Wednesday, December 5, 2012

War on Drugs America's shame

The War on Drugs has been with us for – let’s see – well, about 40 years, since  that day in 1971 when then President Richard Nixon declared war on what was perceived to be a growing epidemic of drug abuse across the United States. Certainly drug use was on the rise but few if any people today would agree the War on Drugs has been a success. In fact, as Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (opening at the Main Art Friday) shows, it neither has stopped or even reduced drug use but only perpetuated or increased it. The original crackdown on drug abuse may have had noble intentions. But despite decades-long evidence of failure it persists because politicians of all stripes like to be seen as tough on crime.  America jails more people than any other country in the world and has among the highest recidivism rates, largely among drug abusers. “This phony war doesn’t work and it just leads to more” abuse, says journalist David Simon, one of several people who have studied the drug war or been on the front lines of policing, prosecuting or defending. $1 trillion has been spent and more than 45 million arrests made. Perhaps the biggest scourge has been mandatory minimum sentences that have seen large numbers of people sent to jail for life for relatively small trafficking charges. One Oklahoma inmate is Kevin Chism who was arrested with three ounces of methamphetamine after two simple possession charges. He took his case to the Supreme Court and lost. “So here I am waiting for the law to change, or something,” he says wistfully, enough to bring tears to your eyes. Crack cocaine (which is cocaine that has been mixed with baking soda, water and heated) has warranted mandated sentences at 100-to-one severity compared to convictions for cocaine. Policing and neighbourhoods have also suffered, the film argues, because it’s a lot easier to round up drug traffickers and claim high arrest rates than go after more serious crime. The film explores the chronology of the war on drugs. This started with targeting minority groups and now, as a result of high joblessness, working class whites. But that harms everyone because, as one expert put it, “if you let their rights be compromised, your rights are compromised.” Journalist Simon, while insightful, goes over the top when he sarcastically muses, “Let’s just get rid of” the bottom 15 per cent of society, like the Nazis annihilated the Jews. But the film is long overdue as a protest against one of the most egregious criminal crackdowns in America’s history, a policy that shows little signs of abating because it’s always grist for the political mill and there is a prison-industrial complex that has grown up around it. Think about that the next time you hear of a community protesting closing their local prison.


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