Fireside Chat on the Collateral Damage of the Drug War
14 June 2015
Good Evening, Friends.
Much has been said about the economic cost of the War on Drugs: the budget of the DEA, the seizures of the U.S. Marshals and the FBI, the distribution of military weaponry to local police, the disruption of national economies, the overflow of prisons, the cost increase of narcotics caused by prohibition, and so on and so forth. The fact that the drug war wreaks havoc in an economic sense from Singapore to Afghanistan, from New York to Mexico to Colombia is indisputable. But this is all justified – or so its proponents think – by a moral argument: drugs are an evil that must be eradicated, no matter the cost.
This moral argument considers paramount the fact that drugs ruin lives; that drugs destroy reason or health or both; that drugs cause kids to drop out of school and adults to lose their jobs and their families; that drugs obsess people and prevent them from achieving their goals. All these things are true – and yet it is also true that the War on Drugs itself has caused far more damage than all of this.
I knew a girl who overdosed on heroin and died when we were fourteen; to this day, I think of her every time I hear the Smashing Pumpkins. But as a lawyer I know now much younger children orphaned by the drug war, their parents having been put in prison or killed.
I knew a young woman who abused pills and sold them, but who never got caught and came to make something of her life; and I knew a young man who sold pills and abused them and was stabbed in the head when a drug deal went bad.
I have known people who have allowed cocaine to ruin their lives; but I also know many people who have allowed alcohol and cigarettes and television to ruin their lives.
I know stoners who have sat around doing nothing for fifteen years; but I also know stoners who own businesses and work as professionals.
It is public knowledge that I myself have used drugs: certain of them as part of my religion, and others because they were just plain fun. And yet I am neither dead nor brain damaged; I have never been hospitalized because of drugs; I have never failed a class or lost a job because of drugs. Rather, I am quite alive and with a mind of infamous genius; I am in perfect health and own a business. Drugs have been no hindrance to me at all, which makes me an embarrassment to the Government agents who say drugs ruin lives.
I have made something of my life, and it is no exaggeration to say that I would not be who I am today without the expansion of my mind and spirit through my experiences with drugs. But the Government agents would say I have made something of myself in spite of my drug use, not because of it; they would say I have gotten away with it, like any other criminal.
Others are not so lucky – not because drugs ruined their lives, but because the laws and the police and the courts and the prisons ruined their lives and the lives of their families. I would like to tell you about a handful of those families in the hope of conveying to you the real cost of the War on Drugs. The real cost is not increased prices, overflowing prisons, ruined farms, militarization of the police, million-dollar seizures, and billion-dollar budgets: the real cost is measured in human lives.
Take the story of Ella, who was in love with a scumbag that hooked her on heroin and kept her at his drug den. Ella, a slave to her boyfriend and her drug addiction, wound up with three separate drug charges, all felonies, none of which she should ever have been charged with. It speaks greatly to the sincerity and honesty of her prosecutors that she was able to walk away from all this without any felony convictions; but she still spent over six months in the county jail while we resolved her cases.
Let’s take next the story of Earl, whose home was invaded by a SWAT team serving a warrant on the wrong apartment. His door kicked in, a knee to the back of his neck, he was handcuffed on the floor of his own living room because police in combat gear were looking for a drug dealer down the hall.
Let’s take next the story of Mary, who died at twenty-four, not by drugs but by murder. An immigrant and a drug addict, she became a prostitute for her boyfriend, who, while beating her and threatening her with death, told her he loved her. Mary was eventually arrested for prostitution; but as soon as she was out of jail, she was back on drugs. Next thing we knew, she was found dead in a ditch, murdered by men offering drugs for sex.
Let’s take next the story of Wilfred. Set up by a confidential informant who planted drugs on him and called the police, Wilfred was pulled over by a cop who described his time in the neighborhood of Pine Hills as a “tour” as though he were on military duty in Afghanistan. When the informant and the cop both lied on the stand, Wilfred lost his trial and was sentenced to three years in prison. He had gone home on the lunch break that day to see his children; and that would be the last time he would see them in three years without being separated by glass.
Let’s take next the story of Hilda. A woman of about sixty years of age, Hilda was looking at twenty years in prison for having sold her prescription pills. Due to our efforts, she was offered probation instead, which offer she accepted. But she had no car and could not drive to meet with her probation officer; and having missed an appointment, she was in violation of that probation. Rather than facing prison for having violated her probation, Hilda hanged herself at home, leaving her husband and their daughters behind. And of course several years later, we heard from her daughter after she was arrested for conspiracy to traffick morphine.
Let’s take next the story of Philbert, who was also arrested for trafficking morphine. Despite the fact that he was selling his own prescription and had no higher-ups in the drug trade, the cops wanted him to set up other people for drug trafficking anyway. They even threatened to arrest his pregnant girlfriend, who – they knew full well – had nothing to do with it. Phil agreed to the arrangement but never actually set anyone up. One day US Marshals pulled over a car he was in and found a marijuana pipe on him. His deal was off, and he was looking at thirty-six years in prison for selling his prescriptions. When his lawyer got him eighteen years instead, everyone thought it was a hell of a deal. Joshua was 26 years old; he will be 44 upon release.
These are just a handful of cases I have been involved with in the past few years. [Their names, by the way, have been changed to the names of the siblings of Malcolm X.] Are their stories representative of all drug cases? Certainly not. Are there evil, murderous drug dealers out there? Of course there are. But who bred those vicious thugs? The Ellas and the Earls of the world? No. It was the same Government that created Al Capone with its first Prohibition.
The Government that pretends to care for the welfare of its citizens laments that teenagers should get stoned and listen to music but does everything it can to beat those same teenagers into the ground and keep them from reentering society. The Government that pretends to care about the children of drug dealers makes them orphans. The Government that pretends to care about the children of drug addicts crushes their parents with costs of probation, costs of investigation, court costs, fines, and the loss of wages from being in jail. The Government that pretends to care about the moral fabric of our society jails drugs addicts instead of helping them, turns a blind eye when girls prostitute themselves to support their habits, treats drug users like animals instead of what they are: tormented souls crushed by the weight of a system calling for their annihilation.
The Romans gave painkillers to the crucified; the Greeks used psychedelics to communicate with the gods; drugs were as ubiquitous in the Classical world as in ours; and yet we do not hear of wars waged in ancient times to stamp out the poppy seed and the mushroom. Would the drug warriors of today contend that Classical civilization gave us nothing of value? But if nothing else, the Greeks and the Romans taught us a great deal of what it means to be human. I would humbly submit to you, My Fellow Americans, that it is not drug use that is inhuman, but the vicious efforts of Puritanical busybodies to eradicate it. For I have known many drug dealers, prostitutes, and sinners, and I have known many Puritans – and it has been my experience that those who dictate morality tend to be the most immoral of all.
But let us end this heartless and short-sighted War; let us cease to tread on this path to self-destruction; and let us remember once more our humanity.