The Other Civil War

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Despite the
ongoing decline in quality of American education, most Americans
are fortunately still aware that a civil war transpired in the United
States between 1861 and 1865. What is unfortunately less widely
recognized is the fact that another civil war has been going on
in this country for roughly the last forty years. I’m talking, of
course, about the War on Drugs. For some, the “drug war” is seen
as a metaphor or a symbolic war as opposed to a “real” war. I disagree.
The War on Drugs involves people with guns, it involves killing
and it involves taking prisoners. Consider the following facts:

  • At the
    end of 2006, 1 in 31 of all American adults were either in jail
    or prison or on probation or parole. Source: Glaze, Lauren
    E., and Bonczar, Thomas P., Bureau
    of Justice Statistics, Probation and Parole in the United States
    (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December
    2007), NCJ220218, p. 2.

  • Of the
    9.25 million people currently being held in penal institutions
    throughout the world, 2.19 million of these are incarcerated
    in American jail and prisons. China, a nation with roughly six
    times the population of the US, comes in a distant second with
    1.55 million prisoners. Source: Walmsley, Roy, “World Prison
    Population List (Seventh Edition)” (London, England: International
    Centre for Prison Studies, 2007), p. 1; US
    Census Bureau, Population Division

  • The U.S.
    nonviolent prisoner population is larger than the combined populations
    of Wyoming and Alaska. Source: John Irwin, Ph.D., Vincent
    Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg, America’s
    One Million Nonviolent Prisoners
    (Washington, DC: Justice
    Policy Institute, 1999), pg. 4.

  • At the
    end of 2004, twenty percent of all inmates in state prisons
    were imprisoned for drug “offenses” alone. Source: Sabol,
    William J., PhD, Couture, Heather, and Harrison, Paige M., Bureau
    of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006
    (Washington, DC:
    US Department of Justice, December 2007), NCJ219416, p. 24,
    Appendix Table 9.

  • As of September
    30, 2006, fifty-three percent of all federal prisoners were
    incarcerated for drug “offenses” alone. Source: Sabol, William
    J., PhD, Couture, Heather, and Harrison, Paige M., Bureau
    of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006
    (Washington, DC:
    US Department of Justice, December 2007), NCJ219416, p. 26,
    Appendix Table 13.

  • At yearend
    2006 correctional facilities in the United States held an estimated
    2,385,213 inmates in custody, including inmates in Federal and
    State prisons, territorial prisons, local jails, facilities
    operated by or exclusively for U.S. Immigration and Customs
    Enforcement (ICE), military facilities, jails in Indian country,
    and youth in juvenile facilities. During 2006 the total incarcerated
    population increased by 2.8%, or 64,579 inmates. Source:
    Sabol, William J., PhD, Couture, Heather, and Harrison, Paige
    M., Bureau
    of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2006
    (Washington, DC:
    US Department of Justice, December 2007), NCJ219416, p. 3.

  • There are
    now 1.9 million arrests of non-violent drug “offenders” annually
    in the United States, a larger number than the entire population
    of New Mexico. Forty-three percent of these are marijuana arrests
    and eighty-eight percent of marijuana arrests are for simple
    possession. Source: Cole, Jack. End
    Prohibition Now
    , p. 5.

  • In 1914,
    when the first set of drug laws, the Harrison Anti-Narcotics
    Act, was passed, 1.3 percent of the US population was addicted
    to drugs. In 1970, when drug enforcement was intensified by
    President Nixon, 1.3 percent of the US population was addicted
    to drugs. Today, after roughly a trillion dollars has been spent
    on drug enforcement and 38 million arrests of non-violent drug
    “offenders” have been made, 1.3 percent of the US population
    is still addicted to drugs. Nothing, I repeat, nothing has
    been achieved so far as curbing drug abuse in the process of
    this war that has generated such exorbitant human and economic
    costs! Source: Cole, p. 9

  • 5.7 times
    as many black men are currently imprisoned in the United States
    as there were in South Africa under the former apartheid regime.
    Source: Cole, p. 12

  • There are
    currently more black men in US prisons than there were black
    male slaves in 1840. Source: Cole, p.12

