Archive for Saturday, March 31, 2001

American leaders rethinking the losing war against drugs

March 31, 2001

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His afternoons were for mowing the lawn or tinkering on the car. But mornings were for coffee and blues.

Mornings were for sitting in his favorite room in the early sun, sipping his cup and listening to hundreds of 45s gathered over 60-something years of living. Mornings were for plain-spoken old songs about cheating women and cheated men, for pain sermons and joy testimonies from Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, Snooky Pryor and Big Mama Thornton.

Anyone who knew the old man knew how he loved those mornings.

Then his son stole his records and sold them to buy crack cocaine.

It was for me, at least an eye-opener. I mean, I have a friend who has spent years strung out on one drug or another. I've driven down streets where 11-year-olds jump out at your car trying to sell you a packet of get-high or a stick of no-pain. But the day the son took from his father something he knew to be precious and irreplaceable was the day I finally understood as much as you can without feeling it yourself the power of a drug craving.

More to the point, it was the moment my doubts about the war on drugs hardened to a certainty: We're fighting on the wrong battlefield and our weapons are inadequate.

If recent newspaper reports are to be believed, many members of Congress appear to be coming to a similar moment of clarity, courtesy of the movie "Traffic." The gritty film tracks the intersecting lives of a handful of soldiers on both sides of the war: the American drug czar, his cocaine-addicted daughter, the Mexican cop, his U.S. counterparts and, of course, the dealers. The film's unmistakable conclusion that the war has been an abysmal waste is said to have had a profound impact on a number of influential U.S. lawmakers.

Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, told a reporter that he was struck by a moment when the movie's drug czar asks how it's possible to fight a war on drugs when the "enemies" are drug users in our own families. Arizona Republican John McCain said the film "caused me to rethink our policies and priorities."

It's a rethinking that's as welcome as it is overdue. The war on drugs has been obscenely expensive according to one report, the price tag is $18 billion a year. But that's not where the real cost lies. The mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines at the core of the war have triggered an explosion in the prison population. By the end of last year, just under 2 million Americans were behind bars. Between 1990 and 2000, the rate of incarceration rose from 1 in every 218 Americans to 1 in every 142.

Yet the war has produced anything but a decisive victory. Indeed, after years of decline, drug use among young people ages 12 to 17 is actually trending up. Small wonder a new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that an increasing number of us consider the war on drugs a failure.

For years, we've seen that failure reflected in the disruption of our communities, the loss of mothers, brothers, sons. Our senators, apparently, are seeing it for the first time through the expedient of a Hollywood film. Doesn't matter how that truth is seen, though, so long as it is.

We've been treating a sickness with a prison term. Emphasis has been on the punishment of users and dealers, and it's time to admit that this by itself will not work. Time to balance the stick of incarceration with the carrot of more resources allocated toward drug treatment and addiction prevention.

I say this thinking of an old man whose blues records were lost to crack hunger.

Luckily for him, I used to be a music critic, one of the benefits of which is a sizable music library. So when I heard what happened, I recorded some tapes and sent them to him as a gift. I'm told that he sits in his room now and sips his coffee, listening to the blues as ever he did before.

But for all that, I suspect his mornings will never be quite the same.




Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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