or caused trouble in the fields were singled out. These laws were also accompanied by racially stereotyping Mexican migrant workers who were depicted in the newspapers as sex-crazed drug demons that lust after white women while high on marijuana. Similar racist stereotyping has been used against Blacks.

Such racist practices have been well documented. William Randolph Hearst had a lot to do with promoting that. You can read a history of American marijuana use and laws at www.jackherever.com. His extensive and well-documented book entitled, The Emperor Wears No Clothes can be read free on the site.

The criminalization of drugs becomes a self-perpetuating crime factory. If drugs were legal, if abuse and addiction were treated as the sicknesses they are, there would be no need for placing an army of occupation in ghettoes and other working-class communities. If it were really about preventing drug addiction and crime, the best way to go about it would be to de-criminalize all drugs and use all the money spent on incarceration and law enforcement to provide top notch drug rehabilitation for all those who need it.

The $399 billion tax dollars earmarked for U.S. military spending and the cost of the war on drugs is stripping social services. According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), “…between 1980 and 2000, state spending on corrections grew at a rate six times that of state spending on higher education.” And, “During the same period, the population of prisons quadrupled, growing from 500,000 to 2 million.” The JPI estimates that during this time, “…for every one African American male who entered a college or a university, three African American males entered a jail or prison.” (And there are similar trends among all minorities—including among the white working class.)

The giant American prison industrial complex is part and parcel with its military industrial complex and both are the means by which the capitalist class, represented by both Democrats and Republican alike, intend to keep control over the world working class.

The question we should be asking is how far could a $399 billion dollar military budget, plus a $34 billion dollar budget spent on a corrupt justice system go to solve all human needs, to end hunger, find a cure for AIDS and cancer, create jobs and housing, build schools, provide healthcare and rehabilitate all people who suffer from debilitating drug addiction?

How far could this money go to build a healthy, caring society dedicated to solving human needs and the needs of the whole planet? If all the worlds’ wealth and resources were dedicated to solving human needs there would be no need for war or jails. A world wide, planned economy under the democratic control of the whole working class—the overwhelming majority of people on the planet—could guarantee everyone the basic necessities of life; the right to the pursuit of happiness; meaningful and rewarding jobs; roomy and attractive, quality housing built by craftsmen who love their work; a clean environment with plenty of open space; free healthcare and unlimited educational and job opportunities for all.

In other words, a rational social order based on production for the satisfaction of human needs not profit!





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