The movie is loosely structured as a satirical how-to, showing how easy it is to make a ton of money as a player in America’s war on drugs. And though the film mainly focuses on the stories of former drug dealers, along the way it lays bare the complicity of law enforcement, our justice system, and our political system. It also features interviews with, among others, Susan Sarandon, 50 Cent, The Wire creator David Simon, HuffPost senior writer Radley Balko, and Russell Simmons. (And, full disclosure, a cameo by me.)
But the reason the film truly feels like a blockbuster is that you can’t leave the theater without being shocked and outraged by what you’ve seen. Even if you go in feeling like you’re well-versed in the insanity of the drug war, you’ll walk out stunned. That’s what happened to me. I’ve been passionate about this issue for years. In fact, the injustice of the war on drugs has been one of The Huffington Post’s core issues since its founding. It’s also why this week we’ve been running a dedicated series of blog posts in conjunction with the movie’s release.
On no issue is the cowardice and hypocrisy of our elected leaders writ larger than on the drug war — with staggering consequences in lives and in money. Not only is the war on drugs America’s longest-running war, it’s also arguably its most destructive. The statistics, as laid out by the film’s producers, give a sense of the magnitude of the epic failure of the drug war:
- In the 1980s there were about 3,000 SWAT-style drug raids per year. Today there are around 50,000.
- The U.S. is the top consumer of cocaine worldwide.
- African-American dealers are four times more likely to be arrested than Caucasian dealers — even though more buyers and sellers are Caucasian.
- Ninety percent of those convicted on drug charges under the Rockefeller drug laws are African-American and Latino.
- In 2011, 48 percent of federal inmates were in prison for drug crimes, compared with 8 percent for violent crimes.
“I think we’re led to believe we’re a nation of 2 types: criminals and citizens,” writes Cooke in his director’s statement. “But truly we are one people. If we are divided by anything it’s by two conversations. The truth Americans speak on the streets. And the conversation between our commercial news and Washington elites, blasted across our media — drowning the rest of us out.”
That’s why it’s so important that we all lend our voices to a conversation that can reach Washington and finally overwhelm the entrenched forces that keep this disastrous war — a war not on drugs but on our people — going year after devastating year.
And to help fuel that conversation, we’d like you to send us your stories. How has the drug war affected you, your family, or your friends? Are you involved in local efforts to fight it? Let us know how you’re intersecting with the war on drugs.
And if you’ve missed the parts of the conversation we’ve been running on HuffPost in conjunction with the film, here are some highlights:
Director Matthew Cooke kicked it off by writing about how, “from the standpoint of social responsibility, the war on drugs has in fact created a crisis of epic proportions not just in the United States but across the planet.” In sum, he continues, “If we want to save lives we need to end the war on drugs. We know this.”
And to that end, he also recommends supporting three organizations on the front lines of ending this war:
1) The Drug Policy Alliance is a fantastic organization with tons of information, resources and easy action steps on contacting congresspeople. 2) Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an inspired group of former and current police officers, judges and prison guards who are calling for legalization of all drugs to save lives. 3) Marijuana Majority, while focused solely on marijuana, is a great coalition of famous names who are joining forces to help spread the word that indeed 72 percent of the nation already agrees “no jail time for marijuana”. We’re making progress!
Producer Adrian Grenier writes about having grown up with parents involved in the hippie movement and being exposed both to casual drug use and to those with more serious drug problems. Though he says he doesn’t advocate drug use, criminalizing it isn’t the answer:
I was lucky — I grew up white and middle class.In a minority community, the enforcement of drug laws would have ripped my family apart. These communities are systematically targeted and destroyed by drug laws, leaving countless children without their parents. I can only imagine the horror of actually watching a friend, family member, or mentor put behind bars. Is it really more beneficial to society to lock a father in prison, rather than send him to treatment, where he can learn to make better choices as he continues to provide for his family?
Neill Franklin is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a non-profit representing over 5,000 law enforcement workers opposed to the drug war. He’s also a 34-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police. From his very credentialed perspective, Franklin writes about how futile it is to focus on the supply end of the drug war. For inner city children, drug dealing “often means the only avenue of escape from a life of poverty.” He continues:
Prosecuting individual drug suppliers is a lot like squeezing a water balloon: when you tighten in one place, another part of the balloon necessarily expands out. The police might arrest a dealer in one area of the city, but when they do, they create a vacuum in the market, which others enthusiastically fill. Worse, the scramble to fill that void often leads to violent confrontations between groups competing for market share. This is one way in which drug prohibition not only fails to prevent violence, it actively generates it.
And that’s, of course, because of the massive amount of money the system generates. “Pretty much every ill in America is funded by profits from drugs,” Franklin writes.
And then there are the opportunity costs of having our limited law enforcement resources focused so intently on the futile drug war. As Franklin notes, as the drug war has grown, the national percentage of murders that get solved has dropped, going from 91 percent in 1963 to 61 percent in 2007.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” he concludes. “Take it from someone who tried for 34 years.”
For a different angle on the supply side, there’s Violeta Ayala, an award-winning indigenous Bolivian filmmaker, who writes about how “the indigenous people of Bolivia have a relationship with the coca leaf that goes back thousands of years.” To the Bolivians, cocaine is simply “a way to get out of poverty.”
She details how the Bolivians were one of the top targets of the U.S. after Nixon launched the drug war in 1972. But after 25 years of accepting the consequences of the U.S. war on drugs, everything changed when Evo Morales was elected and refused to go along. The result? “Bolivia has a growing middle class,” Ayala writes, “we’re fighting illiteracy with more children attending school than ever and the number of people living below the poverty line is decreasing by the day.”
She concludes that, “ultimately, as long as there’s demand for cocaine, there will be cocaine production in Bolivia.”
Susan Sarandon writes about the passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado, “a common sense step toward ending the archaic prohibition mindset that has resulted in the U.S. leading the world in the incarceration of our people — a prison system packed with non-violent drug offenders.”
She also reminds us that the drug offenders our prisons are packed with are not evenly distributed across race and class lines: While African-Americans and whites have virtually identical rates of drug use, African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for pot.
But Sarandon is hopeful for the future:
With the ascendance of the baby boomers I believe we’ve finally reached a tipping point. The majority of my generation knows better than to believe the government’s breathless anti-marijuana propaganda…I encourage everyone to get involved in your own state. Eventually we’ll reach enough of a critical mass to prompt reform at the federal level and we can end this national outrage once and for all.
HuffPost’s Radley Balko posts an entry that’s taken from his book (to be published July 9) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Radley writes about another way to make money — big money — from the drug war. And with no risk of jail time:
Want to make money on the drug war? Start a company that builds military equipment, then sell that gear to local police departments. Thanks to the generation-long trend toward more militarized police forces, there’s now a massive and growing market for private companies to outfit your neighborhood cops with gear that’s more appropriate for a battlefield.
How big of a market? By 2014, the homeland security market for local law enforcement agencies will reach over $19 billion. And, as Radley notes, because most of these localities will never face the real threat of terrorism, much of this equipment — “armored personnel carriers, high-power weapons, aircraft and other military-grade gear” — will instead be used to further prosecute the drug war, “namely, to perform raids on people suspected of nonviolent consensual drug crimes.”
It’s part of what Radley calls “the police-industrial complex,” and he shows how the confluence of the drug war and 9/11 has perverted the relationship between even small-town police departments and communities across the country.
Eric Sterling is the head of the non-profit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. But from 1979 to 1989, he was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and helped write anti-drug legislation, especially the law — written “with no hearings or effective input from anyone” — mandating sentencing disparities for those convicted of selling crack cocaine versus powered cocaine.
“You would think that Eric Holder, the first African American Attorney General, and Barack Obama, the first African American President, would be vigilant that there was no racial discrimination in the Justice Department of their Administration,” Sterling writes. “You would think.”
He notes that in 2008, lawmakers, including then-Senators Obama, Biden and Clinton, co-sponsored legislation to address the disparity. But the version that finally passed in 2010, and was signed by President Obama, adjusted the triggering quantities only slightly. The result?
… the racial disparity in federal crack cocaine cases is even worse! In FY 2009, blacks were 79.0 percent of all federal crack cocaine defendants. By FY 2012, that percentage had gone UP to 82.6 percent. In FY 2009, whites were only 9.8 percent of all federal crack cocaine defendants. But FY 2012, that percentage had gone DOWN to 6.7 percent. Under Holder and Obama, the racial disparity has gotten significantly worse.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also brings attention to President Obama’s hypocrisy on the issue. As Nadelmann notes, in his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to change the government’s emphasis to a public health approach instead of criminalization. How did that turn out?
The Obama administration’s budget continues to emphasize enforcement, prosecution and incarceration at home — and interdiction, eradication and military escalation abroad. Even what the government does spend on treatment and prevention is overstated, as many of its programs are wasteful and counterproductive.
As Nadelmann points out, in 2011, of the 1.5 million people arrested for drugs, over 80 percent were for low-level possession. “On any given night,” he writes, “roughly 500,000 people go to sleep behind bars in the U.S. for nothing more than a drug law violation — that’s 10 times the number in 1980.”
Nor is this an issue the president can blame on John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Congress, the tea party or the media.
Nadelmann also writes about how the people are fighting back, as seen in the passage of decriminalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado. Yet even as progress has been made, it’s important not to let up. “Nothing concerns me more than when people look at what we accomplished on Election Day and declare ‘we’ve won!'” he writes. “The truth is, we may have scored two major victories, but winning the war against the war on drugs is a long way off… The drug war remains entrenched and codified in a complex, global web of policies. We can’t stop fighting until policymakers adopt a fundamentally better way of dealing with drugs, people who use them, and their children, families and communities.”
Back in 2001, I wrote about how I hoped the movie Traffic would ignite a conversation about the drug war. And for a while it did. Yes, progress has been made at the state level — but only in a few states. And while the momentum of demographic change will undoubtedly keep that progress going, we need to bring a sense of urgency to this injustice. I hope there will come a day when the government no longer wages this insane war against its own citizens. But how many lives are going to be destroyed before that happens?
So please, get involved. See this powerful film — it will motivate you to take action. And be sure to tell us your drug war stories.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of “How To Make Money Selling Drugs,” a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.