Pubdate: Sun, 31 May 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Danielle Allen
Note: The writer is a political theorist at the Institute of Advanced 
Study and a contributing columnist for The Post.


The new visibility of police violence toward African Americans has 
stoked public debate about policing: What about body cameras?

Should we reform police training?

Perhaps we should go slow on all that military gear? I find it almost 
impossible to sit through any of this while the underlying issue goes 
unaddressed: It's the drug economy, stupid.

It's well past time to legalize marijuana.

But it's also time to consider decriminalizing nonviolent crimes 
involving other drugs, or at least to reclassify lower-level, 
nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors. We should also expunge felony 
convictions for many classes of nonviolent drug offenses - those 
involving marijuana but for other drugs, too - to re-enfranchise, 
economically and politically, those who have staffed the drug trade.

Before I make my case, let me pause to say that I write this as the 
last living American, or so it sometimes feels, never to have smoked 
pot or used any other banned substance.

My motivation, in other words, is not my own recreational freedom but justice.

What's the picture of use these days? According to the 2014 National 
Drug Control Strategy Data Supplement, as of 2009, more than 41 
percent of Americans ages 12 to 64 had used marijuana sometime in 
their lifetime.

In Canada, that figure was 51 percent.

This contrasts with Mexico, where the figure is 4 percent, and 
Colombia (8 percent). Whereas in 2000, the United States consumed an 
estimated 3,000 metric tons of pot, in 2010 we inhaled or otherwise 
ingested 5,700 metric tons. And from 2011 to 2014, according to the 
National Institute on Drug Abuse, half of high school students 
reported using illicit drugs by 12th grade.

This number is headed up.

Participation is pretty equal opportunity. According to the 2013 
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in that year the rate of 
substance dependence or abuse was 8.4 percent for whites and 7.4 
percent for blacks.

Yet, as is widely recognized, African Americans are incarcerated for 
both the use and sale of drugs at far higher rates than whites.

In 2011, African Americans were arrested for possession at three 
times the rate as whites nationally and, for drug sales and 
manufacturing, at nearly four times the rate of whites.

In Chicago, the black-white arrest ratio for marijuana is 15 to 1.

These enforcement disparities mean that the U.S. drug economy rests 
on a highly exploitative labor regime.

If pot were an iPhone and the supply chain based in China, 
investigative journalists would be blasting the labor practices that 
delivered it. This is a point we have not yet focused on.

According to researchers, marijuana constitutes about 80 percent of 
illicit drug usage, and an estimated 40 to 67 percent of that pot 
came from Mexico in 2008; most cocaine and heroin also passes through 
Mexico. Wholesale distributors in the United States include Mexican 
criminal organizations, Latino and African American street gangs and 
domestic producers of marijuana, a rapidly growing part of the drug 
economy that includes plenty of non-ethnically-identified whites.

Of course, other groups also operate at the wholesale level - 
Russians, Israelis, Italians, Chinese, Colombians and Jamaicans, to 
name a few. Producers, wholesalers and retailers are tied together by 
brokers, smugglers and couriers.

It's a commercial zone that looks pretty multicultural based on the 
limited information available.

At the retail level, however, most drug users buy from people who 
look like them. But this lets some white users turn a blind eye to 
the supply chain.

A major portion of the pot inhaled by a white smoker has also passed 
through the hands of black or brown laborers in the drug economy.

In 1984, the Drug Enforcement Administration initiated Operation 
Pipeline to interdict drug trafficking on the nation's highways 
through the use of traffic stops; this operation launched and 
provided national training for police in what we have come to know as 
racial profiling.

Thanks to the racially disparate enforcement that was then set in 
motion, much drug economy labor is, for all intents and purposes, not 
free. This is especially true for the couriers, brokers and 
lower-tier wholesalers. Young people are recruited to handle 
low-level tasks, setting them up to be booked on a felony as an adult 
not long after they turn 18. Once that happens, they find themselves 
broadly unemployable-with one major exception: by the drug industry.

How voluntary can we consider repeat participation in the supply 
chain, then, when a criminal record precludes other opportunities?

The libertarian vibe in the world of pot smokers and other drug users 
makes these issues all the more stark.

Freedom for those who want a hit has been wrung from the exploitation 
of others.

We have numbers for the price of that freedom: 1.5 million African 
American men missing from U.S. cities.

And this doesn't count the men who are still in those cities but are 
trapped by the felonies on their records.

In the mid-1970s, the DEA conducted an anti-heroin campaign in Mexico 
called Operation Trizo. The DEA Web site reports, with no apparent 
sense of irony, that the campaign was called off at the request of 
the Mexican government because "The large numbers of arrests that 
resulted from Operation Trizo caused an economic crisis."

Through decades of the war on drugs, we have indeed bought ourselves 
our own economic crisis with the drug economy's impacts on poverty 
and education.

But we've also delivered a human catastrophe, on par with the worst 
of our bad American habits.

One of the hardest challenges of school reform in the context of 
low-income communities of color is to protect students from exposure 
to violence, even on their daily walks to school.

The precise pathway to a legalized, decriminalized and nonviolent 
drug economy and to the reintegration of those formerly barred from 
participation will take much collective discussion to discern.

But the general direction to pursue is clear.

Emancipation of our brothers and sisters requires both economic and 
political reenfranchisement. These forms of reenfranchisement require 
not only legalizing marijuana but also decriminalizing as many 
nonviolent drug offenses as possible and expunging those convictions. 
Call it Operation Equal Justice.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom