The War on Drugs – Friendly Fire

It’s not news that since the 1980′s, the percentage of Americans in prison has quadrupled, and it’s only common sense that those prisoners have children – and it has been widely reported that now one in twenty eight children has a parent in jail. Just for perspective – the average class size in the US is around 24 . It’s not news, really, but I’ve been thinking about it lately because the father of one of my students was recently arrested, and I’d have to guess that the parental incarceration rate of the population I work with is somewhere around 20%. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the incarceration of a parent is acutely beneficial to a student – but the overall tendency for locking people up presents a huge obstacle for kids looking for social mobility. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle – I watch kids deal admirably with the challenge all the time – but it’s certainly not a fair one to throw in their way.

If you’re looking for an explanation for why the last thirty odd years have not been kind to the US in terms of dropout rates or international testing results, looking at the effect incarceration has on students is one of many places you can start. Add in the arrests of almost 200,000 school age kids a year for drug possession, and it becomes more and more of a wonder that the United States keeps up with the rest of the industrialized world as well as it does. As we continue to follow these policies, our schools and the populations they serve are treated more and more as headquarters, battlegrounds, and collateral damage in our war on drugs, which makes it harder and harder to get an education there.

5 comments
The Polish Wolf
The Polish Wolf

Mark - I think you expect too little of your leaders. It's too much to expect them to abstain from drugs and extramarital affairs? As to the focus on poor neighborhoods - some of that may be racially motivated, but who is easier to score convictions off of, wealthy people who do drugs indoors (beyond the reach of a warrant-less search) and can hire competent defense attorneys, or somebody using drugs in public and counting on an overworked public defender. Drug enforcement need not be aimed at any group of society, it will undoubtedly hit the poor hardest, as does any law, because the poor will always have worse access to attorneys and be more likely to commit crimes in public. Ultimately I think we probably agree on drug policy, but a couple more points - the use of drug dealing to fund both leftist and rightest insurgents is well documented - FARC and the Shining Path, for example. And more than that, that amount of money in an illegal economy gives a great deal of power to violent individuals, groups like Los Zetas, who then can leverage that position to extend violence outside the sphere of drug trafficking. And finally, "But bottom line, most drugs are relatively harmless – pot, LSD, meth, cocaine, illegal prescription drugs" What are you talking about? I don't know your degree of first hand experience with these drugs, but they add up to a lot of bad decisions. As far as direct chemical effects, 2011 was in fact the first year more people died from drug effects than car accidents (the majority from prescription drug abuse). Minor points aside, I generally agree with the outcome, if not the intent, of the drug war. The US has a higher rate of drug use than any country in the industrial world. We need to fix that, and incarceration is clearly not working.

Mark Tokarski
Mark Tokarski

I cannot walk that path with you - the idea that if kids want to be rebels, all they need do is abstain from use of drugs. It's akin to saying that if we want to be political dissidents, all we need do is abstain from politics. If the object of repression is to imprison people considered a threat to established order, then the means is to criminalize normal behavior, creating guilt in half the population, by your admission, and allowing John Law to pick and choose who to harass. Blacks are 39.4% of the inmate population, Hispanics 20.6, so that 60% of the inmates are minorities - they compose about 30% of the population. Further, drug use in black and Hispanic populations and white populations is about the same. I'm not sure about violent crime but would be surprised if it were much different. In other words, even if the policy is not consciously about imprisonment of minorities, that is the effect. Read John Taylor Gatto sometime, if you haven't, about how NYPD routinely swoops down into black neighborhoods to arrest the men. Imagine then, that the amount of drug use in the Hamptons or on Wall Street is the same or (likely) higher, and imagine what would happen should swoop in. There would soon be new police and a new commissioner. Drug policy is aimed at people without power, and is effective in preventing organization has happened in the 50's and 6o's. "while it provided an excuse for military intervention in Latin America, the drug war as also funded leftist groups that continue to harass our preferred regimes and are used as a tool by those we oppose. " That's long been the accusation - that both sides do it. I don't know about that, as I've only seen evidence that the Contras were deeply involved in the drug trade, but not the Sandinistas, for example. Mexican drug lords, as far as I can see, are merely capitalists. But this I know: In Colombia, the US is running a counterinsurgency operation - after Israel and Egypt, that country is the largest recipient of US military aid. Until recently, it was masked as part of the "War on Drugs." I read somewhere in the last few years that it was officially transferred to tech War on Terror, another cover for counterinsurgency. But bottom line, most drugs are relatively harmless - pot, LSD, meth, cocaine, illegal prescription drugs - for the few that are highly addictive or damaging to health, like crack, or for people who tend to addiction of any substance, treatment works, incarceration doesn't. Officials know this. If they were really interested in drugs as a social phenomenon, they know what to do.

The Polish Wolf
The Polish Wolf

"Most people in jail for drug offenses are black. " A disproportionate number, but no longer a majority. "http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/14/AR2009041401775_2.html" But even if that is the goal of the drug war, I can't imagine for whom it is still worthwhile, except those who build and run prisons. It locks billions of dollars out of the productive economy, damages the Mexican economy, which could otherwise be a profitable market. And while it provided an excuse for military intervention in Latin America, the drug war as also funded leftist groups that continue to harass our preferred regimes and are used as a tool by those we oppose. "From a totalitarian standpoint, the same principle applies: criminalize something that most people do, drugs in this instance." Moreover, and this is why it's not an effective social control tool - most people don't use drugs. http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500368_162-4222322.html Nearly half do, admittedly, but that hardly can stop black leaders from arising - simply refrain from doing drugs, like half of all Americans, and stay out of jail. You're missing a key component in the cycle, which is popular culture. Look at what kids are watching today - that is, those who are inclined to challenge mainstream, moral majority values - everything suggests that part of being a rebel, of sticking it to the man, of not being milquetoast, is doing drugs, drinking in clubs, and generally spending money. Even otherwise intelligent-seeming artists tend to embrace this fallacy. Weed as culture is marketed aggressively to 'rebels'. But the fact is, as I tell my students, as soon as you take drugs, you give the government an excuse to shut you up and de-legitimatize your voice. There are commercial, cultural forces at work driving up US drug use (which is the highest in the industrial world), without which the drug war would not have nearly the same penetration into US society that it does.

Mark Tokarski
Mark Tokarski

That's the "drug war" in a nutshell, by the way. It is only incidentally about drugs. Domestically it is about control of minorities, and abroad it is stealth counterinsurgency.

Mark Tokarski
Mark Tokarski

I was raised a Catholic, and only in retrospect now understand their MO - takes something we all do, criminalize it and shame us. Catholics used sex as a means of controlling us, since all of us young people wanted it, could not resist it, and so felt guilty. From a totalitarian standpoint, the same principle applies: criminalize something that most people do, drugs in this instance. In that manner, the state can pick and choose who it incarcerates. Most people in jail for drug offenses are black. No surprise. In the 60's the state had to resort to murder to get rid of black leaders. Then came the Rockafeller drug laws, and it had a means of throwing them in jail before they could threaten power.