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War on Drugs: 40 years of failure?

Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle will speak at a rally Friday to “end the war on drugs” – while the White House steps up efforts to defend its drug policies in the face of growing criticism.

A broad coalition of civil rights, health, policy, faith, community and student groups will hold a Rally to End the War on Drugs on Friday, June 17 at noon at the Thompson Center, Randolph and Dearborn.   It’s the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs.

Participants cite the racially discriminatory impact of the nation’s drug policies – they’ve been recently tagged “the new Jim Crow”– and the expense and inefficiency of addressing health disorders through the criminal justice system, while support for treatment lags.

Meanwhile the White House released a report showing that Cook County leads the nation in the proportion of individuals testing positive for drugs following their arrest.  This shows that “drug addiction is too often the root of crime in our communities,” U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Sun Times.

It could be read another way, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy:  “When treatment isn’t available and you arrest people for drug possession, they are going to test positive.”

“It’s exactly why the war on drugs is failing – because we’re not getting treatment to people,” she said.

Curious timing

The numbers in the White House report are not new or suprising.  Two years ago an ICDP report found that Cook County had the highest proportion of arrestees testing positive for drugs among urban centers.  Kane-Willis said that’s been the case for some time.  ICDP’s report recommended increasing resources for treatment and diverting low-level drug offenders to community programs.

Untreated substance use disorders cost Illinois $4.6 billion a year, including $1.16 billion in costs for the criminal justice system, ICDP estimated.

The timing of the White House report was curious, coming one day before groups across the country mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration of war.

On Tuesday in Washington DC, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition attempted to meet with Kerlikowske to present a report criticizing the Obama administration for failing to follow through on promises to reform drug policy.

LEAP includes police officials, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents who call for legalizing drugs.  Norm Stamper, who like Kerlikowske is a former Seattle chief of police, was part of the delegation Kerlikowske refused to meet.

The report (pdf) notes a stark irony:  “While the Nixon administration’s public messaging carefully stressed punishment, it directed resources primarily toward public health.  Today the Obama administration’s press releases emphasize public health while its funding requests are actually weighted toward punishment.”

Last week a group of world leaders including Kofi Annan released a report calling the war on drugs a failure and advocating new approaches, including legalization and regulation, especially of marijuana, as a way of  denying profits to drug cartels and reducing violence.  The recommendation “was swiftly dismissed by the Obama administration” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Plenty of drugs

Sponsors and participants in Friday’s rally here echo many of the same concerns.

“The war on drugs is not working,” said Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire.  “There are plenty of drugs in the community.  And it definitely has a direct impact on the level of violence.”

“Drugs are easier to get, the level of potency is up, and prices have gone down,” said Kane-Willis.

Under the War on Drugs, the U.S. prison populations have risen from 500,000 to 2.5 million, with no decrease in drug use, said Mike Rodriguez of Enlace.  He said Latinos are increasingly overrepresented in prison populations as a result.

“It’s spawned the growth of a prison industrial complex and pushed the U.S. to become the number one nation in the world in incarcerating its own people, ahead of China, Iran, and North Korea,” said Dr. Calvin Morris of the Community Renewal Society.

“It’s not so much a war on drugs as it is a war on certain communities,” he said.  “We know drug usage is across the board, it’s as much in the suburbs as the city.  But the whole police focus is on poor communities.  We are profiling entire communities….

The New Jim Crow

“It’s the New Jim Crow,” Morris said, citing Michelle Alexander’s book of that title.  By focusing on communities of color, “the war on drugs gives a legal rationale to take away the vote, to refuse employment, to refuse housing” to people who would have faced straightforward racial discrimination 50 years ago.  “It calls into question the American ideal of justice for all.”

ICPD has found that Illinois ranks first in the nation for black-to-white disparities for locking up drug possession offenders.  A recent legislative study (pdf) carried out by the Center for Health and Justice of TASC, another sponsor of Friday’s rally, found that African Americans here are eight times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison in cases where the only charge is drug possession.

More than half of those entering prison on drug offenses have been convicted of low-level possession offenses, according to ICDP.  The legislative report found that Cook County courts are being “inundated” with low-level drug charges.

“It’s a very expensive and inefficient approach,” said Kane-Willis.  “It’s a lot cheaper to provide prevention and treatment” than to address problems through emergency rooms, the court system, and prisons.  But it can be very difficult to get into treatment, she said – and Illinois cut treatment funding in its most recent budget.

Politicians who are afraid of being “soft on crime” need to be “smart on crime,” she said.  “Treating substance use disorder through the criminal justice system is not being smart on crime.”

“There is no justice in the war on drugs,” said Morris.  “It is devastating communities.”

Groups coming together tomorrow are aiming at creating a larger, on-going coalition to push for reforms, said Nancy Michaels of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University.

Several students from local chapters of Students for Sensible Drug Policies will also be speaking Friday.

Other sponsors include the AIDS Foundation, New Day Network, Protestants for the Common Good, Chicago Justice Project, John Howard Association, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and more than thirty churches.

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