Saturday, January 1, 2011

John McWhorter on Legalizing Drugs in America

TNR//December 3, 2010

It’s one thing that the U.S. will soon be taking orders from China (or already is). But what when we’re becoming less forward-thinking than England? That’s the only possible reading of the fact that there, the former top drug official Bob Ainsworth has addressed the House of Commons and argued for the legalization of all drugs. Not just pot—all of them. His reasoning is simple, and has nothing to do with the ideology of Timothy Leary:

“We need to take effective measures to rob the dealers of their markets and the only way that we can do that is by supplying addicts through the medical profession, through prescription. We cannot afford to be shy about being prepared to do that.”

He continues: “We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.”

The perfect sense in this is painfully clear when uttered by someone from elsewhere—the English accent would make it sound even more authoritative to American ears. And yet to propose this here is seen as nervy, as “worth discussing” (which is a way of saying that it isn’t). Even when it is intoned in a black accent, as you can sample here, where Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s Neill Franklin speaks the truth on this issue regarding his work in Maryland.

This should change, as I have argued frequently over the past year (listen to part of a speech I did on this here). Of the countless reasons why this revival of this Prohibition that looks so quaint in Boardwalk Empire should be erased with all deliberate speed, one is that with no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no “black problem” in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general—probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on, which is why I am devoting my last TNR post of 2010 to the issue. The black malaise in the U.S. is currently like a card house; the Drug War is a single card which, if pulled out, would collapse the whole thing.

That is neither an exaggeration nor an oversimplification. It comes down to this: If there were no way to sell drugs on the street at a markup, then young black men who drift into this route would instead have to get legal work. They would. Those insisting that they would not have about as much faith in human persistence and ingenuity as those who thought women past their five-year welfare cap would wind up freezing on sidewalk grates.

There would be a new black community in which all able-bodied men had legal work even in less well-off communities—i.e. what even poor black America was like before the '70s; this is no fantasy. Those who say that this could only happen with low-skill factory jobs available a bus ride away from all black neighborhoods would be, again, wrong. That explanation for black poverty is full of holes. Too many people of all colors of modest education manage to get by without taking a time machine to the 1940s, and after the War on Drugs black men would be no exception.

And in this new black community, young black men, much less likely to wind up in prison cells or caskets, would be a constant presence—and thus stay in the lives of their children. The black male community would no longer include a massive segment of underskilled, drug-addicted ex-cons churning in and out by the thousands year after year, and thus black boys growing up in these communities would not see this life as a norm. They would grow up to get jobs, period.

And something else these boys would not grow up with is a bone-deep sense of the police—and thus whites—as an enemy. Because there would be no reason for the police to prowl through his neighborhood.

Before long, the sense of blacks as America’s eternal poster children—generated from within the black community as well as from without—would fade away. Think about it.

No more ritualistic “forums” held by people like Tavis Smiley and MSNBC articulately reinforcing the notion that to be black is to have no meaningful control over one’s fate. After last winter I have refrained from participating in any more of these; they miss the point, which is the War on Drugs. A person or two points out that America Remains a Racist Country and is applauded. The panelists who have urged the black community to look inward are considered to have “made some good points” as well. But the general impression is of a draw, which sparks no decisive, universal commitment to work in one direction. Nothing changes.

No more episodes like Henry Louis Gates supposing that an encounter with a policeman on his front porch might be about race. His suspicion made sense in the light of blacks’ relations with police forces under Prohibition, but those relations would be vastly different post-Prohibition. Ever wonder when that “next” beer summit was going to be? The reason there hasn’t been one is that there would be nothing more to talk about—unless the topic was, yes, ending the War on Drugs.

And no more books with titles like—I just cherry-picked this one—Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men or The New Jim Crow (that one chosen deliberately as a particularly hot title of the past year). Eliminating the War on Drugs would pull the rug out from under all of this. If there were no reason for the police to hunt people carrying or selling drugs, then there would be vastly less reason for such a concentration on black neighborhoods or black people in law enforcement.

It’s about Darnell. No, he’s not a “stereotype”; he’s a perfectly normal person who worries all people concerned with black community issues. Darnell’s brother Eugene fixes heaters and air conditioners. He was never a great student but he had a way of sticking to things. Darnell happened not to be, really. He didn’t like school either—especially since the one he went to was the kind where it was hard to learn much of anything. He liked his friends. And a lot of them stopped going to school after ninth or tenth grade. After a while, he stopped seeing why he shouldn’t hang out with them during the day, instead of missing sitting in classrooms not learning much.

Now, one thing Darnell could do is get his GED, and meanwhile get a job stocking shelves at Staples. Or working at a shoe store or supermarket. He could get vocational training of some kind, with a small loan it wouldn’t be hard to get. But that’s not what a lot of his friends do. The way they make money is by selling drugs.

Of course nobody calls it that. No one walks up to Darnell and says “Would you like to help us sell drugs on the street to make a living?” It goes by euphemisms—“out on dem corners” and so on. There is a quiet community norm: Young men who drop out of school and do not take jobs, because they can keep money in their pockets by selling drugs on the street. Hardly all young men do this in the community. Most don’t, in fact. But many do—enough that to Darnell, there is nothing unusual about it.

He sees people going to prison for this: But that’s seen as a badge of manhood. He even sees people getting killed—but let’s face it: Just like most men don’t deal drugs, most men in these communities do not get killed. To Darnell this looks like collateral damage of a kind he has a hard time imagining happening to him. Plus, he has less of a sense of a meaningful future than most people reading this can imagine. He has possibly never been outside of his city. He barely knows anyone who gets married. As is well documented, Darnells can be starkly casual about the possibility of not living past 25.

Of the options open to him for having money in his pocket, the most attractive one is the one that gives him the most flexible schedule, allows him to be with his favorite people, and lends him an air of the soldier besides. The question is not why he would choose to sell drugs, but why he wouldn’t.

Darnell is not on the corners because it’s all society prepared him for: That is a melodramatic, antiempirical, leftist cliche. Eugene’s doing fine and the community has as many Eugenes as Darnells. Darnell had choice. His choice makes perfect sense for someone like him, where he lives, having had the only life he knew.

Say that Darnell’s mother needs to control him and you’re saying nothing will change. What, precisely, would you counsel his mother to say? And do you think she hasn’t? Can you genuinely imagine that she can determine how Darnell is going to spend his life via the enunciation of some sentences? Hasn’t it always been considered a prime challenge of parenting that children tend not to heed parental advice?

Notice, though, that Darnell is a perfectly rational, normal human being. Just as I am not describing a choiceless victim of “institutional racism,” I am not describing a monster or a wastrel. What we need is not a forum where people clap at zestily-enunciated lines about “responsibility.” We need simply to imagine a day when a Jevon thinks about dropping out of school and selling drugs and realizes that he can’t do that because drugs are available for low prices at Rite-Aid and CVS.

He’d stay in school. Watch. And this is a prime reason the War on Drugs must end. It tears poor black communities to pieces. Not only by flooding them with police—but by encouraging bright young black people to work the black market and lending it an air of heroism.

This is not about being libertarian. This is not about me trying to redeem myself with people under the impression that I am a Republican. This is not about Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. This is about making black lives better—and via that, making America better. We should heed the Neill Franklins and Bob Ainsworths among us and take meaningful action. All year I have noticed a quiet groundswell in this direction; I hope it continues.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron W.

    Yep. And I'd go even farther than that British MP: don't just medicalize heroin and cocaine, make them commercially available in fashion similar to alcohol and cannabis in jurisdictions such as Holland. Making drugs of abuse available to "addicts" through medical prescription will only address part of the problem. A significant proportion of the illegal drug trade, perhaps the majority share, is marketing to non-habitual users, people who are using heroin, cocaine and other substances on an occasional, recreational basis. Making such drugs available at minimal dose--often when such programs have been tried, the dose given was only enough to prevent physical withdrawal, not enough to generate a high--under medical supervision only to those persons willing to accept the label "addict" won't really accomplish much more than methadone maintenance programs do already, which isn't actually all that much. (Methadone doesn't really replace heroin in the marketplace even for the individual user. All it really does is prevent the user from getting caught out with no money for a fix and having to rob a gas station for in order to avoid withdrawal sickness. Studies show that most users on maintenance still cop heroin several times a month.)

    As an infectious diseases and general physician, I see the medical consequences of substance abuse both licit and illicit on a regular basis. There is no question in my mind that drugs both illegal and legal wreck lives and shorten them too. I am, however, not at all convinced that any of the illegal substances are any "heavier" than good ol' ethanol.

    And all or nearly all of the added life-wrecking potential that illegal substances have over alcohol stems from the very fact of their being illegal. People want these substances and despite their illegality they continue to obtain them. The end result of prohibition is eliminating the government's ability to regulate their safety and promoting the formation of a vast illegal industry which as a result of the fact that contracts cannot be enforced by law functions, of necessity, on violence and the threat of violence.

    Every day people get just as fucked up on booze as they do on smack and even more than on cocaine. Injection is definitely a unique hazard--HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and bacterial infections such as endocarditis and spinal osteomyelitis among junkies are my professional bread and butter--but if drugs were sold in preloaded, sterile syringes most of these hazards would be eliminated. Similarly, the risk of death from opiate overdose would be dramatically lessened if users could obtain dope in a consistent, dose-regulated formulation.

    And yes, the drug prohibition and the unequal and unfair way it is enforced in the USA continues to function in such a way as to make criminals and jailbirds out of far too many black men