The Prohibition Problem

For over 40 years, Samuel DeWitt Proctor (1921-1997) was a towering figure in the African American civil rights movement. He would have been proud of what the Chicago organization that bears his name was able to accomplish earlier this month.

A three-day event “Reckoning with Power: Destroying Caste and Restoring Community”, held at the Drake Hotel and organized by the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, made clear the need for fundamentally new responses to the presence of drugs and and related violence in the African American community.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, who has gained national prominence since the publication of her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, delivered the keynote message we all need to hear: our drug laws, and the way they are enforced, are profoundly misguided.

She documented the cost of current practices upon people of color: “Time and again,” she said, “we are told—and often believe—that we are free at last. Yet here we are, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and there are more African Americans under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Why has this happened? “Our nation’s prison population has exploded in recent years for reasons that have stunning little to do with crime or crime rates. Poor people of color have been the primary targets for mass incarceration due largely to the War on Drugs and the wave of punitiveness that swept the United States with the rise of the ‘get tough’ movement.”

In addition to delivering this message, Michelle Alexander and her colleagues, Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) explained why current policies are failing.

The reason: prohibition does not work.

The truth so hard for many to grasp is that prohibition does not reduce violence, it causes it. Neill Franklin told how for years as a law enforcement officer in Baltimore, he arrested hundreds of drug offenders. One day, his closest friend along with family, was killed in a house fire resulting from neighborhood drug wars. Franklin is devastated to this day. At the time, he asked himself: “Is what we are doing worth all this violence?” The answer changed his life.

Ethan Nadelmann told of his admiration for Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore in the 1980’s who had the courage to call for an end to the War on Drugs. The same thing had changed Schmoke’s mind. He had lost a close friend to drug violence.

According to Nadelmann, “Washington must begin developing policy that seeks first to reduce the harm drugs do to users and society. Officials need only look at successful innovations in Europe and Australia like needle exchange, addiction treatment and supervised maintenance, and decriminalization. Public health rather than politics should be paramount.”

The problem with uremitting prohibition is that it blocks us from seeing that addiction is a health not a criminal justice problem, that current policies do not keep our children from getting drugs, that by far the best defense is “consumer empowerment”, that is, educating potential users against the dangers of use.

Calling for an end to prohibition does not mean support for legalization as the term is commonly understood. It does mean that we should be examining a variety of forms of regulation and limited access, including expanded medical treatment for those who need it. Taken together, such measures could do much to eliminate the black market that makes gang activity and violence inevitable.

The Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference not only mobilized African Americans against what the War on Drugs is doing to their communities but helped us all to see that there are better ways to respond.

For those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, we must seek alternatives to prohibition in the days and months ahead.

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