The Transylvania Times -

'War On Drugs' Focus Of Talk - Brevard, NC


October 30, 2017

Editor’s Note: The second of four presentations on drugs, addiction and drug policy was recently held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard. The series’ goal has been to advocate for a more compassionate, productive approach to drugs and addiction.

The topic of the second meeting was “The Tragedy and Damage of the War on Drugs.”

The following is the first of two stories from the second meeting. The second story will appear in Thursday’s paper. Stories from the third and fourth meetings will appear in upcoming editions.

The War on Drugs and the social constructs of both institutionalized racism and class disparagement were the focal points in the second part of the community discussion about drug addiction in the United States.

About 45 people attended the program at the Unitarian Universalist Church, with local resident Jim Hardy moderating. A four-member panel discussion took place after an hour-long clip of the award-winning documentary film “The House I Live In,” which was produced by Eugene Jarecki. The film won the Grand Jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and in 2014 it won a Peabody Award. The full-length film is available to stream online.

As a sort of abbreviated history lesson, the film’s producer interviewed people such as historian Richard Miller, author of “The Case For Legalizing Drugs” and “The Encyclopedia of Addictive Drugs.”

“Historically antidrug laws have always been associated with race,” Miller said in the film. “In the 1900s certain drugs were common in this country. For example, the concern was not the opium itself, but who was using it, the Chinese. They were working hard, becoming part of the American success story, but their success was taking jobs away from white workers, so politicians got together and decided to find something about the Chinese for which they could be criminalized.”

Miller said that they couldn’t be thrown in jail for being Chinese, but they could be for smoking opium. The same practice was used for blacks and the use of cocaine, he said. Cocaine use among the black community fueled their required daylong labors, giving them extra strength, seemingly, and energy to perform their tasks. Marijuana use among Mexican laborers was the same. The drug was outlawed not for its properties, but for who was using it.

“These laws set a very dangerous precedent of racial control,” he said.

Around the same time, blacks were migrating into urban areas to find jobs and escape the Jim Crow South.

The documentary also interviews David Simon, the creator of “The Wire” television series. Simon also spent about a decade on the police beat at The Baltimore Sun, and later wrote “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.”

Simon points to the city of Baltimore as just one example of institutional racism in city and urban planning.

“Very few people know this but if you go and look at how the African American housing patterns were established in the ’30s and ’40s, even as a result of the New Deal and the Federal Housing Administration, which was a Democratic program established to encourage home ownership amidst the Depression, it did more to create ghettos than any other federal program before it. They were exclusionary to black people,” he said.

According to Simon, migrating blacks were placed in poor areas of cities and then officials drew a red line around those areas. FHA loans were not written or granted for people who lived in them. By 1960, industry had moved out of the inner cities overseas, leaving high concentrations of poor people vulnerable to drug trafficking and all the other problems associated with being jobless.

“What happens when groups are denied access to core economic engines in a society?” Simon said. “They create their own out of the prohibited economies. This was true of the Italians, the Irish, the Jews and everyone else who came to the cities a generation before the African Americans arrived.”

As time went on, the number of incarcerated blacks outpaced the number of whites, and with the arrival of crack cocaine on the streets in the 1980s, some judges began to question the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.

The film also includes Judge Mark Bennett, who said it was not ethical for a crack defendant with 5 grams of crack to be treated the same as a powder cocaine defendant with 100 times the weight. More often than not, blacks were convicted of crack possession and whites were convicted of powder possession.

“I don’t think most people realize this. What is the difference? The difference is you add baking soda, water and heat from an oven,” he said.

Today, white inmates have started receiving the same kind of sentencing from the courts as blacks, with the rise of methamphetamine, crossing racial barriers and muddying socioeconomic boundaries.

Bennett said the average person he sentences in a drug case is a white blue collar worker who lost his or her job and turned to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, and that the drug is often associated with poor white people and those that live in trailer parks.

Some of these men and women are in jail until the day they die.

The film’s somber end touched on the private prison complex industry and the economics of the “war on the drugs.”

“Capitalism is fairly color blind in the end,” Simon said. “Our economic engine, when it doesn’t need someone, it doesn’t need someone. It doesn’t give a damn who you are. White people found out a little bit later than black people, but they found out.”

Simon said that the war on drugs had become a war on the poor, and, big picture, it was similar to the Holocaust in slow motion.

“There is a horrible destruction of human lives that is class based, not race based, that is going on under the guise of the illegal narcotics market,” he said.

After the film, Hardy recalled an article written by Dan Baum that ran in a 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine. The article read that when Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs it had nothing to do with the GI’s who were coming back from Vietnam who were supposedly going to be addicted to heroin; it was about getting his enemies.

“Black people were crusading for civil rights at the time, and they were creating a great disturbance in this country, and it was about getting hippies with marijuana,” Hardy said. “Back in the ’30s, people were convinced that if a black man were to smoke marijuana it turned him into a sex crazed fiend who would rape your white wife. The press loved it because they could sensationalize it, and it sold. Sometimes, the press presents the dark side rather than the truth.”

Hardy said that this came out in 2012 before the current opioid crisis, but now we’re really paying attention to it because it involves white middle class people.

He said there has always been a problem with opioid addiction as there is with all the illegal drugs.

Hardy mentioned that last year Canada legalized heroin as a treatment for opioid addiction, which he said has been going on in Switzerland and Great Britain for 10 years.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, among Portuguese adults there are now just three drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the UK and all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The European Union average is 17.3 per million. In the United States, it is 196 per million.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between the years 2000 and 2014, the United States experienced a 137 percent increase in deaths from drug overdoses.

