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Just Say No (To Drugs)

by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 11, 2012


You probably don’t expect me to mean that literally. But I do.

Let me tell you why. I assure you it has nothing to do with feeling any right to control what you put in your body.

This coming weekend at the Summit of the Americas, Latin American heads of state will be raising the question of our failed war on drugs and the devastating consequences for their countries. Though no one has easy answers to this, they are calling for everyone to reconsider the approach of criminalization and prohibition and reopen questions about legalization, regulation, and public health approaches.

The United States, for its part, unfortunately will not be supporting any move away from its hard line during an election year. The administration has already made that clear. That’s hard to swallow coming from the country that is generating the demand but not experiencing the same level of violence that the war is generating in the supplying countries, where entire populations are being held hostage to violent drug gangs who derive their power from the illegal profits the prohibition regime engenders. Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Jamaica currently have the world’s highest murder rates.

Sound familiar? It’s an extreme version of what has happened to many poor urban areas of the United States as well.

The War on Drugs has been a disaster, and the effects fall disproportionately on people and communities of color. I hope these facts are not news to you: There are five times as many white drug users than black, but black men are incarcerated at a rate that is 13.4 times higher than the rate for white men, according to Human Rights Watch. People of color get arrested more for possession of drugs, are more likely to be convicted, and get longer sentences. Meanwhile we have 1.2 million African-American children with a parent incarcerated, as of 2008, primarily on drug charges, according to the MIT journal Daedelus. Not to mention that all the money we waste on the drug war could be being spent on schools, infrastructure, jobs.

The absolutism around drugs, especially marijuana, and the way we elevate drug offenses to be equivalent to or worse than violent crimes is itself a crime.

While we’re fighting to end the drug war though, it seems like a lot of people seem to think that smoking up is a sign of rebellion and a blow for freedom. I don’t see it that way. I have zero problem with the idea of someone smoking a joint responsibly. But it’s not an act that happens in isolation. Unless you’re growing all of your own, and saving seed, those drugs are likely coming to you through countries and neighborhoods and people that are being harmed by the drug war.

As long as law enforcement takes this skewed and harmful approach toward enforcing drug laws, then participating in the market for drugs is participating in its consequences. And if you are a person with more privilege than most of the people in your supply chain—be it skin color, income, or where you live—or you feel like you are relatively safe because you only consume but not deal, then you are taking advantage of your privilege to allow someone else to take on the dangers of your actions for you.

These dangers may be manufactured, unnecessary, unfair, and not supported by most of the people doing the buying. But as of now they are real, and it strikes me as problematic to ask others to take them on for you. Kind of as if you’d asked Trayvon Martin to go prank George Zimmerman’s house for you. Or even just run an errand for you late at night on his “watch.”

Or like those eager activists who sometimes want to spontaneously turn a protest into unplanned civil disobedience without thinking through how that might differently affect others in the crowd.

Abstaining from drugs isn’t the answer to the drug war, any more than turning your own thermostat down is the answer to climate change or conscientious objection is the answer to war. Individual actions must be bolstered by collective, political action. (See drugpolicy.org for ideas.)

On the other hand, solidarity also entails recognizing that we are all connected to each other and we have choices to make about supporting existing systems of oppression. If you are concerned about the ethics of your choices about what to eat or where to shop, then the ethics of what you smoke and how it got to you are also fair game.