The War on Drugs isn’t a war on drugs; it’s a war on people, and this weekend it claimed its latest victim.
On Sunday morning, exactly one week after an encounter with police left him with 80 percent of his spine severed at his neck, Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died at a local hospital. He was just 27 years old.
At this time, we still don’t know exactly how Gray suffered his “catastrophic” injuries, but video from the moment of his arrest shows him screaming out in pain, and according to family lawyer William Murphy, he was detained at a nearby police station for over an hour before medics were finally called.
Something bad happened, and it’s hopefully only a matter of time before we find out what.
To make matters worse, Baltimore police officials admitted today that the reasons for Gray’s arrest are still “vague” and that cops probably just thought that he was “immediately involved or had been recently involved in criminal activity.”
In other words, Freddie Gray was probably just guilty of being black in a neighborhood known for its drug problems.
Thanks to Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs, this is the reality that millions of people of color live with everyday all across America. They live in fear of law enforcement because law enforcement, instead of trying to protect them, acts like an occupying force. And, like all occupying forces throughout history, it treats everyday civilians, criminal or not, like they’re the enemy.
In this type of situation, collateral damage casualties aren’t just likely, they’re inevitable.
The irony, of course, is that white people are just as likely, if not more likely, than black people to use drugs like marijuana. But because of the racist War on Drugs, it’s black people who make up the lion’s share of marijuana arrests.
On the one hand, this looks like a big time policy failure, but since the War on Drugs was arguably always - even back in the 1930s when it all started - about criminalizing black bodies to appease white racists. And in that context, there’s an argument to be made that it’s worked out exactly as planned.
Whatever you think about the real origins of the War on Drugs, though, it’s obvious that it hasn't made America a healthier or a more drug-free country. Instead, it’s left us with the single largest prison population in the world, something that people on all sides of the aisle agree is unsustainable in the long run.
But make no mistake - this is not about getting high. This is about people’s lives.
The War on Drugs decimates communities of color, breaks apart families, and brings violence into already poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It also prevent us from solving the underlying problems associated with substance abuse, and, if anything makes these problems worse because it passes the buck on to a prison system that doesn't know how to do deal with curing addiction. But that’s only part of the story when it comes to how the War on Drugs is harming public health.
People also have the right to get well, and criminalizing drugs, especially naturally-occurring ones like pot, prevents them from doing so. We now know that marijuana, the drug at the epicenter of the War Drugs, has a number of medical benefits.
Americans should have the right to enjoy these medical benefits without having to worry about the government coming to take away their kids, as does Kansas-based medical marijuana activist Shona Banda. After her 11-year-old son spoke out about his mom using medical marijuana during a school-run drug-education class, Banda was arrested and now faces a long, drawn-out custody battle with the state.
This is just one example of the casual cruelty of the War on Drugs, and on this 4/20 it should be a wake-up call that it’s time to end this insanity for good.
Like all wars, the War on Drugs has always been and always will be a war on people. And while evidence from European countries like Portugal shows that it’s possible to legalize all drugs without starting the apocalypse, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon here in the United States.
So let’s start with marijuana, which has always been at the epicenter of drug war despite being less harmful than alcohol. If you really want to celebrate 4/20, call your congressman today and tell them to end modern-day prohibition once and for all.