In the United States in 2016, the CDC recorded more than 64,000 deaths directly related to drug overdoses.

Heroin led the rate at 15,446, with natural and semi-synthetic opioids at 14,427, methamphetamine at 7,663 and methadone at 3,114. Hemp accounted for zero deaths.

In 2014, the World Health Organization officially advocated for the decriminalization of drugs worldwide, and later the United Nations supported it.

“That’s not going to get rid of all the problems but it will go a long way toward it,” said Hardy. “As long as people take these drugs on the street, as long as there is a black market for it, there is going to be an incredible amount of health problems and an incredible amount of crime. The easiest way to support a drug habit is to sell drugs.”

History Lesson

Panelist Dan Carter, a historian, said he was not an expert on drugs, but his attendance was to provide a historical perspective.

“I began the first stage of my career work as a graduate student writing a master’s thesis on something that no one had written anything about in 1964,” he said.

Carter wrote the first thesis on the convict lease system in the American South.

“This began in the 1870s after the biracial governments that formed during Reconstruction were overthrown, often by violence, and all white governments came to power,” he said. “Almost by accident they realized quickly that there was money to be made from prisoners, with no costs, because with many of the South’s penitentiary jails destroyed during the war they began arresting all these black people. The state of Alabama did it first, then Tennessee did it. They began leasing them to private contractors to build railroads, to mine, dig canals and build levies in Louisiana.”

Carter said that at first it started small scale, but by the 1890s there were more than 40,000 blacks in the state-leasing programs throughout the South.

He said that in these programs inmate mortality rates ran from 10-20 percent per year.

“The question is, what does this have to do with the drug war and this whole issue we are dealing with here today,” he asked. “I would argue it has a lot to do with it. As I began to read over the years and did more work and writing about the criminal justice system in the South, I worked as a certified federal historian to comment and advise on issues of racial discrimination for President Bill Clinton, the American Civil Liberties Union and for President George Bush.”

In 1989, Carter received a fellowship with the Roosevelt Foundation in the Netherlands in a town called Middleburg, the location of the country’s largest penitentiary, which held about 900 people.

Carter said he got to know a bus driver who was also a part-time guard at the prison. She invited Carter to meet the prison warden. On the Saturday that he arrived, the prison was hosting the political parties that had nominees in an upcoming election.

The parties were setting up election booths for prisoners to get information.

“All I thought was, ‘I am not in Kansas anymore,’” Carter said.

Carter told her that U.S. prisoners are not allowed to vote.

The woman told Carter that “they are trying to bring these people back into some sort of proper relationship with the civil society, and asked why shouldn’t they encourage them to take part in politics?”

Carter said the Dutch were concerned about their high recidivism rate, meaning they return to jail shortly after being released for committing another crime.

Carter said the Dutch rate is about 45 percent over five years, and most of the charges are related to drugs. In Sweden, he said it’s 32 percent, in Denmark it’s 27 percent and in Norway 22 percent. Carter said you don’t go to prison in the Scandinavian countries unless you’ve done something really serious. According to the Bureau of Justice, inmates released from U.S. state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6 percent. A U.S. Sentencing Commission study calculated comparable federal prisoners released have a 44.7 percent re-arrest rate after five years.

“That’s when I realized that we are doing something terribly wrong, not to say that every European country has it right,” he said. “Italy is horrible, and France is not so good, but there are other countries that have figured out a way to deal with the problem with both people who are abusing drugs and common criminals.”

Carter said he wanted to know why the U.S. convict lease program continued and said that the reasons, in some cases, are obvious: race, for one. He said the other factor involved was financial incentive and that powerful people made a lot of money.

In 1922, U.S. Steel had 5,000 convicts under the convict release system.

“These were not redneck hillbillies from Alabama,” Carter said. “They were sitting in their mansions in Pittsburgh reaping the benefits of this.”

Other than race, class and money, Carter touched on a fourth factor.

“The last factor is a bit more difficult to describe,” he said. ‘It’s the support that we as Americans give to this inhumane and awful counterproductive system. My belief is that we are still in the grips of a strain of thought that we, for a lack of a better term, call our Calvinistic heritage.”

Carter said that to the Calvinist material wealth is a sign that the affluent is one of the elect and, therefore, is favored by God. For who better to shepherd a society of God’s wayward children than an all-powerful elect father figure acting on God’s behalf, he asked.

“The poor, the weak, the racially inferior — God was punishing them for their sins,” he said. “At the same time, the kind of authoritarian and strict patriarchal control used in families – spare the rod, spoil the child – I think was easily transposed into a framework for dealing with deviants of all kinds— criminals, drug addicts, alcoholics — that emphasized strict ‘morality’ and harsh punishment as the appropriate moral option for those who needed to be taught self control.”

Carter said few things better illustrate this than the evolution of the use of Pell grants for prisoners. He said that beginning in 1980 federal Pell grants were used very extensively for prisoners who wanted to take college courses. He said at the University of South Carolina an inmate could get a college degree at the state penitentiary, but in 1994 in the midst of the “war on drugs” Pell grants in prisons were scrapped. Before it was scrapped, the recidivism rate amongst those that had participated in the two-year program was less than 25 percent, Carter said.

“It seems insane, but for those who see punishment as a form of righteous revenge that places morality at the center of decision making, arguments based on practical observations of what might actually work better don’t seem relevant to many people,” he said. “So what are we to do? We certainly have to change society and give these people a place in society, but we also need to think about reshaping the way in which we look at the world.”

The final program of a four-part series on drugs and addiction will be held at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 31, at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Varsity Street in Brevard.

This final program will feature several local experts in the field who will share what they do and answer questions from the audience. The program is free and open to the public.


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