Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., offered strong critiques of and alternative strategies to the “War on Drugs” on a Reddit forum this past Sunday, arguing that it is “bleeding our public treasury and unnecessarily undermining human potential.”
His comments came two weeks after GQ reported that President Obama plans to scale down the drug war in his second term. But history has shown that these drug war “ceasefire” rumors are often nothing more than empty promises.
It’s clear to many Americans (and has been reinforced by many politicians) that our government has failed in its countless efforts to fight a known losing battle. As a result, disenchantment has set in and the notion of a “war on drugs” is now so engrained in our national psyche that few of us are able to imagine America any other way. The drug epidemic and subsequent mass incarceration of black and Latino men has, tragically, become an American staple.
Many Americans have no idea where this amorphous war is being fought, why it’s still being waged after four decades and who its targets are. Some others believe, as senior fellow at the Cato Institute Doug Bandow does, that “the government is engaged in a [civil] war against its own people” and is showing no signs of stopping in the immediate future.
But if the day finally came that narcotic troops were pulled out of urban communities plagued with mass drug distribution, what kind of strategies would our nation be left with? Are we willing to usher in a new era in which we learn from our past mistakes and fight the war on drugs differently? I hope Obama will pave the way for our country's exit strategy.
Lauren Victoria Burke, managing editor of Politic365, argues that “with 2.3 million [behind bars] in the U.S. at a cost of $60 billion a year, the Obama Administration may be making a dent in the incarceration rate with a more preventative approach." Burke sees “a comprehensive approach to crime prevention as a way to break the cradle-cell-coffin pipeline often seen in urban America.”
Considering that drug offenses account for more than half of persons incarcerated in federal prisons and 20 percent of those in state prisons, we are challenged to envision a nation that’s not populating its prisons with drug addicts who should instead be treated as medical patients. With less emphasis placed on the criminalization of drug usage, our government would have greater social responsibility in ensuring the health and well-being of its drug-addicted citizens.
According to Howard University political science professor Wilmer Leon, “We need a war on drug addiction that actually targets the at-risk demographic and provides resources and support that address the varying elements that are contributing to the problem.” He calls for long-term hospitalization and out-patient care, warning that the government will pay on the backend with criminality what it does not account for on the front end with preventative measures. To him, this isn’t an argument for legalization; it’s about a multi-disciplinary approach that doesn’t wage the battle in a vacuum.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University, says that this medical approach to the drug war has already been pursued in California and has led to decreased incarceration and recidivism. According to him, “we must stop looking at this as a moral issue of whether or not these people deserve our help” because that approach is alienating and forces people to live on the margins of society. Treating the drug epidemic as a health crisis shifts emphasis to communal well-being and naturally lends itself to greater concern for the children and families most affected by the problem.
Enforcement has proven faulty but communal restoration has yet to be fully explored. While incapable of single-handedly ushering in sweeping change, America has much to gain from President Obama leaning on his grassroots training and expertise on this front.
This epidemic is a domestic tragedy and international embarassment that has torn our society apart for decades. Whether on our own soil or abroad, at what point will our government cease making us casualties of a never-ending war it insists is in our best interest?
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .