Sunday, July 25, 2010

Yet another war we need to end ...

From the 18th International AIDS Conference last week comes the Vienna Declaration.

The criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed.

... There is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use.

This is a big step. Public health workers from all over the world are denouncing the "War on Drugs" as part of the problem, not at all a solution.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone in authority is listening. In a candid New York Times commentary on the declaration, Donald G. McNeil Jr. lamented:

No one heard. ... organizers' efforts to get publicity for the Vienna Declaration, which calls for drug users to be spared arrest and offered clean needles, methadone and treatment if they have AIDS, have come to naught. Almost no one here talks about the war on drugs.

Outside of Africa, one third of AIDS infections are thought to come from injection drug use. Though the U.S. contributes the bulk of world AIDS funds, our public health people would rather talk about most anything in preference to drug war abatement. McNeil points out one honorable exception:

... Dr. Nora D. Volkow, the normally low-profile director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, ... said she personally agreed with the declaration's premise.

"Addiction is a brain disease," she said. "I'm a scientist. The evidence unequivocally shows that criminalizing the drug abuser does not solve the problem. I’m very much against legalization of drugs or drug dealing. But I would not arrest a person addicted to drugs. I'd send them to treatment, not prison."

Asked if she feared being attacked by Congressional conservatives, she said: "I took this job because I want drug users to be recognized as people with a disease. If I don’t speak about it, why even bother to gather the data?"

These are pretty moderate sentiments about the "War on Drugs," but I suspect the reality-based community better get prepared to rally to Dr. Volkow's back.

While on the topic of the Drug War, I want to point out Michelle Alexander's new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The core of Alexander's argument is that, in the wake of the last century's civil rights overthrow of obvious legal discrimination, the "War on Drugs" has become the bulwark of an enduring white supremacy that grinds down most African Americans. Most white people and those people of color who manage to move into the middle class don't have to see this if we don't chose to look. But the drug war -- mass imprisonment, stigmatization of minor offenders, often brutal police enforcement and a facade of legal process that penalizes poor people -- have created a durable and largely unchallenged structure of oppression.

A bit of common sense is overdue in public discussions about racial bias the criminal justice system. The great debate over whether black men have been targeted by the criminal justice system or unfairly treated in the War on Drugs often overlooks the obvious. What is painfully obvious when one steps back from individual cases and specific policies is that the system of mass incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.

... how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Rather easily, it turns out. The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free reign. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities.

Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination -- i..e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows -- but does not say -- that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.

Any doubters should take a look at a recent New York Times article about the Brownsville neighborhood where 14000 residents get stopped and frisked by rookie white cops making quota over and over again usually without any arrests -- and where residents express frustration in equal measure about violent thugs and the police.

Alexander writes that civil rights advocates (her own background) may someday "be embarrassed" about their failure to leap into the fight against the way the Drug War enforces white supremacy. It would be great to see an alliance of the public health scientists and the civil rights community. They are naming the same harm.

Thanks to Daniel De Groot at Open Left for pointing to the Vienna Declaration.

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