“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” These were the words of President Richard Nixon on June 17th, 1971.
For those of us on the front lines, organizing in America’s toughest neighborhoods, the idea is na?ve at best. At worst, it’s a deliberate and subtly racist misrepresentation. We are fully aware of the myriad social ills plaguing communities all across this country, and the misuse of drugs simply is not the primary concern. We acknowledge that problematic drug use can have a life changing effect on individuals and families. But individuals and families forced to live in degraded indoor and outdoor environments, in socially neglected communities without viable economic opportunities, is equally problematic.
On a daily basis, we are confronted with the realities of America’s enemies, including the effects of the lack of affordable housing, the fate of students attending low performing public schools, the assault on women’s rights, and the ongoing disregard for environmental laws. These conditions are created and perpetuated by social determinants that are deeply rooted in a system that is marred by inequities and injustices, and they deserve the time and attention of our elected officials. Instead, our resources are disproportionately devoted to a war on drugs that has proven to exacerbate these very problems.
While our elected officials play politics, thousands more precious American lives will be lost to preventable drug overdoses. Many more will contract Hepatitis C and HIV through intravenous drug use. Millions of black and brown men and women will have their life expectancy reduced due to mass incarceration and economic and social marginalization. Scores of families will be needlessly torn apart. Urban and rural communities across the country will be destabilized by the violence of drug prohibition. And legislators at every level of our government will still be grappling with their fiscal nightmares, trying to balance budgets that in years past have allocated literally millions of dollars to a failed policy. It’s failed to make our neighborhoods any safer, it’s failed to provide adequate treatment for drug addiction, and it has utterly failed to eradicate drugs from our society.
For too long, our drug policy has been framed in the nervous and reactionary language of Richard Nixon and his successors, allowing policy makers to craft ineffectual yet politically convenient laws. As it becomes clearer and clearer that this war cannot be won, they are left in a compromising position? in complete acquiescence to those preaching law, order and punishment, yet morally obligated to mitigate some of the suffering caused by their own failed policies.
The time is now. Policy makers must be awakened from their political amnesia and call to memory the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan? the chaos that can ensue if you enter into a war without a clear exit strategy, or cannot muster up the political will to course-correct when faced with impending failure. More importantly, they must acknowledge that we will never have a “drug-free” America. There has never been and never will be a drug free society. The only realistic expectation is for those who use drugs do so responsibly. Unless our drug policy reflects this expectation, we will continue to waste both money and human potential.
As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of drug abuse as “America’s public enemy number one”, I appeal to you to challenge this claim. Close to a trillion dollars has been allocated to fight the drug war that could otherwise have gone toward repairing our tattered social safety net; by providing quality education to our children, and assuring adequate housing and food security for our most vulnerable families, among many other things.
If we are to bring about a sea change in American drug policy, it will take each and every one of us, and there is no better time than now. We have dedicated our lives to fairness, justice and equal human rights, and have fought hard to make drug policy more humane, but we have not yet successfully characterized the war on drugs as a social justice issue. In order to realize a truly just society, we will need to re-frame the debate. We will need to call out the war on drugs for what it really is? a war on families and communities.
Yolande Cadore is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance.