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Decades of drug war have brought only crisis

The new visibility of police violence toward African-Americans in the United States has stoked public debate about policing: What about body cameras? Should we reform police training? Perhaps we should go slow on all that military gear?

I find it almost impossible to sit through any of this while the underlying issue goes unaddressed: It’s the drug economy, stupid.

It’s well past time to legalize marijuana. But it’s also time to consider decriminalizing nonviolent crimes involving other drugs, or at least to reclassify lower-level, nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors. We should also expunge felony convictions for many classes of nonviolent drug offenses — those involving marijuana but for other drugs, too — to re-enfranchise, economically and politically, those who have staffed the drug trade.

Before I make my case, let me pause to say that I write this as the last living American, or so it sometimes feels, never to have smoked pot or used any other banned substance. My motivation, in other words, is not my own recreational freedom but justice.

What’s the picture of use these days? According to the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy Data Supplement, as of 2009, more than 41 percent of people in the U.S. aged 12 to 64 had used marijuana sometime in their lifetime. In Canada, that figure was 51 percent. This contrasts with Mexico, where the figure is 4 percent, and Colombia (8 percent). Whereas in 2000, the United States consumed an estimated 3,000 metric tons of pot, in 2010 we inhaled or otherwise ingested 5,700 metric tons. And from 2011 to 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, half of high school students reported using illicit drugs by 12th grade. This number is headed up.

Participation is pretty equal opportunity. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in that year the rate of substance dependence or abuse was 8.4 percent for whites and 7.4 percent for blacks. Yet, as is widely recognized, African-Americans are incarcerated for both the use and sale of drugs at far higher rates than whites. In 2011, African-Americans were arrested for possession at three times the rate as whites nationally and, for drug sales and manufacturing, at nearly four times the rate of whites. In Chicago, the black-white arrest ratio for marijuana is 15 to 1.

See: This video by a Columbia University neuroscientist​ might be the best case against the drug war ever made

These enforcement disparities mean that the U.S. drug economy rests on a highly exploitative labor regime. If pot were an iPhone and the supply chain based in China, investigative journalists would be blasting the labor practices that delivered it. This is a point we have not yet focused on.

A memorial in Humboldt Park on Chicago's Westside.
Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

According to researchers, marijuana constitutes about 80 percent of illicit drug usage, and an estimated 40 to 67 percent of that pot came from Mexico in 2008; most cocaine and heroin also passes through Mexico. Wholesale distributors in the United States include Mexican criminal organizations, Latino and African-American street gangs and domestic producers of marijuana, a rapidly growing part of the drug economy that includes plenty of non-ethnically-identified whites. Of course, other groups also operate at the wholesale level — Russians, Israelis, Italians, Chinese, Colombians and Jamaicans, to name a few. Producers, wholesalers and retailers are tied together by brokers, smugglers and couriers. It’s a commercial zone that looks pretty multicultural based on the limited information available.

At the retail level, however, most drug users buy from people who look like them. But this lets some white users turn a blind eye to the supply chain. A major portion of the pot inhaled by a white smoker has also passed through the hands of black or brown laborers in the drug economy.

In 1984, the Drug Enforcement Administration initiated Operation Pipeline to interdict drug trafficking on the nation’s highways through the use of traffic stops; this operation launched and provided national training for police in what we have come to know as racial profiling. Thanks to the racially disparate enforcement that was then set in motion, much drug economy labor is, for all intents and purposes, not free. This is especially true for the couriers, brokers and lower-tier wholesalers. Young people are recruited to handle low-level tasks, setting them up to be booked on a felony as an adult not long after they turn 18. Once that happens, they find themselves broadly unemployable — with one major exception: by the drug industry. How voluntary can we consider repeat participation in the supply chain, then, when a criminal record precludes other opportunities?

The libertarian vibe in the world of pot smokers and other drug users makes these issues all the more stark. Freedom for those who want a hit has been wrung from the exploitation of others. We have numbers for the price of that freedom: 1.5 million African-American men missing from U.S. cities. And this doesn’t count the men who are still in those cities but are trapped by the felonies on their records.

In the mid-1970s, the DEA conducted an anti-heroin campaign in Mexico called Operation Trizo. The DEA website reports, with no apparent sense of irony, that the campaign was called off at the request of the Mexican government because “The large numbers of arrests that resulted from Operation Trizo caused an economic crisis.”

Through decades of the war on drugs, we have indeed bought ourselves our own economic crisis with the drug economy’s impacts on poverty and education. But we’ve also delivered a human catastrophe, on par with the worst of our bad American habits. One of the hardest challenges of school reform in the context of low-income communities of color is to protect students from exposure to violence, even on their daily walks to school. The precise pathway to a legalized, decriminalized and nonviolent drug economy and to the reintegration of those formerly barred from participation will take much collective discussion to discern. But the general direction to pursue is clear.

Emancipation of our brothers and sisters requires both economic and political re-enfranchisement. These forms of re-enfranchisement require not only legalizing marijuana but also decriminalizing as many nonviolent drug offenses as possible and expunging those convictions. Call it Operation Equal Justice.

Allen is a political theorist at the Institute of Advanced Study and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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