Walter Crunkite – Why An End to the Drug War Might Not Mean Peace
By all means, Colorado, smoke up. Washington, too. Burn one for me.
But the recent historic move to de-escalate the War on Drugs is not only about being able to smoke weed in peace. Yes, the Department of Justice appears to have committed to a new course of allowing states to begin experimenting with how to end the War on Drugs. But largely unforeseen crises will emerge out of a de-escalation of the four-decade drug war.
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Two problems are likely to arise:
(1) Law enforcement personnel hired to conduct the drug war will be out of work. That means cops, sheriffs, correctional officers, probation and parole officers, DEA, FBI, lawyers, administrative workers, etc.
(2) The economy will not be able to absorb those society had locked up and warehoused.
The first problem is likely the lesser of the two. But the threat to the livelihoods of law enforcement workers was enough to motivate seven different associations of police and sheriffs to draft a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday, just a day after Holder’s Justice Department announced its historic relaxation of federal attention to pot use and distribution in Colorado and Washington, two states that passed marijuana legalization laws in November.
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The drug war-era explosion in the prison population requires a commensurate increase in personnel and construction to handle the growth. That means jobs at a time when jobs are harder and harder to find. While other industries and sectors were in decline in the post-industrial era, the law enforcement and corrections industry was booming.
According to the Congressional Research Service, correctional spending (on prisons, jails and other means of detention and monitoring) has in the past three decades seen its funding increase nearly twice as fast as state spending on education, health care and social service programs.
The same report notes that during the height of the drug war-era prison construction boom, a new prison was constructed every 15 days. Every prison has be staffed, supported and built by more and more Americans whose income is dependent on an ever-expanding prison population.
The second problem is the much deeper and intractable one. America had become one of the world leaders in experimentation with the police state. Directly due to the Drug War, America leapt every nation to imprison more of its citizens per capita than any country on earth. In fact, it could be argued that the benchmark for the police state is the percentage of citizens held against their will by the government, imprisoned, wearing the words “state property.” Had become the world’s greatest police state?
Why have a police state in the first place? Societies tend to lock up citizens that otherwise cannot be dealt with. In the case of the US, we started locking up poor people, mostly, and especially poor people of color. The economy was not able to adequately absorb an entire underclass of people, and their condition became a menace. For all the fanfare and hoopla about capitalism defeating communism in the late 20th century, the premier capitalist power had to lock its citizens up by the millions.
Deindustrialization, white flight, globalization; all of these depleted the inner-city. Similar difficulties befell rural America, though white folks were typically much better off. Underground, shadow economies are always going to emerge in those circumstances. “Anywhere there's oppression, the drug profession flourishes...”
The War on Drugs functioned as a means to warehouse people that the economy could not absorb, citizens for whom the economy was not working. And now the economy is less prepared than ever to absorb those at or near the bottom of the ladder.
The warehousing of citizens has disproportionately affected people of color, and in this way it served a double purpose of “solving” an economic dilemma and a racial one. If the economy was not prepared in the post-industrial age to absorb poor and working-class whites, it wasn’t at all able to employ citizens already discriminated against and ill-served due to race. As wide as the wealth gap was in the years following the civil rights era, it has tripled since then.
If the War on Drugs did serve a function to mass-incarcerate “problematic” populations, it needed to lock away those poor Black Americans who were left behind by the economy. Marijuana arrests started sending Black Americans to prison at an alarming rate.
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So if the recent moves at the federal and state level do announce the beginning of the end of the drug war, how do we avoid widespread loss of jobs for the hundreds of thousands of citizens employed in law enforcement and corrections? One of the cornerstones of the anti-drug war argument is the war's expense. That expense is the salaries of an entire industry that would effectively dissolve with a substantial cessation of parts of the drug war.
But more worrisome: what are the prospects for desperate communities for whom the shadow economy was the primary economy? Will it leave struggling communities with even less options? Does it set the stage for insurrectionary activity, a problem Jay Z portends as one "no amount of police can solve?" There's been a conspiracy theory that's always circulated, that the government distributed drugs in the hood after the civil rights era and Black liberation movement in order to distract, disease and divide the poor. To be sure, the theory wasn't sturdy, though it was at least partially true: Washington, during Reagan's administration, did turn a blind eye to the trafficking of fantastic amounts of cocaine from CIA-funded and -trained guerrilla armies. But the underlying logic is historically sound: unified underclasses will revolt if desperation reaches critical mass.
It is only just to empty our vast prison system of nonviolent drug offenders, but what economic justice awaits the newly freed citizens? What options are left when the principal former commodities of the underground economy cannot provide capital in struggling communities? Have we thought this through?
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