By Doug Porter
It turns out that Making America Great Again involves rolling back drug policy and enforcement to the 1960s.
The first step in such a reversal involves denying science. The second step involves ginning up the racism. The final step involves reviving mass incarceration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear in a speech in Richmond, Va on March 15, that enforcement is now the primary tool in responding to drug abuse, and, apparently, casual use.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
While nobody I’m aware of is advocating for selling pot in corner stores, there is evidence, via a UCSD study suggesting medical marijuana legalization can reduce opioid-related hospitalizations. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with medical marijuana laws have lower death rates from opiate overdose.
The Trump administration’s approach to this sort of research–and research in general–has been proposals to cut funding.
He wants to cut NIH funding by $1.2 billion this year. Next year, under his proposed budget, the agency’s budget would be slashed by another $5.8 billion. Trump’s aides have defended the cuts, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the government has long been wasting money on overhead for universities and other institutions that receive NIH grants. But researchers across the country have warned of devastating consequences if Trump’s proposed cuts were actually enacted.
A Bi-Polar Approach
As the Atlantic’s City Lab points out, the Trump administration appears to have a “split personality” where it comes to drug policy.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been appointed to head up a commission on combatting drug addiction. For all his other faults, Christie does have a track record for a humane approach toward dealing with drug addiction.
This contrasts with the tough guy attitude embodied in Sessions’ pronouncements.
City Lab quotes the Wall Street Journal:
The tug of war in the new administration reflects its two different constituencies: traditional conservatives, who favor a crackdown on crime that the president frequently links to illegal immigration and urban areas, and the white, working-class and rural communities who welcome a compassionate focus on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged their neighborhoods.
…And goes on to say:
Translation: White people will get rehabilitation. Black and Latino people will get incarceration.
Or, as the Drug Policy Alliance deputy director Michael Collins said in the WSJ article: “We’re seeing the beginning of a new war on drugs.”
While origins of the “other” narrative in drug disparagement go all the way back to the middle ages, it is bound up in US history with responses to immigration and racial subjugation.
From Dr. David Bearman, writing at Alternet:
In the United States, starting in the mid-19th century, this became a strategy for marginalizing immigrants. This included the Irish Catholic immigrants who arrived on American shores during the Potato Famine in the 1840s, then German immigrants, followed soon after by Chinese immigrants at the time of the Gold Rush in the late 1840s and the transcontinental railroad in early 1860s. The tone for contemporary enforcement of drug laws was set over a century ago with demonization of Irish whiskey drinkers, German beer drinkers and Chinese opium smokers.
The first opium laws were directed at the Chinese. The alcohol laws were propelled by anti-Irish and anti-German immigrant sentiment. After the end of slavery, laws against cocaine were directed toward African Americans. In 1903, cocaine was taken out of Coca-Cola because of fear of sexual arousal by cocaine in black men (but not white men). With the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the U.S saw an influx of poor Mexicans into the Southwest who brought marijuana with them. Soon anti-marijuana laws passed in many places, first in western states and then eastern states.
Modern day drug enforcement priorities came about during the Nixon era, as John Ehrlichman told Dan Baum in Harpers:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Prisons for Profit
Among the earliest beneficiaries of the Trump election victory were private prison corporations, who correctly assumed reliance on their services would increase along with a crackdown on immigration.
The stock value of GEO Group, one of the largest private prison operators in the US fell to $19.51 a share on August 18, the day the Obama administration announced the Federal Bureau of Prison would phase out the use of private facilities.
In February, when Sessions’ Justice Department set aside that decision, the stock price rose to $47.75 a share. According to USA Today, private prison operators were among the biggest funders of Trump $100 million inaugural flop.
Given that the crackdown on immigration has a limited shelf life, those facilities will also be available for a new wave of prisoners brought on by increased federal prosecutions of state and local crimes and new mandatory minimum sentence laws being drafted at the Justice Department.
The current administration’s 2018 budget proposal asks for a $1 billion cut in federal prison construction, so it’s safe to assume private contractors will take up the slack as the prison population increases again.
And possible bonus for prison operators will come if the administration can find a way to get any of the proposed paths to healthcare insurance ‘reform’ through the Congress. All of them contain provisions impacting support for addiction recovery programs.
Drug offenses are a large portion of inmates in the federal correctional system, according to a study released last month by Prison Policy Initiative.
Via the Crime Report:
According to the new Prison Policy Initiative tally, 50 percent of the 197,000 federal prison inmates were convicted on narcotics offenses. Violent-crime convictions account for just 7 percent of the federal total.
By contrast, 16 percent of those in state prisons and 26 percent of convicts in local jails are confined on drug offenses. Overall, one of every five incarcerated persons in the country are locked up for drugs.
A Washington Post profile of hardline prosecutor Steven H. Cook, now one of the Attorney General’s top aides, gives a glimpse of where things are headed:
Sessions is also expected to take a harder line on the punishment for using and distributing marijuana, a drug he has long abhorred. His crime task force will review existing marijuana policy, according to a memo he wrote prosecutors last week. Using or distributing marijuana is illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin, and considered more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine.
In his effort to resurrect the practices of the drug war, it is still unclear what Sessions will do about the wave of states that have legalized marijuana in recent years. Eight states and the District of Columbia now permit the recreational use of marijuana, and 28 states and the District have legalized the use of medical marijuana.
But his rhetoric against weed seems to get stronger with each speech. In Richmond, he cast doubt on the use of medical marijuana and said it “has been hyped, maybe too much.”
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
You can now get the Weekly Progressive Calendar delivered to your inbox every Friday. And it’s Free! Subscribe and get an email every time a new article in this series is posted!
Subscriptions to the Starting Line (Monday-Friday) are available:
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to “The Starting Line” and get an email every time a new article in this series is posted!
I read the Daily Fishwrap(s) so you don’t have to… Catch “the Starting Line” Monday thru Friday right here at San Diego Free Press (dot) org. Send your hate mail and ideas to DougPorter@SanDiegoFreePress.Org Check us out on Facebook and Twitter.