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What If the War on Drugs Had Been a War on Inequality?

January 3, 2021

Whenever a I read an article like Sarah Lahm’s recent Common Dreams essay on how our economic policy influenced the racism that exists today, I wonder how things might have played out had our nation continued supporting the kinds of policies Jimmy Carter advocated over those of Ronald Reagan?

Ms. Lahm uses the life of George Floyd to indirectly pose this question. She offers this terse description of the world George Floyd entered as a child:

Floyd was raised by a single mother in a racially and economically isolated public-housing development, where he and his siblings often did not have enough to eat. The family of six was crammed together with too few beds, yet Floyd’s mother was reportedly a generous soul who took in other kids in need.

Floyd was born in 1973 and came of age in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s presidency shaped the backdrop of his formative years, when austerity measures and trickle-down economics were bumping up against the gross excesses of Wall Street and the glorification of the yuppie lifestyle.

What if, instead of treating addiction as a moral failure that required the writing of new laws and the incarceration of those who violated the laws the government policy it treated addiction as the disease it is? What if, instead of directing billions to police and prisons the Federal, state, and local funds were directed to support the well-being of children. Maybe a “generous soul” like Floyd’s mother would have been paid to care for kids in need in a house that would provide them each with their own bedroom. Maybe the government could have provided Mrs. Floyd with sufficient funds to buy food and clothing for the children under her care and paid for any medical and dental bills they required. Maybe the government could identify the many “generous souls” who reside in impoverished communities across the country and offer them support, helping them create a nurturing environment that could offer the children under their care the well-being that they lack through no fault of their own.

Instead of intervening when it would make the most difference, though, we chose to “declare war” on the misconduct that manifests on the back end. When children and young adults are desperate for well-being and can only find it when they use drugs and when the use of those drugs is seen as a defiance of law and order, money gets spent on policing and incarcerating misbehavior… and we spend billions paying to segregate those who suffer from the disease of addiction. We provide them with food, clothing, and shelter and adult supervision at a cost that is daunting but unquestioned. Instead of developing an infrastructure to help “generous souls” like George Floyd’s mom, we set up  an infrastructure to isolate young men and women who suffer from a disease from the rest of our society… and the economic conditions that led to the disease remain in place forever.

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