Pubdate: Sat, 30 Jun 2012
Source: Charleston City Paper, The (SC)
Copyright: 2012 The Charleston City Paper
Author: Thomas Ravenel


End Prohibition Now

Thomas Ravenel in the Visitation room at The Federal Correctional
Institution in Jesup, Ga., with his mother and sister in the summer of
2008. The most obvious racial divide in America is the one between
black and white incarceration rates. By ending the failed War on
Drugs, we would effectively end the most glaring example of
government-sanctioned racism remaining in America today. Many
Americans today blindly believe that all of our laws are just. They
believe these laws, drafted by imperfect human beings, are somehow
perfect rules and regulations. Americans seem to forget that at one
time our country legalized slavery, promoted Jim Crow segregation, and
criminalized homosexuality.

Lynching at one point was widely accepted by polite society in the
South. In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to support
anti-lynching legislation during his presidency for fear of angering
Southern law enforcement officials. And the mobs weren't comprised of
just drunken hooligans. In the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta,
the members of the mob included a Superior Court judge, a Methodist
minister, the son of a U.S. Senator, a former governor, and a state

We've made much progress, but in one area we've regressed. We now put
people in cages for what they put in their bodies.

And just as the current generation recoils when they hear about the
wickedness and evil deeds from our past, so will future generations
view our current drug laws with similar repugnance. We should not look
away as our neighbors are trampled and not give up our rights to our
own freedom without a fight.

I strongly maintain that the vast majority of drug laws are
destructive to American society. Drug abuse can be deadly, but
maintaining a proven failed system of prohibition and incarcerating
individual drug users is wrong. More Americans die in car accidents
than from illegal drug overdoses, yet there's no call to prohibit cars
and incarcerate the drivers. Driving is a risk we, as free Americans,
embrace every day. It is a dangerous activity that could be illegal,
but instead we have kept it legalized. Legalization is just another
term for control and regulation. There are many rules and regulations
that make driving safer and thus save lives. Prohibition surrenders
all regulation and control to the most violent criminals in society.
If driving was illegal, only criminals would drive.

The feckless and futile War on Drugs has turned our criminal justice
system into a global joke. We incarcerate more of our own people than
the totalitarian regimes of China, Russia, and Iran. There's been a
fourfold increase in American prisoners since President Nixon began
the War on Drugs. It's a war we have been losing for over 40 years at
a cost of over a trillion dollars.

Increased incarceration with outrageous mandatory minimum sentences
once reserved for murderers does not result in a safer country for our
children. America incarcerates 12 times the rate of Japan and six
times the rate of Canada, yet Japan and Canada are the 7th and 8th
safest countries on the planet, respectively. And America, with these
ignominious incarceration rates, is way down on the list of safest
nations, ranking 83rd. Black-market drug profits fund over 20,000
gangs here in America, which routinely kill many innocent children.

As bad as alcohol prohibition was, drug prohibition is much worse.
With alcohol prohibition, mere users were not criminalized, just the
manufacturers and venders. Today, the government selectively chooses
which drug users will be put in prison and branded as common criminals
for life.

The government, being aware of President Lincoln's maxim that "the
best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly," targets
the poor and the voiceless, mostly blacks and Latinos. If our drug
laws were strictly enforced, drug prohibition would have been repealed
long ago. The current president used cocaine, and his two predecessors
used marijuana. If the laws had been enforced against them, they would
have been subject to prison time. In fact, we'd have to incarcerate 44
percent of the American adult population for illegal drug use. I don't
think that the lucky folks who comprise this 44 percent who did not
get caught would have benefited, nor would society have benefited had
they been persecuted, prosecuted, incarcerated, blacklisted,
humiliated, and publicly vilified for their drug use.

The benefits to ending drug prohibition are too numerous to state
here, but a major one would be ending racism. The most obvious racial
divide in America is the one between black and white incarceration
rates. By ending the failed War on Drugs, we would effectively end the
most glaring example of government-sanctioned racism remaining in
America today.

Even though we have an African-American president, if you were to ask
blacks if racism still exists in America today, most would say "yes."
And if you were to follow up with "why," you could literally start
counting the seconds before they would mention police enforcement of
drug laws. According to John McWhorter, a political commentator and
author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, "The
elimination of the War on Drugs would entail completing the other half
of the rescue of black America that welfare reform began in 1996."

