Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “… all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Each year we celebrate the King Holiday and the National Day of Service. Yet year after year, as a country we continue to allow social injustice that would have sent Dr. King marching in the streets. One of the most heinous examples of injustice is the War on Drugs and its devastating impact on communities. The United States has spent one trillion dollars on the War on Drugs, a war it has lost, a war that separates families, damages children and ruins whole communities and bright futures.
The United States spends approximately 50 billion annually the War on Drugs. What if that money had been spent on education and/or treatment rather than shackle the poor to the second class citizenship that comes with a prison record for often nonviolent offenses.
First, the United States needs to significantly shift its funding towards education, prevention, and treatment. Thus, America needs to decriminalize drug use.
First, decriminalization does not imply drug legalization. Drug trafficking and drug dealing need to remain criminal activities. Punitive drug laws on drug users need to be relaxed. But instead private prisons are cutting deals with states to run their prisons for the next 20 years, but states have to commit to a 90 percent occupancy rate. So those companies will continue to lobby for long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders because mass over incarceration lines their pockets, but our communities suffer as a result of these outrageous policies.
Next, we need to look at why, as a country, we are more committed to spending money of failed punitive measures, rather than proven measures of social uplift?
When President Nixon declared war on drugs on June 17, 1971, about 110 people per 100,000 in the population were incarcerated. Today, we have 2.3 million prisoners: 743 people per 100,000 in the population. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners.
The U.S. incarcerates more people for drug offenses today than it did for all offenses combined before the drug war. “It’s far beyond anything any other country has done and beyond any other civilization in the history of mankind,” says Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine at Brown University, who wrote a recent editorial for the New England Journal of Medicine on the incarceration epidemic. Incarceration is harmful to mental and physical health — increasing risk for virtually all diseases and disorders — and does not treat addiction.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s.
So as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy on the same day the first African American president is sworn in for a second time, let’s hope that the administration will replace the failed War on Drugs with a Movement to eradicate over incarceration and under education, both of which are plagues to the entire country… the interrelated structure of reality.