Pubdate: Wed, 02 Apr 2014
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


On his way to outer space, Sir Richard Branson is taking a detour.

The magnetic billionaire with the electric smile rerouted from his 
mission to put people in orbit for a trip to San Francisco last week. 
On a stage shared with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and District Attorney 
George Gascon - but unmistakably commanded by the blond Brit - 
Branson entertained his side venture: pushing a future America where 
we can buy heroin at the corner store, and the citizens aren't all 
Klansmen in disguise.

You see, from where Branson sits in Britain, America's drug war looks 
just like a race war. Arrest statistics, prison populations, death 
statistics - it's unmistakable that America's most-shameful legacy is 
still with us, he said. "You have to ask yourself: Is this another 
form of modern-day slavery?" he asked. The mainstream California 
politicians sitting nearby nodded with approval.

Legalization talk usually ends abruptly at the notion, always 
farcical and always used rhetorically, of a future where heroin and 
crack can be bought at a 7-Eleven. Behold the slippery slope.

Yet that's where Branson's at. Portugal, he pointed out, 
decriminalized all drugs.

"Yes, a country can benefit from decriminalizing heroin as well," he 
said. The audience ate it up. More applause, more nods. He was 
killing it. (Branson, by the way, could front the money to legalize 
marijuana in California tomorrow. He was asked to do just that, and 
politely demurred.)

This is the major change in drug policy in recent years. You can say 
these things - that America engages in widespread and blatant racism 
and that buying heroin at the corner store might not be so bad - and 
maintain your credibility and your hold on a (mostly white) audience.

It helps to be rich. And it helps to be white.

Dorsey Nunn was also on stage that night. He had a tough time 
controlling himself.

Nunn is 64 and has spent 30 years running nonprofits and winning 
awards. That's not how he was introduced. That night he was the 
victim, the black man unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment for a 
drug-related crime (he was paroled in 1984). There was the smell of 
tokenism, but he has bigger worries.

Nunn is from East Palo Alto. Not long ago, Facebook moved in nearby. 
Opportunity is here - for some people. Rents are way up, but the 
struggling schools are the same. Reducing penalties for drug 
possession from a felony to a misdemeanor like Gascon wants to do is 
nice - but it's not the help EPA needs. Other people, like him, who 
are lucky enough to get out of prison with working years left, have a 
low-wage grind to look forward to, he says. "At the ass-end of the 
day, we're still being treated like slaves," he said, "working until 
you are dead." Fewer claps.

Over the phone the next day, Nunn was calm and kind but he was 
neither apologetic nor circumspect. Hearing people like Branson and 
Newsom say these things was unthinkable even seven years ago. There's 
been remarkable progress - but again, for some people.

"Drugs are already decriminalized - for rich white people," he says. 
"Where do you think [pill-popping] Rush [Limbaugh] got his shit from?"

He asked me what I thought would have happened if he or his sister or 
brother - who did two-and-a-half years in Soledad for a joint, he 
notes - would have been busted for a pill addiction like Limbaugh 
was. He answers for me. "We wouldn't have gotten rehab," he says. 
"We'd have been in the pen."

That's the problem, he says, continuous separate and unequal 
treatment under the law - and the uncomfortable truth that Branson, 
me, and every other white person gets to partake in a luxury that 
Nunn does not, each and every day. We think about the drug war 
because we want to. Nunn thinks about it because he's in it.

Hearing Newsom and Branson and Gascon brand American drug policy a 
"New Jim Crow," just like the best-selling book, is progress. "When 
they say it, people hear it," Nunn says. But it's not their lives on the line.

"At the end of the day, [they don't] have the same level of skin in 
the game," he says.

Earlier in the night, Nunn was asked to play tour guide of sorts. He 
was asked to say what it was really like - if The Wire or other shows 
white folk might have seen "get it right," if they show the realities 
of the drug war. He took a few seconds to answer.

"No," he said.

In other words, welcome to the war. You're about 40 years late.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom