Drug War Prisoners


Book Review

Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out
By Mike Gray
Routledge, paperback edition, 2000

One of the telling scenes in Mike Gray's Drug Crazy comes at the beginning. Detective Frank Goff on the Chicago drug beat shows the author what fighting the War on Drugs is like. To the reader it sounds like urban guerrilla warfare. The scene would make a good opener for a movie, but in the book it leads nowhere. It raises no moral issue, and Detective Goff soon disappears from the script. Goff endangers his own life and the lives of his partners for no purpose, and he knows it. So do his superiors, who want no part of his heroics. The river of illegal drug use in a black neighborhood in Chicago is too vast for the scoopful that Goff takes out to make a difference.

Two compelling scenes in "Drug Crazy" follow. Each makes a point that sticks in the craw. The first is that you can't fight the Drug War legally. Drug use is consensual; the last person anyone wants around is a police officer. So the police officer has to break the law in order to uphold the law. If he did not, the arrests he makes and the convictions he secures could not happen. Lying on the witness stand becomes a police routine. A gripping scene in a Chicago night court shows a police officer lying through his teeth and everybody knows it: prosecutor, judge, defense attorney -- and audience of friends and family behind the bullet-proof Lexan screen. The gavel bangs, the prisoner is found guilty, and what Gray eerily calls a ripple of sound passes through the audience. Gray's imagination takes him back to a galley 2000 years ago when chained men felt the slash of whips across their shoulders and uttered the same sound. (Why Gray goes back 2000 years for his image of slavery is hard to say, but let that pass.)

Testimony routinely perjured. Elementary principles of justice not given the time of day. It's racism in action. Let's not speculate on the composition of the court officials on one side of the screen. No question, though, but that the prisoners in night court and their friends and family members on the far side of the Lexan screen are black. This is race war as well as a drug war.

The hidden face of injustice is violence. Frustrated cops take out their frustration on - guess who? -- kids in the street. Gray's other compelling scene portrays an assault staged on a group of kids suddenly caught in the headlights and roughed up in the belief that a search will turn up drugs -- it doesn't. The scene fits with the night court cameo. Roughed up by their enemy, members of a younger generation learn to hate police and the government that pays them.

For Drug War critics the hard point to accept is this. Black communities, genocidally reduced in numbers, retain a soft spot in their hearts for the War on Drugs. I know this from attending events in Watts and other neighborhoods in black Los Angeles. Kids aside, the crack baby myth sells as well in Watts as it does in white America. The fact that it is sheer propaganda, on a par with Saddam Hussein's CIA-invented murder of incubator babies in Kuwait, does not always sit well with ministers of religion in black communities. Black Americans take to the crack baby myth as readily as do whites, though it diverts attention from the real problems of malnutrition, defective health care, and stressed out mothers struggling to make ends meet. Gray does not deal with this paradox.

Gray rightly sees the Drug War as a replay of 1920s Prohibition. The proliferation of gangs and gang warfare, the corruption of police officials, the swilling of vast sums of money down the drain - Gray's sense is that this has all happened before. Prohibition led the way into the "mess" Gray talks about. Gray falls short, despite the promise of his title, in that he does not show the reader the way out. The book is all problems and no answers. The absence of a logical conclusion to the book is puzzling. In 1931, against all prediction, legalization brought federal Prohibition to an end. If Gray is happy with the Prohibition parallel, why does he not stay with it and predict that legalization will end the second round of Prohibition also? If the book can be faulted, it is for this inconsistency.

The film script explanation of the writing of Drug Crazy is probably correct. Gray starts with brilliantly delineated scenes, as if writing a treatment for a movie. Three chapters into the book the style changes, description turning to commentary. The commentary avoids the question of legalization. Legalization led the way out of the mess in 1931, and it can lead the way out of the mess today. Legalization provided a sane policy then. It provides a sane policy now.

Mike, how about it? Want to make the title of your next book "Drug Sanity"?

drugwarprisoners review, June 2000



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