Leonard Pitts: War on Drugs destroys much, but not the drug trade

By LEONARD PITTS JR.August 14, 2013 

It's been a war on justice, an assault on equal protection under the law.

And a war on families, removing millions of fathers from millions of homes.

And a war on money, spilling it like water.

And a war on people of color, targeting them with drone strike efficiency.

We never call it any of those things, though all of them fit. No, we call it the War on Drugs. It is a 42-year, trillion dollar disaster that has done nothing -- underscore that: absolutely nothing -- to stem the inexhaustible supply of, and insatiable demand for, illegal narcotics. In the process, it has rendered this "land of the free" the biggest jailer on Earth.

So any reason to hope sanity might assert itself is cause for celebration. Monday, we got two of them, a coincidental confluence of headlines that left me wondering, albeit, fleetingly: Did the War on Drugs just end?

Well, no. Let's not get carried away. But it is fair to say two of the biggest guns just went silent.

Gun 1: In a speech before an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors will no longer charge non-violent, low-level drug offenders with offenses that fall under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Those Kafkaesque rules, you may recall, got Kemba Smith, a college student with no criminal record, sentenced to almost 25 years without parole after she carried money for her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend.

Gun 2: A federal judge ruled New York City's stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. The tactic, more in line with some communist backwater than with a nation that explicitly guarantees freedom from random search and seizure, empowered cops to search anyone they deemed suspicious, no probable cause necessary. Unsurprisingly, 84 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights group, which says illegal drugs or weapons were found in less than 2 percent of the searches.

Michelle Alexander wrote the book on the drug war -- literally. "The New Jim Crow" documents in painful, painstaking detail how policies like these have been directed disproportionately against communities of color with devastating effect.

She told me via email that Monday's headlines leave her "cautiously optimistic" they reflect an emerging national consensus that "war on certain communities defined by race and class has proved to be both immoral and irrational, wasting billions of dollars and countless lives."

But, she warned, "tinkering with the incarceration machine" is not enough. These are important first steps, but only that. She'd like to see the resources that have been wasted in this "war" redirected to help the communities it decimated.

"We've spent more than a trillion dollars destroying those communities in the War on Drugs; we can spend at least that much helping them to recover. We must build a movement for education, not incarceration; jobs, not jails. We must do justice by repairing the harm that has been done. In that process, perhaps we will finally reverse the psychology that brought us to this point and learn to care about poor people of all colors, rather than simply viewing them as the problem."

We can only hope. At the very least, Monday's headlines suggest maybe a sea change is under way. Maybe we're ready to stop using criminal justice tools to solve a public health problem. Maybe we're ready to end this "War."

It's about time. Indeed, it is past time. Our stubborn insistence on these foolish, unworkable policies has left families bereft, communities devastated, cops and bystanders dead, money wasted, foreign governments destabilized, distrust legitimized and justice betrayed.

We call it a War on Drugs. Truth is, drugs are about the only thing it hasn't hurt.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. E-mail, lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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