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The New Coalition Against the Drug War

Why right-wingers, minorities and ravers are banding together to fight unjust drug laws

Gary Johnson, War on DrugsGary Johnson, War on Drugs

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson

Alex Wong/Newsmakers

Upon taking office, Attorney General John Ashcroft promised to “relaunch” the War on Drugs, to the applause of hard-line Republicans in Congress. Dissatisfied with 1999’s number of drug arrests — more than 1.5 million, a record 620,500 of them for pot possession — the administration is determined to increase funding for enforcement and prison construction; the $18 billion already spent each year by the federal government is deemed insufficient.

But this year the White House will face newly galvanized resistance. A range of newcomers, including police officers, doctors, ravers, minority advocates and Republicans, have been questioning the drug-prohibition orthodoxy and gaining political power. Six thousand doctors have joined an organization called Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy, which advocates that drug addiction be treated as a chronic illness. Chapters of a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which works to reverse a law restricting those with drug convictions from access to federal loans, thrive on 140 campuses. Urban activists, in groups such as Prison Moratorium Project and Mothers of the Disappeared, are protesting the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent black men in rural white towns that rely on full prisons for jobs.

The highest-ranking official to attack the drug war is New Mexico’s Republican governor, Gary Johnson, who, but for his radical stance on drug-law reform, would undoubtedly be a rising star of the GOP. A handsome, teetotaling self-made millionaire, Johnson hardly fits the countercultural mode of most reform advocates. He is an accomplished triathlete and a poster boy for the healthy lifestyle. But Johnson, much to the consternation of party leaders such as New Mexico senator Pete Domenici, is calling for the legalization, regulation and taxation of drugs, including pot, cocaine and heroin. Johnson enjoys high approval ratings in New Mexico, and drug-law reformers hope that he will help unify the disparate forces of the harm-reduction movement.

At the end of May, Johnson welcomed more than 800 members of this new coalition to Albuquerque for a conference held by the George Soros-funded Linde-smith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. There, the governor addressed a raucous group that included former inmates, fellow Republicans, religious leaders, ravers, anti-DARE drug educators, addiction counselors and the token handful of permanently stoned individuals. In his speech, he employed the good-conservative argument that drug prohibition is too costly. “There is not a bigger issue that is going unaddressed,” he maintained, “when you consider that fifty percent of spending on law enforcement, courts and prisons is going to the War on Drugs.” But he also reached out to recreational users, saying, “We’re all looking for a heightened sense of reality.” He was then met with respectful silence when he claimed that anyone who stops drinking for a while will probably join him in quitting for good, because, in his case, “It was the best decision I ever made in my life.”

Johnson would certainly be the perfect frontman for a legalization movement, but this audience does not uniformly believe that ingesting drugs should be legal. Few minority leaders, for example, insist on the potential spiritual benefits of psychedelics — they are focused on minimizing the damage drugs and drug trafficking do to their communities. Young activists want to draw attention to the economics of life in the ghetto, where dealing drugs may be the only well-paying option, and they want to get their friends and relatives out of prison. Dedicated ravers, on the other hand, want to make sure their drugs are safe, so they can party without friends getting sent to the hospital.

One goal that young drug-war opponents have in common is to correct the misperception that kids are increasingly dangerous. National hysteria has led forty-one states to make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults, even though in 1998 violent crime by youth decreased to its lowest point in twenty-five years. “Maybe we should have a right-to-vote movement for youth, if they’re going to criminalize us,” says Rashid Shabazz, a member of the Drop the Rock coalition in New York, which aims to repeal the state’s harsh mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws. “I’m sick and tired of youth being put last,” says Samantha Snow, 18, a recovering heroin addict and advocate for homeless youth in Albuquerque. “We’re the future leaders. If we all get STDs or go to prison or get shot, what’s going to happen to this country?”

These agitators are fed up with society’s taboo against explicit discussion of drugs. “We don’t need bullshit education like DARE,” says fifteen-year-old Albuquerque AIDS activist Kenny O’Malley. “Education needs to go into the details, with people who’ve been through it, or it’s not going to work.” Sandra Karpetas, a peer educator with the Higher Knowledge Network in British Columbia, points to a misconception about why kids try drugs. “Making a strong decision when I was in school was always about refusal skills,” she says. “But in my experience talking to kids, peer pressure is often pretty low. There’s many kids with very good self-esteem who take drugs for evolution, to learn more about themselves.”

