The director of a landmark documentary which chronicles how the current penal approach has resulted in social disaster says the greatest legacy of the US elections may be shifting attitudes towards illegal narcotics,
By Eugene Jarecki
Last week was a momentous week, the beginning of the end, perhaps, of a national depravity – the “war on drugs“. The voters of Colorado and Washington passed measures to legalize marijuana, amounting to local shifts, for the moment. So we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the country will be transformed overnight, but the public thinking, the public spirit isbeing transformed. Finally, there is a growing realization that this “war” has produced nothing but a legacy of failure. And who wants to be associated with failure?
Let’s be clear what we’re discussing here. Not in question is the ravaging impact drugs can have on individuals – too many of us know people who have suffered in this way. But we need to see addiction for what it is – not a criminal matter but a public health issue, and a huge social issue, especially for the young. In fact, instead of a “war on drugs”, better to call it a war on children.
In many parts of our country, a child strays a little at 14; tries a drug, can’t think of any way to pay for it, and then sinks into the underground economy. Before long, he has a strike on his record, a strike that will be with him for the rest of his life. So you have a cycle of degradation, starting at 13, 14, and he never gets out of it. We now know so much about child development, the importance of the early years, how communities develop. Instead we eviscerate neighbourhoods, we strip away the infrastructure that once provided towns with resources.
And with this “war”, we’re talking about the erasure of a population – which was once black America, now just poor America. These are people removed from the official American story – just last week the millions of them locked up, often for non-violent drug-related crimes, did not participate in our democracy. So, at the very minimum, you are taking the poor away from the levers of power.
There is a new consensus that the economic view is becoming more influential in shifting attitudes on drugs, that the amount of money saved from policing and the amount gained through taxing legalized drugs is swaying opinion. Obviously we would all shudder to think we live in a country where only the economic collapse of a depravity like this should bring about its end. But I think it’s also true that what’s happening is more complicated – economic calculations meeting up with humanitarian concerns. So you have the likes of Grover Norquist, the conservative founder of Americans for Tax Reform, and Chris Christie, the Republican New Jersey governor, finding unlikely bedfellows with Russell Simmons and Danny Glover, producers on my film. All see a failed approach.