Advocates Call for Ending ‘Forever War’ Against Drugs

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Demonstration in Wash DC 2011. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Using punitive justice system tools to combat street drug dealers is a waste of resources that could be better oriented towards addressing the public health issues linked to addiction and substance abuse, leading advocates said Wednesday.

“We’ve been waging a war against an enemy who is quite literally incapable of organized surrender,” Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, said Wednesday.

Speaking during the second day of the 2020 John Jay Innovations Conference, Tree argued that the societal demonization of the drug dealer has produced stiffer penalties but has had little impact on the problem.

Calling the War on Drugs a “forever war,” he said it was an example of how politicians found it too easy to declare “wars” on social problems.

Louise Vincent, the executive director of Urban Survivors Union and harm reduction consultant for the Harm Reduction Coalition, added that stereotypes about drug dealers distorted how the justice system dealt with them.

“People that use drugs are often people that sell drugs, and vice versa,” she said.

Theshia Naidoo, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out that there is typically a “racialized narrative” that portrays people who sell drugs as predatory people of color while simultaneously portraying white people as their vulnerable prey.

Lee Hoffer, an anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University, said racial stereotyping of drug dealers was equally misdirected.

According to his research, there were as many, if not more, white people selling and using drugs as people of color—simply because there are more whites in the population, he said.

Yet African-American drug users and sellers are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, he said.

Naidoo drew a connection between racialized drug enforcement and the police killing of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was shot when police burst into her Louisville, Ky., home to administer a “no-knock warrant” on suspicion of drugs.

Taylor was a victim of aggressive policing in the name of drug enforcement, Naidoo said.

“Alleged drug involvement has been used as a dangerous excuse to target, abuse, incarcerate and murder people of color in this country,” she added.

Steven Pacheco, a program officer for Circle of Justice Innovations Fund who referred to himself as a “former street pharmacist,” explained some of the socio-economic challenges that push people to the streets.

“Drugs and poverty tend to go hand in hand,” he said.

For people who are impoverished and do not have equal access to jobs, the drug market is one of their few tangible options to make a living, he added.

Tree, who has been director of Drug Policy Projects at the Institute for Policy Studies since 1998, said there are ways that policing can induce better behaviors in the drug market.

As of now, there are no incentives for law enforcement to target the “super traffickers” within the market, who are the ones driving the entire system and not getting caught, he said.

Instead, police officers are going after the “low-hanging fruit” and “easy metrics,” of shutting down open-air drug markets on the streets and arresting small-time dealers.

He described that as “senseless law enforcement,” noting there will always be another drug dealer to replace one that is caught.

In fact, this type of policing creates open real estate for “rival crews to come in and take over,” only leading to more violence, he said.

“The problem is we’ve waged a war against this incredibly lucrative market that’s global in nature against individual actors.”

The third and final day of the conference continues today. Click here to register.

This summary was prepared by TCR reporting intern Tayler Green

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