Appreciating the potential benefits of recreational drugs is a luxury that minority activists don’t have time for. “Everyone knows: Why do you take drugs? To get fucked up!” says Shabazz. “Crack and heroin are not fun drugs, not party drugs — we’re talking about escape drugs,” says Rachel Jackson, state field director of Books Not Bars in San Francisco. “People turn to drugs because of abuse and desperation. Then there’s a limited number of things you can do to get the money you need for them: panhandle, rob people, deal dope, burglarize homes, hook people up with dealers, prostitute yourself — when women are giving blow jobs in parking lots, that’s not for fun.”

Last November, the white middle class made clear that it is far more ready to sympathize with the white drug user than with the black drug seller. Voters in California approved Proposition 36, which diverts addicts into treatment, by sixty-one percent to thirty-nine percent, but an initiative in Massachusetts, which would have allowed addicts who are also low-level dealers to get treatment instead of jail, failed by fifty-three percent to forty-seven percent. The low-level dealers most often arrested are black or Hispanic, a fact the public is conscious of through television coverage of the drug war.

Minority activists are trying to cope with society’s loathing of the drug pusher. Dorsey Nunn, an African-American lawyer from violence-ridden East Palo Alto, California, says he supported Proposition 36 on the premise that “the drug war was being fought in my community, and I was the rabbit being chased.” But he doesn’t view the new law as a magic spell that will dissipate decades of tension. “I knew the police chief wasn’t going to come over now and say, ‘Your homeboys are some great guys, y’all come on over,’ ” he says sadly. “And the district attorney wasn’t going to jump up and down and spread froufrou dust on us, and suddenly all this shit would be over.”

Police officers now openly acknowledge the racial strategies used to fight the drug war. In March, state troopers in New Jersey testified that Drug Enforcement Administration agents originated racial profiling to catch drug couriers. Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, California, and author of the forthcoming Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America’s War on Drugs, argues that mutual hostility between minorities and law enforcement is built into the current system. “As long as you have prohibition,” he maintains, “you have a police-state mentality at work: The police don’t know who has drugs, so they have to suspect everyone, but especially people of color.”

Although America’s law-enforcement agencies may concede that the drug war causes racial discrimination, police will never be leading protests on behalf of drug users. Doctors, however, might be expected to, especially since a study published in October in the Journal of the American Medical Association described drug addiction as a chronic medical condition, like hypertension or diabetes.

Every year, thousands of people across the world are newly infected with hepatitis C and HIV through heroin injection. In the United States, 10,000 people contract HIV from dirty needles every year. But syringe possession is illegal in most states, and the federal government has refused to fund needle exchange. This is “tantamount to murder by social policy,” says the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Teddy Shaw.

Doctors have stayed on the sidelines, says Brown University’s Dr. David Lewis, founder of Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy, because they “have been more or less driven out by the overwhelming presence of criminal-justice interests” — and by the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction. “It’s very similar in some ways to the stigma that was attached to tuberculosis and cancer at one point,” he says. “But I do believe, as the treatments get better, the stigma will lessen, and we’ll rely less on the criminal-justice system to handle the disease.”

As doctors begin to rally in support of treatment over incarceration, activists wait impatiently. Governor Johnson says he was shocked to learn there are drugs available, such as Naloxone, that can reverse heroin overdoses. “Overdose is a function of prohibition; we can arguably bring that number down,” he says. In New Mexico, he successfully pushed for a law allowing police officers to administer these drugs.

Support from the medical profession will be essential in the next big drug-reform campaign: Initiatives in 2002 are tentatively planned in Florida, Ohio and Michigan that, like California’s Proposition 36, would mandate treatment over prison for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. These are incremental, poll-tested campaigns, but ultimately, says Ethan Nadel-mann, the Lindesmith Center’s executive director, drug-law reformers will have to get bolder. They must address the nation’s justified fears about illegal drugs, he argues, in order to convince the public that adults should not be punished for what they put in their bodies. “We need to assert freedom of control over our own consciousness and sovereignty over our minds and bodies!” he exclaimed in a closing speech at the conference and was met with a standing ovation. 

In This Article: Coverwall, War on Drugs


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