Here is part of an interview by Laura Flanders of Eugene Jarecki about his take of the recent election and it’s effects,
LF: How did the U.S. come to spend a trillion dollars on a so-called “war on drugs”?
EJ: I can’t underscore just how disastrous the drug war has been. We’ve been at this for forty years, it’s our longest war, we’ve spent a trillion dollars, we’ve had forty-five million drug arrests and what do we have to show for it, a record of abject failure. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available than ever before. We have the world’s largest prison population in real numbers, 2.3 million people behind bars and of course more of our citizens behind bars than any other nation, as well. So we look at the numbers and they speak of such a tragic error and misguided policy that the question is, how long will it take until it dawns on our policy makers what I think the American people increasingly know which is that this is a gigantic waste of money and time, where we can’t afford a waste of money, and it is denigrating a cross section of our population, particularity minorities, particularly poor people, particularly people of color, and has been doing so for decades to the incredible detriment of that community, and the detriment of ourselves and our standing in the world.
LF: In your film you show how we got here; the private interests of corporations and the public interests of politicians were both drivers. Given the popularity of getting “tough on crime” and the self-perpetuating nature of this criminalization of a whole section of a population…. What happened? I mean with that kind of machine pushing in one direction how did voters in California, Colorado, Washington say stop?
EJ: To sort of put this in five easy pieces we can look at the drug war in the following way, we’ve had drug laws going back in this country to the 1800s. The first drug laws we saw were opium laws that were, lo and behold, targeted towards Chinese immigrant populations coming to America. In a way that we saw that these were thinly veiled laws of racial control. We made opium illegal, but only in California, and only the way Chinese people were taking it, which was to smoke it. Everywhere else in the country it was legal. So we were very selective with our opium laws and we used it to harass and incarcerate Chinese immigrants. That gave way to a new chapter in the Mexicanization of hemp, which was suddenly renamed “marijuana” so that we could use it as what we called “Mexican Opium” to stop and detain Mexicans in new and startling numbers.
Chapter by chapter we’ve seen drug laws in the history of this country really be thinly veiled laws of racial control. It wasn’t until 1971 that this was declared a “war.” Richard Nixon stood in front of the American people and declared a war on drugs. When he did that he unleashed the dogs of war. What had been an ad hoc series of improvised laws over time suddenly got codified into a national policy, and a national policy on a wartime footing. What does a wartime footing imply? It implies all of the horrors of war: the incredibly casualties, the mass scale, and the entrenched economic and bureaucratic interests that arise that sense of a threat. The moment you could now say this is not just a little group here or there, but this is public enemy number one as Richard Nixon called drug abuse. Well, you can’t declare a war on a substance like drugs anymore than you can declare war on terror. The war on terror was a war on people we associate with terrorist activities. The war on drugs was a war on people we associate as being involved with drugs. That ended up being a very specific, a very racially targeted and ultimately economically targeted cross section of our population.
How does this machine gather the critical mass that it has gathered to basically continue in spite of its record of incredible failure? That’s where it really becomes clear that it is an unholy alliance between the corporate sector who prey upon our fellow citizens for profit because they need a flood of bodies coming through the system that they need to feed, house, provide phone service, provide meals for, provide all of that kind of thing. There’s a profiteering engine on the backs of people. Then of course they need the help of those in Congress that make the laws that create the flood of bodies. You have in Congress people who basically work for those corporate interests and they tell the public scary things that are meant to make us vote for tough-on-crime laws. Those “tough-on-crime” laws are really just ways of ensuring that a flood of bodies keeps flowing through the system: we have tougher and tougher laws, and they keep people in for longer and longer, for less and less violent and less and less serious crimes.
LF: So let’s go back to my question of what changed. We have rising competition over living wages and quality jobs; we have increased racial anxiety as the demographics of this country change. Politicians are the same old bunch. What changed that these ballot initiatives got passed?
EJ: Well, I think more and more Americans are either drug users or familiar with a drug user. How many of us know somebody who is an addict? Is our natural response when a friend comes to us in a relapse, or “I’m hooked on this substance or that,” is the first thing we do is to call the police? It’s just not common sense. It’s not what any of us would do. We would try to find a soft landing for the person, a medical person, or a help group or an anonymous group or something. We would actually try to find something that helps the person on that path forward. None of us, with what we now know about addiction (which is now more than we knew forty years ago) would see that’s the right way to do it. The trail of failure, the economic disaster from it, and our own sense that we’ve come of age and it doesn’t make sense as public policy, that’s all coming together. The victories in Colorado, Washington and California all demonstrate that the public is shifting in their sense of this as a priority. I hope they are shifting to remember that drug abuse is an always was a health matter, a personal health matter and perhaps a public health matter. It was never a matter for criminal justice. It was never appropriate for someone who has an addiction to send them into the arms of a police officer when they should have been sent into the arms of a doctor, or a health care professional.
LF: We should be clear that voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to regulate recreational marijuana in the same way that alcohol is regulated, not to lift all laws entirely. What happens next and what happens next in the struggle of California around mandatory minimums and sentencing?
EJ: I think these are small victories, and I think we have to be very careful not to let small victories woo us into any sense of false comfort. We need a revolution in the war on drugs. We need to absolutely throw this thing out, relegate it to the ash heap of history and start again with real information about what drugs really do, about how they affect human health and about what to be afraid of and what not and how to treat people.…