Neill Franklin, who spent 33 years in law enforcement - including 23
as an undercover narcotics officer - and who now runs LEAP (Law
Enforcement Against Prohibition), said he once asked his superiors why
they only targeted drug users in the inner city where mostly African
Americans lived. Didn't whites in the suburbs do drugs too, he asked?
His boss explained that if they started prosecuting whites in affluent
neighborhoods, they would soon be calling their senators and
congressmen and in short order the police department's budget would be

The War on Drugs amounts to a war on black and Latino men - and a few
well-known whites to make it seem fair - in support of a racial caste
system that is nearly as restrictive, oppressive, and omnipresent as
Jim Crow itself.

"Studies show that all racial groups abuse drugs at similar rates, but
the numbers also show that African Americans, Hispanics, and other
people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted,
and sent to prison for drug-related charges at a much higher rate,"
states Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "This dual
system of drug law enforcement that serves to keep African Americans
and other minorities under lock and key and in prison must be exposed
and eradicated." African Americans are in fact 13 times more likely to
go to jail for the same drug-related offense as their white
counterparts. Meanwhile, in New York City 80 percent of all marijuana
arrests were of blacks and Latinos. Like Richard Pryor said, "There's
no justice, just us." And when these individuals are set "free" after
doing their time, they enter a legal purgatory where the right to
vote, work, go to school, borrow money, or rent an apartment can be
legally denied.

The main goal of many police departments is to generate statistics so
big city mayors can appear to be tough on crime and have something to
brag about to a public that is afraid of the gang violence that drug
prohibition causes. Recently, the NYPD has been under fire for illegal
searches resulting in thousands of low-level marijuana arrests, mostly
of people of color. As corrupt as this practice is, testimony from
Stephen Anderson, a former NYPD narcotics detective, shows it's just
the tip of the iceberg. According to Anderson, who testified recently,
New York City police regularly planted drugs on innocent people to
meet quotas.

Even without the corruption aspect, arresting non-violent drug users
is just a grotesque waste of human capital. Scarce resources are being
diverted from real crimes like murder, rape, arson, fraud, and robbery
to chase down people who casually use recreational drugs in their homes.

We should end this failed drug policy so that more African-American
children will have fathers to help raise them. The logic of
"protecting the children" by putting millions of their parents in
prison is perverted. We need African-American youths to stay in
school, earn a diploma, and learn a trade instead of being
successfully tempted by the lure of easy money selling drugs on the
street corner.

Without a War on Drugs, a black man like William Louis Gates Jr., a
Harvard professor, won't have to yell, "Why, because I'm a black man
in America," when he is arrested for accessing his own home. Without
the War on Drugs, his legitimate paranoia about the cops will seem

How is it that our leaders could feign outrage at the leaders of South
Africa over Apartheid when in America we incarcerate blacks at a rate
five times more than South Africa did during Apartheid?

During my time in federal prison, I met inmates, mostly African
Americans, who were serving drug sentences much longer than murderers
convicted in state courts. Because Congress recognized how grossly
unjust these sentences were, it approved, albeit minor, sentence
reductions recently. I distinctly remember Donnell Kelley, who was
eligible for a sentence reduction subject to a federal judge's
discretion. Upon receipt of the letter containing the judge's
decision, Donnell's friends gathered around him in great expectation
of an early release, perhaps immediately to rejoin his family after 20
years of imprisonment.

But it was not to be. And as his friends wept, this Christian man who
was the head of my prayer group calmed and reassured his friends that
it was OK. "God has a plan," he said. I was in awe of his serenity and
faith. It was at that point that several of his friends turned to me
and pleaded that I had to do something about this barbaric system.
"They'll listen to you," they exhorted.

At the time, I was incredulous that they thought I could do something.
Now, I feel I must at least try. I know there will be naysayers, there
will be critics, but as Admiral Farragut once famously exclaimed,
"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Thomas Ravenel is the former State Treasurer of the State of South
Carolina and a successful businessman living in Charleston, S.C.
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