The "war on drugs" has taken a horrible human toll while utterly failing to stem drug use, but politicians of both parties still seek to outdo one another in showing that they'll be "tough on crime." For three decades, this has led to a boom in prison building and police militarization, draining public funds away from social programs, including those that would help people struggling with addiction.
In elections in New York state this year, however, the independent campaign of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones are putting forward an alternative to the two-party consensus regarding the "war on drugs." In an interview published at Substance.com, Hawkins, who is running for governor, and Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, talked to about mass incarceration and racial disparities, reparations for victims of the "war on drugs," and legalization of marijuana and other drugs.
HOW HAS the war on drugs impacted communities--particularly communities of color--in New York state under Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg?
Howie: Cuomo is a drug warrior and mass incarcerator. He has been silently complicit in the drug war, first as attorney general and then as governor--as Bloomberg and [former NYPD Commissioner] Kelly stop-and-frisk and now Mayor Bill de Blasio and [NYPD Commissioner] Bill "Broken Windows" Bratton target poor communities of color for petty offenses, particularly marijuana possession.
The war on drugs hasn't reduced substance abuse, but has created a culture of violence fueled by profits from the drug trade, similar to the crime wave that accompanied the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s.
Despite decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana four decades ago, New York state leads the country in marijuana arrests. The greatest racial disparities occur in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where Black New Yorkers are over nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana.
Brian: It has been devastating. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Black arrest rate for marijuana has increased 26 percent since 2001. So under the watch of Cuomo and Bloomberg, the war on drugs has intensified.
We are now at a point where some 50,000 people in New York state are snatched off the streets every year for this reason alone. And as we know, once these folks are saddled with a criminal record, they effectively become second-class citizens because it's legal to discriminate against them.
THE NEW York Times came out recently in favor of the legalization of marijuana. What's your reaction to the new position of the "paper of record"?
Howie: What took the Times so long? It is time for New York to also legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana as Colorado and Washington State now do.
Brian: Better late than never. The New York Times can tell which way the wind is blowing, but has not gotten out in front on these issues.
YOU FAVOR legalizing and regulating both marijuana and heroin. Do you have any concern that legal regulation could lead to an increase in the use of these drugs?
Howie: Cuomo says marijuana is a gateway drug to hard drugs, but he is pandering to a public opinion cultivated by decades of drug-war propaganda. Where marijuana and heroin have been decriminalized or legalized, in countries like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay, both marijuana and hard drug use have declined.
Look, marijuana is the third most-popular recreational drug in America and has been used by nearly 80 million Americans. It's much less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. An editorial published in the medical journal The Lancet said in 1995 that pot smoking, even long term, isn't harmful to health. Cuomo's jihad against marijuana perpetuates New York state's dubious status as the marijuana arrest capital of the world.
I also want to say something about medical marijuana. Because of Gov. Cuomo's interference with the state's Compassionate Care Act, the final medical marijuana bill that passed is the weakest in the country. Playing amateur doctor, the governor put himself between doctors and their patients, and limited eligible diseases, modes of intake and supply to the point where it might not meet the demand for the medicine. Cuomo's obstruction on the medical marijuana bill goes against the vast consensus of medical and scientific opinion. He is perpetuating the pain and suffering of seriously ill patients.
We can also save lives from the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths by allowing users to get treatment instead of potentially deadly fixes. If we treat drug abuse as a health problem, rather than a law enforcement problem, and provide drug treatment on demand instead of incarceration, we can save lives and undermine the unregulated, underground drug economy.
Brian: There are plenty of legal drugs that people can purchase right now. Whether or not substance abuse increases, it must be treated as a health issue. Why people abuse drugs has nothing to do with legalization. Legalizing marijuana and heroin, for starters, is about taking the violence out of drug use and drug dealing, and creating the possibility of providing genuine treatment for people who need it. Arresting people, charging them, imprisoning them for using or distributing drugs only makes it harder for those people to make ends meet.
ACCORDING TO your platform, you are in favor of "freedom and amnesty for all drug war prisoners currently serving time in prison or on parole for nonviolent drug offenses." Do you believe New Yorkers share these positions? And how would you implement them?
Howie: I haven't seen a poll of New Yorkers on freeing nonviolent drug offenders, but I've seen recent polls saying 79 percent of Texans and 73 percent of Floridians support it. I think it's safe to say a majority of New Yorkers does also.
There are steps we can take to better prepare people in prison and on parole for re-entry into society. Every person in prison and on parole should have the opportunity to further his or her education, whether it's a GED program or a higher education program. Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo abandoned a plan to provide public money for college courses at 10 prisons. Education reduces recidivism. As an example, Ohio reduced recidivism rates by more than 60 percent among ex-inmates who completed a degree in prison.
We know that more than 50 percent of incarcerated people have children. When parents participate in postsecondary education, the likelihood their children will go to college increases, creating more opportunities to climb out of poverty.
I want to restore eligibility for Federal Pell Grants and New York state Tuition Assistance Program grants for people who have been in prison. And I include people in prison in my proposal for tuition-free education at CUNY and SUNY.
I also want to "ban the box" and prohibit employers from asking a potential hire to check a box on the initial job application, indicating if he or she has a criminal history, and defer such inquiry until a conditional offer of employment is made. I'm also in favor of restoring voting rights for people in prison and on parole.
Brian: There has to be more than just freedom and amnesty--there has to be reparations. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out, legalization will likely mean that a whole lot of white men start getting rich doing the very same thing that Black and Brown people have been doing for decades, at the cost of their freedom and, in some cases, their lives.
I also think the issue of violent vs. nonviolent offenders is tricky. I think freedom and amnesty for nonviolent offenders makes intuitive sense to a lot of people, but when you start talking to former prisoners, you realize that the boundary between "violent" and "nonviolent" is up for debate.
TELL ME about why you want a truth, justice and reconciliation commission to address the impact of the war on drugs and mass incarceration.
Howie: I've joined with Alice Green, the director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, to deliver 10,000 petition signatures from people around the state calling on the governor to establish a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to study the impacts of mass incarceration on New Yorkers, largely brought about by the failed war on drugs. The commission will be a top priority of mine, along with a statewide public defenders' program to provide due process for those accused of a crime.
I would name people to the commission who have been dedicated to equal justice under law and civil rights, like Alice Green and Ramon Jimenez, the Green candidate for attorney general--a Harvard-educated lawyer who has litigated criminal, labor and tenants' cases for people in his South Bronx neighborhood for 40 years.
The commission would be modeled after a South African commission established following apartheid. It would investigate the ways the state's drug policies and justice system have led to high incarceration rates. In particular, it would assess the devastating impact on Black and Latino communities. It would hear from the people most directly affected and recommend alternatives to mass incarceration. And it would look at reparations for the communities impacted.
Brian: The idea is that without a genuine reckoning with what happened in the war on drugs, you can't move forward and have justice. There has to be a public process to account for what was done, who benefited, who suffered, why and how. I think such a commission, to be truthful and truly representative, would have to include people living with the collateral consequences of criminal records, formerly incarcerated people, as well as advocates who work for justice in the system.
First published at Substance.com.