A Leader with Courage

Acts of political courage are not all that common these days. That’s why County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s presence at a rally in downtown Chicago last Friday calling for an “End to the War on Drugs” was a singular event.

Showing up might seem to have been a no-brainer. She was given the opportunity to make the case for saving the County money and lives: “The War on Drugs has failed to eradicate drug use, instead it has resulted in the incarceration of millions throughout the nation and annually 100,000 (8,500 at any one time) here in Cook County.”

“Nearly 70% of those are held on non-violent offenses—many for drug possession charges…yet we have only 8,500, or 16%, of the jail population in drug treatment programs. The cost is too great to continue fighting this war on drugs with so little success. Rather than investing in detaining people at the jail for $142 per day, we must invest in treatment, education, job skills training.”

Her numbers pertain to Cook County. But the facts of the War on Drugs as a failure are national, even global. We have spent over $1 trillion since Richard Nixon initiated the War in 1971; drug markets have not been curtailed; the United States has become a prisoner nation, putting more people in jail than any other country in the world; and treatment programs have gotten short shrift.

Given these facts, why are most of our political leaders so unwilling to talk, and talk straight?

New York Times columnist David Brooks in his new book, “The Social Animal,” tells us that rational arguments come in a distant second in choosing political affiliations and setting public policy. This is true of all of us—right, left, or middle. It is mostly our emotions, biases, and unconscious fears that determine the party we will choose and how we will vote. If that is true generally, how much more so when it comes to drugs, which have been cruelly and cynically conflated with crime and race for at least the last one hundred years in this country? On few other issues is it so easy to exploit our deepest fears no matter the facts.

My heart goes out to all who grew up in families where alcohol and other drugs were a problem, and don’t want their kids to fall victim to the same pathologies. I can imagine nothing worse than losing a child to drugs. But just as abstinence programs have not proved effective in deterring teenagers from having sex, why do we think that driving drugs underground is a better alternative than candor, education and, when necessary, treatment?

At the rally we learned that the current generation of young people is not buying into the drug war. Listen to Madison Mullen, who has just graduated from Frances Parker School and will attend American University next fall:

“I stand before you as a member of a generation that refuses to be used as the excuse for this Drug War…we are tired of fear being emphasized above reason….In school, we are taught to expect that our leaders want that which is best for the American people. But we are learning now is that politicians are so concerned with re-election that they overlook human rights abuses within our borders.”

Fortunately,Toni Preckwinkle does not fall into that category. At the end of the rally, I found myself not only grateful for her mettle but also wondering whether Rahm Emanuel will show comparable courage. Together they could make quite a team.

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