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Illegal Drugs, Race and the 2016 Elections

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Illegal drug use in the U.S. is reaching epidemic levels.  In 2013, an estimated 25 million Americans were illicit drug users, about 9.4 percent of the population aged 12 or older; this is up from the 2002-09 rate of 7.9 percent.  The drugs used included marijuana/hashish, cocaine/crack, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants and prescription-type psychotherapeutics.  Among whites, illicit drug use increased to 9.5 percent from 8.5 percent in less then a decade.

Illegal drug use has evolved from an inner city (i.e., black) crime to a suburban (i.e., white) disease.  A 2015 Gallup poll of the use of “mood altering drugs” found that seven of the top 10 states with the highest level of abuse – the percent of those using “almost every day” – were red states located in the South: West Virginia (28.1%), Kentucky (24.5%), Alabama (24.2%), Louisiana (22.9%), South Carolina (22.8%), Mississippi (22.3%) and Missouri (22.2%).

The change in the character of illegal drug use is no better expressed than in the personal tragedies experienced of two former Republican presidential candidates, Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush.

“My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction,” Fiorina said during the New Hampshire primary.  She was referring to her stepdaughter, Lori, who died in 2009 at the age of 35, having struggled for many years with marijuana, alcohol, prescription pills and bulimia.

Speaking to Bush, she noted, “The pot today is very different than pot Jeb just admitted to smoking 40 years ago.”  “So 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana and I admit it,” Bush said.  “I’m sure there are other people that might have done it.”  While Governor of Florida, Bush’s daughter, Noelle, suffered from drug addiction.  “She went through hell, so did her mom, and so did I.”

The National Institutes of Health found that from 2001 to 2014 the U. S. witnessed a threefold increase in deaths due to opioid pain relievers and a six-fold increase in heroin overdoses.  During the same period, overdose deaths from prescription drugs like Valium and Klonopin — sedatives called benzodiazepines — increased five fold.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that overdoses (i.e., “drug poisoning”) are “the number one cause of injury-related death in the United States, with 43,982 deaths occurring in 2013.”  It found, based on data from 28 states, that the “death rate for heroin overdose doubled from 2010 through 2012.” Drilling down, it found there were 8,257 heroine deaths, most involving men aged 25–44 years.

In 2013, whites had the highest suicide rate in the country, at 14.2 per 100,000; American Indians and Alaska Natives were second with a rate of 11.7.  However, during 2005–2009, the highest suicide rates were among American Indian/Alaskan Native males with 27.6 suicides and non-Hispanic white males with 25.96 suicides.  Among women, non-Hispanic whites had the highest rate with 6.7 suicides.

Illegal drugs, the prison-industrial complex and the changing racial character of addiction – and suicide – surfaced a couple of times during the 2016 presidential race.  In New Hampshire and Colorado, Republican candidates, notably Fiorina and Bush, openly discussed it a personal experiences that would shape their practice.  However, illegal drugs and race remains little considered as a critical campaign issue.  The following summarizes the public position of the remaining candidates.

Republican candidates

A week or so after Nancy Reagan’s death, some of the Republican candidates have moved away her call to “Just Say No!”  The three candidates positions are as follows:

* Ted Cruz (Senator, TX) — he favors harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

“When it comes to a question of legalizing marijuana, I don’t support legalizing marijuana.  If it were on the ballot in the state of Texas, I would vote no. But I also believe that’s a legitimate question for the states to make a determination…I think it is appropriate for the federal government to recognize that the citizens of those states have made that decision, and one of the benefits of it, you know, using [Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis’ terms of laboratories of democracy, is we can now watch and see what happens in Colorado and Washington State.”

* John Kasich (governor, OH) – he opposes the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, but considers it a states’ rights issue.

“If I happened to be president, I would lead a significant campaign down at the grassroots level to stomp these drugs out of our country.”

* Donald Trump (tycoon, NY) – supports legalization of medical marijuana, but opposes legalization for recreational purposes.

“I say it’s bad.  … Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think [recreational marijuana] it’s bad. And I feel strongly about that.”  He also supports state’s rights to decide: “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now, in Colorado. Some big problems.  But I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”

Democratic candidates

The two Democratic candidates reflect a more nuanced stand on illegal drugs, each calling for a greater emphasis on prevention, treatment and recovery as well as revision of criminal prosecution.  The following quotes are from their respective websites.

* Hillary Clinton (former Sec. of State, NY) – has supported use of medical marijuana and for states to regulate recreational use.

“I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”

“I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today.”

* Bernie Sanders (Senator, VT) – has taken the most progressive stand on illegal drugs, calling for nonviolent drug offenders to receive treatment instead of incarceration.  He support medical use of marijuana and more study of Colorado’s recreational use of marijuana.  With regard to growing the heroin and opioid epidemic, he’s called for “preventative measures to increase education and rehabilitation in order to combat this epidemic.”

“Bernie supports the medical use of marijuana and the rights of states to determine its legality. He co-sponsored the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act in 2001.”

“Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that.”

* * *

The notorious “war on drags” has dragged on for nearly 50 years and is increasingly recognized as a failure.  A 2015 Pew Research survey found that more than half (53%) of respondents favor the legal use of marijuana, while 44 percent are opposed.  It also reported that nearly a decade ago, in 2006, just one third (32%) supported marijuana legalization, while nearly twice as many (60%) were opposed.

The war on drugs failed on two fronts: (i) it failed to halt supply, close down the drug pipeline; and (ii) it failed to quell demand, the popular desire/need for “illegal” drugs.  It is a replay of Prohibition, but in slow motion.  Over this near half-century, both Republican and Democratic leaders backed the war on drug at an estimated federal, state and local price tag of $1 trillion.

More troubling, about 2.3 million Americans are imprisoned today, a significant proportion for drug offenses.  In 1980, about 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes; today, it’s about a half-million people, a disproportionate number African-Americans and other people of color.  According to one study, from 1980 to 2007, African Americans were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

The growing perception that the war on drugs is a failure is leading two fundamental changes regarding drug policy.  First, an increasing number of states are legalizing marijuana for both medical purposes and for recreational use.  Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized to one degree or another medical marijuana and three states (i.e., Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska) and Washington D.C. have approved adult use of recreational marijuana; a dozen or so states may have recreational marijuana ballot initiatives or referendums in the 2016 elections.

Second, states and cities across the country are revising their drug laws, with drug busts being reclassified from felony crimes to minor offenses, accompanied by a citation and modest fine — and no prison time. Among the state reclassifying drug offenses are Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi and Texas.

The prison-industrial complex has proven to be a failure to address either drug trafficking and drug use.  It’s also proven to be unaffordable public expense that accomplished very little – other than enriching a handful of state bureaucrats and private corporations.  One can only hope the American electorate will act accordingly in the November elections.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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