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Drug Laws Based on “War” Sent Millions to Prisons, Failed to Treat the Disease

September 28, 2015

Today’s NYTimes has an op ed piece by CCNY professor Michael Javen Fortner who’s book Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” was recently reviewed in the New Yorker. The Times essay, “The Real Roots of the 70s Drug Laws”, asserts that a silent majority of blacks fully supported the need for tougher laws to remove pushers, pimps, and prostitutes from their neighborhoods. Fortner peppers his article with quotes from black activists of the early 1970s who call for increased police presence, tougher treatment of pushers, and longer sentences for muggings and the sale of drugs. He expresses concern that the current movement to repeal the laws that led to the wholesale incarceration of many blacks will lead to an increase in crime which, in turn, will lead to even more repression.

Fortner’s essay is compelling, but I the recent New Yorker article noted that only a handful of black NYS legislators voted for the Rockefeller Laws and none voted for the laws that led to the so-called War On Drugs. As a teacher in Philadelphia in the early 1970s I DO believe black parents in that time were appalled at how gangs were luring their children into crime and drug use and would support faster and more certain justice for those whose values did not match the ones they held. But I also believe the disconnect between the laws that were written and the way they have been enforced has led to the Black Lives Matter movement and the sense that we’ve gone way too far in dealing with drug abuse. It seems likely that one of the quotes Fortner used to support his argument, a call to “Take the junkies off the streets and put ’em in camps”, was issued in the spirit of rehabilitation and treatment and not in the spirit of the Rockefeller Laws that led to long-term incarceration for petty drug users. Ultimately, the decision to choose incarceration over treatment has been a disaster for drug users of all races…. but once the increased use of illegal drugs was framed as a “war” instead of the “spread of a disease” we started “taking prisoners” instead of “treating patients”.

If we really want to “bolster religious and civic organizations that cultivate stronger social ties, mitigate disorder and fight crime” we should re-define our “War on Drugs” as an effort to “Prevent the Spread of Disease”. Such a re-definition would lead to the expansion of medical and social services instead of the expansion of police forces and encourage self-control instead of external control.

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