Drug War Prisoners



Civil society in the United States enters the Twenty-First Century racked by internal war. One participant in this civil war has at its disposal the coercive apparatus of the state, backed by propaganda to dehumanize the enemy ("bunch of dope-pushers"), and is imbued with a will to win at no matter what cost. On the receiving end are individuals, estimated by some to number as many as 20 million, who for one or another reason use illegal drugs. Critics suggest, and Drug War proponents deny, that the target of Drug War operations is less an army of drug users than an "underclass" of the poor, the unemployed, ethnic minorities, and even the mentally unwell, prison offering a cost-effective alternative to welfare. Contrary to the protestations of Drug War supporters that the object of the War on Drugs is to "save our kids," young people are arrested in record numbers on drug-related charges, branded as felons, and subjected to measures guaranteed to kill chances of successful careers and marriages. For civil society, the Drug War is a disaster.

War defined as a line-up of forces out to kill the other side with weapons (Barry McCaffrey, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy) the War on Drugs is not. In this war, offensive weapons are the prerogative of one side only. Prison not death is the fate of the vast majority of Drug War casualties. The swollen population of US prisons, proportionally outnumbering that of other industrial countries many times over, is due to the lengthy prison terms habitually imposed for drug law violations and the rush to process drug law violators through the courts. As violent crime declines in the US, the number of Drug War prisoners rises - a paradox few like to contemplate.

Criticism of the US War on Drugs - the US is the epicenter of the war -- takes two main forms. Until recently, criticism took the form of harm reduction only. The principle of harm reduction is that the use of drugs classed as illegal may be driven underground but never stopped, so a promise of a drug-free society is deceptive. The aim of harm reduction is to minimize the harm illegal drug use is liable to cause. Better rehabilitate than punish, better tolerate than freak out. Clean needles for injection drug users, methadone clinics for heroin addicts, court-mandated treatment for substance abuse instead of prison sentences - these are tenets of the harm reduction school.

Harm reductionists resort to a battery of arguments to state the case for ending the War on Drugs. The war is excessively costly. It is unwinninable. There are holes punched in the Constitution (the Supreme Court permits a "drug exception" to the Fourth Amendment to further prosecution of the Drug War). There is the corrupting influence of black market money on police departments. There are the cases of SWAT teams dealing death and destruction on the basis of wrong information. But proponents of the Drug War argue back: society must be cleansed of drugs regardless of cost; success will come when sterner measures are in place; exceptions to the Constitution are justified under the circumstances; some police departments have rotten apples; SWAT teams do attack the wrong household, but rarely, and casualties among the innocent are inevitable. It appears that rational arguments by one side can be repelled with rational counter-arguments by the other, and who is to say which side is right? The result is inconclusive, a stalemate - a hard lesson for the harm reductionist to learn.

In keeping with the optimistic view that officials responsible for prosecuting the Drug War are open to persuasion, harm reductionists are reluctant to recommend a relation between illegal drugs and civil society that could substitute for today's criminal justice approach. What the public hears is: "Let's discuss alternatives to present Drug War policy," never "Here is an alternative worth backing." The impression created is fear of offending officials whose conversion to an alternative viewpoint may, for all one knows, lie just around the corner.

If for comparison harm reduction critics are called conservative, their counterparts may be called radical. A radical Drug War critic is one who is sceptical of the power of rational thought to change Drug War policy. There is no illusion that the advice: "Write to your elected representative!" is advice worth giving - the deafness of elected officials to pleas from desperate citizens having been proved a thousand times over. Unlike his harm reduction colleague, the radical critic is under no obligation to show respect for institutions of the state. For example, there is little inclination to show sympathy for a judge who imposes a 20 year sentence for, say, a marijuana grow, and who declares himself helpless in the face of Sentencing Commission guidelines ("My hands are tied.") The radical view is that the US justice system is itself a casualty of the Drug War, and that judges no less than prosecutors are agents of Drug War policy.

Radical and harm reduction critics of the War on Drugs differ in the emphasis they place on remedial measures such as funding for methadone clinics, the usefulness of inviting Drug War leaders to engage in dialog, and the need to refrain from giveaway statements about alternatives to present Drug War policy. The principle distinction lies in their respective attitudes to prisoners. Until a few years back, when the radical position began to make itself heard, the fate of Drug War prisoners got scant attention - and with good reason. To criticise an operation that condemns users of illegal drugs to mass imprisonment is to lay bare the machinery of an oppressive state, which proponents of harm reduction are reluctant to do. The radical position, however, is to forgo a need to appease officials responsible for Drug War policy. From a radical standpoint, the Drug War prisoner scandal takes precedence over all other aspects of the War on Drugs. Moreover, it is a scandal one can do something about.

A useful principle is that for honest information on the Drug War, the place to go is not government reports, think tanks, or the media, but prisons where Drug War prisoners are housed. Rather than waste time with fruitless letters to elected representatives, set foot inside the prisons, talk with Drug War prisoners, correspond by mail, phone, in any way possible, do anything to melt the barrier that divides the Drug War prisoner from society - and do this to learn the truth from those who have the truth. The radical advice is: Get your information from the prisoners, they know!

The conscious aim of the radical critic is the release of Drug War prisoners and restoration of their civil rights. The approach is bottom-up. Remove the prison option from the choices available to those who run the Drug War, and the back of the war will have been effectively broken. Replace prosecution of users with regulation of the production, use, and distribution of illegal drugs, and the problems of illegal drugs will meet with rational solutions: Drug War strategists will start to think. Once prison is no longer an option, the measures advocated by the harm reduction school - needle exchange centers, methadone clinics, and so forth - will follow in due course. The contrast is between a bottom-up approach, which puts weight on the release of Drug War prisoners first, and a top-down approach, which starts with harm reduction measures, happily enacted into law - and by the way, somehow or other, down the road, freedom for Drug War prisoners as an afterthought.

The harm reduction and the radical approaches are not opposed. One complements the other, both are necessary. Harm reduction theory that ignores injustice is morally defective. (Drug War prisoners scoff: "Harm reduction? Hey! How about us? Prison is the greatest harm of all.") The radical critique which starts with disimprisonment is by itself impractical and idealistic. Neither approach can be safely ignored. Each rests on different principles - pragmatic in the case of harm reduction and logical in the case of disimprisonment.

Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Summer 2000




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