Phish’s “Sample in a Jar” blasted from my earbuds as I sashayed into Chop’s Deli at Monkey Junction.
“Mushroom sandwich and a calming brownie for dessert,” I said to the kid behind the counter.
“Take your earbuds out. You’re shouting,” the kids said. “Dad!”
“It’s Dude today. And I’m bustin’ Chops,” I replied. “I’ll have the roast beef and a White Russian.”
“Aren’t you a vegan? And it’s bad for your heart.”
“‘Straight Outta Compton’! I’m doing something bad for me! Arrest me! Where’s the A.L.E.?”
“We don’t serve beer here,” the kid smirked.
“Alcohol Law Enforcement. The law enforcement spirits Phishing at Walnut Creek to prove cops don’t just target black kids!”
I put up my hands in protest.
“The War on Drugs! After decades of discriminatory policing, discretionary prosecution of minorities, harsh mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenses, ‘The Man’ is not going to balance the scales of justice by busting a bucket-load of Phish-heads!”
“Keep speaking truth to power and enjoy the ‘shrooms, Dad.”
“The Dad abides!” I strode off with my sandwich to ponder our progress in the War on Drugs.
Reagan fired the first shots of this domestic Vietnam. Rather than refocus energy back to Johnson’s War on Poverty, he ramped up the military and cut Wall Street federal oversight in half to fight mythical marijuana monsters in the hood. For three decades TV cop shows have targeted “drug kingpins,” while real cops busted kids on the street. With criminalization the law of the land, not many politicians from either party could risk re-election by being “soft on crime.” I’m not “soft on crime” any more than I’m “soft on terrorism,” but is this what winning a war looks like? Militarized local police, severely curtailed civil rights, cruel mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenses, a prison industry that’s second to none, and a local deli owner busted at a rock concert? It seems long past time to question the strategies in our selective war on drugs.
The first question I have is the language of conflict itself. Why a war on any drug? Why not a “War on Guns”? If it’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” why isn’t it, “‘Pot doesn’t kill people, people kill people?” NRA members pop Xanax every time I ask.
A second question: Why do we fund science when policy makers completely ignore it? Decades of social-science research describe the devastating consequences of selectively criminalizing and harshly punishing certain drugs we don’t like (much of it detailed in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”). Do we really want clear racial bias in prosecution of drug offenses, an ever-widening American caste system and the world’s largest prison population?
I am unequivocally anti-drug. My family is riddled with addiction problems. I’ve spent much of my professional life trying to help people cope with life on its own terms, without destructive habits, including excessive drug use. I’ll have a beer at a ball game, but life is a long strange trip for a mostly sober me. Drunk or stoned? I don’t think so.
I’m anti-drug the same way I’m anti-meat. Both are public health issues. Both are human habits with complex consequences. Despite the numerous negative consequences of our American addiction to meat, if the mostly vegan me wants a roast beef sandwich at Chop’s, it shouldn’t be a felony. And if the mostly sober me wants to indulge in a White Russian and roll a fat one, I don’t want to play cops and robbers with The Man just to enjoy it.
Addiction is a negative consequence of a human habit of consuming substances to change the state of mind. But no 13-year-old lights up his first cigarette and thinks, “I want a two-pack a day habit in my 30s and lung cancer later.” No 16-year-old swigs a PBR and thinks, “I want to die of liver disease in my 40s.”
The fact is: We don’t reduce smoking or manage alcohol use by mass incarceration. There are better ways to shape behavior. Regulating marketing and sales, penalizing damaging behaviors related to use, raising taxes and health insurance rates on users, and devoting substantial resources to real prevention and treatment, a little like Portugal, are just a few. President Obama’s recent pardon of several non-violent drug offenders and his administration’s unveiled plan to fight a growing heroin problem are pitifully small steps. But they are in the right direction. We may never be Portugal, but we may need to go much further down a path of sanity, somehow shift job growth from prisons to health care, and remember that marijuana and mushrooms have never been a menace to society.