Thus far,
I have discussed only financial and incarceration costs associated
with the civil war known as the War on Drugs. The other costs involve
the drastic increase in violent crime resulting from prohibition,
the robberies, burglaries and thefts committed to finance drug habits
at black market prices, innocent persons killed in turf wars and
police raids, overdoses and severe health problems caused by adulterated
drug products, addiction problems fueled by closing of the market
for softer drugs (like coca-based beverages and smokable opium)
by prohibition in favor of hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine,
the neglect of children exacerbated by the forcing of addicts into
an underground lifestyle by prohibition, the huge numbers of children
with one or both parents in prison, the numbers of people rendered
unemployable by felony drug convictions, the militarization of law
enforcement as a permanent occupational army under the drug war,
the eradication of vital civil liberties such as those supposedly
guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, the growth of drug enforcement
and prison construction as self-perpetuating industries with a vast
array of political and economic interest groups, and other costs
too numerous to mention.

It is of the
utmost importance to recognize that the drug war is indeed a civil
war. Many other nations have at times fallen into civil war over
matters of race or ethnicity, religion, social class, territorial
claims or political ideology. I submit that the drug war is a civil
war over the matter of culture. There is a dominant culture whose
drugs of choice are alcohol, nicotine, Prozac, caffeine, Valium,
Viagra, Xanax and Ritalin. These drugs are just as likely to be
used for hedonic as for medical purposes and their heavy or prolonged
use can be deadly. It is these cultures of drug users who are in
control of the state. There is another culture, or set of cultures,
whose members primarily include young people, the poor, cultural
dissidents, racial minorities, religious minorities and others who
are otherwise mainstream except for their particular drug of choice.
It is these cultures of drug users who are under attack by the state.
Richard Lawrence Miller, a Jewish writer, the son of an investigator
for the prosecution at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, and a
recognized expert on Nazi law, has documented in meticulous detail
identical parallels between the persecution of German Jews under
the Nuremberg racial laws and the persecution of American drug users
under drug laws. Miller has compiled his research in his magisterial
but horrifying work, Drug
Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State
If the Nazi analogy sounds extreme, please, I invite you to check
out Miller’s book.

For American
drug users, people who are in every way just like everyone else
except that their drug of choice is different from that of the majority,
the US government is an enemy occupational regime. Law enforcement
is an enemy occupational army. The millions of drug users arrested
annually are prisoners of war. And the armed, violent drug dealing
gangs who have taken over entire sections of US cities are no different
from the armed insurgent groups that emerge in any war, whether
in Iraq or in Colombia or in the streets of American cities. The
television series The Wire has been described as the most
realistic portrayal of the drug war of any crime show on television.
Recently, the program’s writers issued the following statement:

the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them
has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous
substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our
underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago,
we’ve been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and
incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American
collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and
doubles again; the drugs remain.

Our leaders?
There aren’t any politicians – Democrat or Republican –
willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to
prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America’s
most profound and enduring policy failure.

“A long
habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance
of being right,” wrote Thomas Paine when he called for civil disobedience
against monarchy – the flawed national policy of his day.
In a similar spirit, we offer a small idea that is, perhaps, no
small idea. It will not solve the drug problem, nor will it heal
all civic wounds. It does not yet address questions of how the
resources spent warring with our poor over drug use might be better
spent on treatment or education or job training, or anything else
that might begin to restore those places in America where the
only economic engine remaining is the illegal drug economy. It
doesn’t resolve the myriad complexities that a retreat from war
to sanity will require. All it does is open a range of intricate,
paradoxical issues. But this is what we can do – and what
we will do.

If asked
to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal
drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence
presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or
intended violence are alleged, we will – to borrow Justice
Harry Blackmun’s manifesto against the death penalty – no
longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can
we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses
to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate

Jury nullification
is American dissent, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial
of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against
the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable
of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest. If some few
episodes of a television entertainment have caused others to reflect
on the war zones we have created in our cities and the human beings
stranded there, we ask that those people might also consider their
conscience. And when the lawyers or the judge or your fellow jurors
seek explanation, think for a moment on Bubbles or Bodie or Wallace.
And remember that the lives being held in the balance aren’t fictional.
” (Source: Time, March 25, 2008)

2, 2008

Keith Preston
[send him mail] is a
long-time radical writer and activist from Richmond, Virginia. See
his website

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