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I’m a big fan of understanding things.  I guess you could say that I subscribe to the theory that if we don’t understand the past, we are likely to repeat it.  And in the name of my love of really looking at things, today’s blog post is a little education about the ‘War on Drugs.’

I’ll start with Reagan (president Reagan.) I could start earlier, and draw some pretty convincing lines between the American political ideology of ‘getting tough on crime’ and what many perceive as a racist campaign to keep people of color in their place, but that would take weeks and weeks of blog posts. If you’re interested in that (and I wish I could get every one of you to be interested in that) you should check out Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  All I can say is, bring a box of tissues and a good pen to start writing your politicians.

But for our purposes, we’ll leave the racial discussion out of things (sort of) and talk numbers and impact.

Reagan won over a large number of disaffected Democrats who were dissatisfied with Democratic policies on crime and the economy.  He did this largely by campaigning on a ‘get tough on street crime’ platform.  Notably, once elected, his campaign promises were challenged by the fact that fighting crime was at the time, largely the responsibility of state and local law enforcement.  Once elected, the Justice Department made sweeping financial changes that cut half the budget for identifying and prosecuting white-collar crime, and ballooned the budget (and power) of federal law enforcement.  “Practically overnight budgets of federal law enforcement agencies soared.  Between 1980-1984, the FBI anti-drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million dollars.”  Wow! That’s an increase of more than 300%, and know that every federal agency got more money to fight the drug war, resulting in billions and billions of dollars being spent. (Email me for more stats or references if you are interested.)

Ok, onward!  In 1982 Reagan officially announces a war on drugs, although at the time, most Americans didn’t really think drugs were much of an issue (about 2%  identified drugs as a major concern in America.)  Republicans (the party and the president) realized immediately that in order to justify huge expenditures of tax payer money, Reagan’s ‘tough on street crime’ stance and his official ‘War on Drugs’ was going to need a very public forum. It’s important to state here that this isn’t a political push.  I’m going to nail the Democrats a few paragraphs down.

Long story short, alliances are made with several public media institutions, and federal law enforcement (as well as state and local law) start fighting the drug war on the street (aka: in public places like parks, neighborhoods, outside the Stop-and-Gas.)  This largely becomes a conceptualized war on Crack cocaine, although there is no indication at the time that crack is more of a problem than powder cocaine and it is practically the same from a pharmacological perspective.

But there are differences. Crack is cheap. And it is easily sold to and used by the poor. And the poor use (and buy and sell) their drugs outside, on the street, in public places, where it’s easy to find and arrest them, while the not as poor use, buy and sell their drugs behind closed doors.  Anyway, I could go further with that, but won’t.  Point is, by 1986, even the media (who always love a good entertainment story) is on board.  Time Magazine announces Crack cocaine as the ‘issue of the year.’

That same year (’86) the house passes legislation allotting more than $2 billion to anti-drug crusades. Among its provisions: the use of military for narcotics control, allowing the death penalty in some drug-related crimes and authorizing the admission of some illegally obtained evidence in drug trials (yeah, people were still going to trial back then! Can you believe it? That was before the age of prosecutorial power and plea bargaining practically put the courtroom out of business!)  The Senate came along behind the house and further proposed the now infamous ‘mandatory minimum sentencing’ laws (applying at this point only to selling drugs) and more severe punishments for the possession, use or sale of crack than of powder cocaine. The few dissenting political voices that were calling bull-shit on that one (why should sentences be harsher for crack than coke-or for blacks than whites?) were lonely voices.

Under Reagan, anti-drug laws were revisited again in 1988 and made even more punitive, including civil penalties for drug offenders and allowing eviction of any tenant (let’s say the unsuspecting mother of a child involved in drug sale or use) who ‘allows’ drug-related activity to occur on or near public housing.  The law also eliminates federal benefits (including student loans!) for anyone convicted of any drug-related offenses, expands the use of the death penalty in serious drug cases and imposes new mandatory minimum sentences including a 5 year minimum sentence for simple possession of any cocaine base, even with no intent to sell. This sentence would apply to 1st time offenders.  By 1991, the increase in the number of people incarcerated behind bars was unprecedented in world history.

So Reagan (and his Republican majority) clearly pushed through legislation that significantly changed the strategies for controlling both a political message and a public problem in the United States.  Some point to him as the culprit for the disastrous failure of the ‘War on Drugs,’ but history (by the numbers) tells a more complete story.

Former President Bill Clinton had no intention of being seen as ‘soft on crime’ and by the time his candidacy rolled around the Democratic party had had just about enough of losing its middle voters to Republicans for being seen as too liberal on issues of crime and punishment. Under Clinton we would see 2 major developments.  The first was the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law.  A $30 billion dollar crime bill Clinton signed in office (1994) mandated life sentences for three-time offenders.  It also authorized $16 billion dollars in grants for states and communities building prisons. “The Clinton administration’s ‘tough on crime’ policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”  Clinton may also be in part responsible for one of the largest failures in child welfare–TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.) The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended welfare in this country as we (then) knew it.  TANF imposed a 5 year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of any felony drug offense-including simple possession of marijuana. Clinton also made it easier for HUD to exclude and evict those with any criminal history.  

So practically overnight, countless poor (who had been rounded up by a dedicated war on crack cocaine) were homeless.

What is the point of all this? 

It is not to argue a particular political ideology.  It is also not to campaign for converts to a more liberal philosophy (which you can clearly infer that I have.) Both camps are disasters-that’s my opinion-it’s not the theme of this blog.  But this information, that drug offenses alone are the “single most important cause in the explosion in incarceration in the United States, accounting for two-thirds of the rise in federal inmate population and more than half the rise in state prisoners between 1985-2000” is powerfully important information to have.  More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began (in 1982!), and nothing has systematically contributed more to their incarceration than the ‘War on Drugs.’  In two short decades (some of you have been sober longer than that!) the number of people incarcerated in this country soared from 300,000 to more than 2 million.  By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans were behind bars, on probation or parole.

Carrying the message of recovery has never been more critical.  Do you think you are not important, or that your recovery is all about you?  Whether you are liberal or conservative. Whether you are in favor of tough penalties or you feel that they unfairly target the poor and people of color. Whatever your perspective, the drug war and its collateral damage comes with extraordinary costs. More than 500,000 children linger TODAY in foster care around this country. They sit in emergency shelters, group homes, temporary placements, without families, largely (not entirely, but largely) linked to our policies on drugs. Those children are entering care at a younger age. They are staying in care longer (think mothers and fathers with felony convictions getting out of prison and unable to get any federal assistance: no housing, no food stamps, no job, no hope for a job.) They will age out of the system with about $500 in their pocket, more than half of them without graduating high school.  Many of them will immediately become homeless or be homeless within a very short amount of time.  40% or so of the young women (without health insurance or access to medical care) will become pregnant.  These kids end up in our police stations, our jails, our emergency rooms.

What is the point?

The point is that we all pay somewhere along the lines for these failures. I’d have to write another blog post to elaborate fully on that.  Carry the message.  Carry the message. Carry the message. You are so important sober person!  Carry it to your meetings, your friends, your communities, your hospitals and institutions, your local and state and federal government. Carry it to the suffering alcoholic and drug addict. Because you are quite literally carrying the possibility of (and the need for) change.

We are so lucky to be sober!