Many Americans today blindly believe that all of our laws are just. They believe these laws, drafted by imperfect human beings, are somehow perfect rules and regulations. Americans seem to forget that at one time our country legalized slavery, promoted Jim Crow segregation, and criminalized homosexuality.
Lynching at one point was widely accepted by polite society in the South. In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to support anti-lynching legislation during his presidency for fear of angering Southern law enforcement officials. And the mobs weren't comprised of just drunken hooligans. In the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, the members of the mob included a Superior Court judge, a Methodist minister, the son of a U.S. Senator, a former governor, and a state legislator.
We've made much progress, but in one area we've regressed. We now put people in cages for what they put in their bodies.
And just as the current generation recoils when they hear about the wickedness and evil deeds from our past, so will future generations view our current drug laws with similar repugnance. We should not look away as our neighbors are trampled and not give up our rights to our own freedom without a fight.
I strongly maintain that the vast majority of drug laws are destructive to American society. Drug abuse can be deadly, but maintaining a proven failed system of prohibition and incarcerating individual drug users is wrong. More Americans die in car accidents than from illegal drug overdoses, yet there's no call to prohibit cars and incarcerate the drivers. Driving is a risk we, as free Americans, embrace every day. It is a dangerous activity that could be illegal, but instead we have kept it legalized. Legalization is just another term for control and regulation. There are many rules and regulations that make driving safer and thus save lives. Prohibition surrenders all regulation and control to the most violent criminals in society. If driving was illegal, only criminals would drive.
The feckless and futile War on Drugs has turned our criminal justice system into a global joke. We incarcerate more of our own people than the totalitarian regimes of China, Russia, and Iran. There's been a fourfold increase in American prisoners since President Nixon began the War on Drugs. It's a war we have been losing for over 40 years at a cost of over a trillion dollars.
Increased incarceration with outrageous mandatory minimum sentences once reserved for murderers does not result in a safer country for our children. America incarcerates 12 times the rate of Japan and six times the rate of Canada, yet Japan and Canada are the 7th and 8th safest countries on the planet, respectively. And America, with these ignominious incarceration rates, is way down on the list of safest nations, ranking 83rd. Black-market drug profits fund over 20,000 gangs here in America, which routinely kill many innocent children.
As bad as alcohol prohibition was, drug prohibition is much worse. With alcohol prohibition, mere users were not criminalized, just the manufacturers and venders. Today, the government selectively chooses which drug users will be put in prison and branded as common criminals for life.
The government, being aware of President Lincoln's maxim that "the best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly," targets the poor and the voiceless, mostly blacks and Latinos. If our drug laws were strictly enforced, drug prohibition would have been repealed long ago. The current president used cocaine, and his two predecessors used marijuana. If the laws had been enforced against them, they would have been subject to prison time. In fact, we'd have to incarcerate 44 percent of the American adult population for illegal drug use. I don't think that the lucky folks who comprise this 44 percent who did not get caught would have benefited, nor would society have benefited had they been persecuted, prosecuted, incarcerated, blacklisted, humiliated, and publicly vilified for their drug use.
The benefits to ending drug prohibition are too numerous to state here, but a major one would be ending racism. The most obvious racial divide in America is the one between black and white incarceration rates. By ending the failed War on Drugs, we would effectively end the most glaring example of government-sanctioned racism remaining in America today.
Even though we have an African-American president, if you were to ask blacks if racism still exists in America today, most would say "yes." And if you were to follow up with "why," you could literally start counting the seconds before they would mention police enforcement of drug laws. According to John McWhorter, a political commentator and author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, "The elimination of the War on Drugs would entail completing the other half of the rescue of black America that welfare reform began in 1996."
Neill Franklin, who spent 33 years in law enforcement — including 23 as an undercover narcotics officer — and who now runs LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), said he once asked his superiors why they only targeted drug users in the inner city where mostly African Americans lived. Didn't whites in the suburbs do drugs too, he asked? His boss explained that if they started prosecuting whites in affluent neighborhoods, they would soon be calling their senators and congressmen and in short order the police department's budget would be cut.
The War on Drugs amounts to a war on black and Latino men — and a few well-known whites to make it seem fair — in support of a racial caste system that is nearly as restrictive, oppressive, and omnipresent as Jim Crow itself.
"Studies show that all racial groups abuse drugs at similar rates, but the numbers also show that African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison for drug-related charges at a much higher rate," states Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "This dual system of drug law enforcement that serves to keep African Americans and other minorities under lock and key and in prison must be exposed and eradicated." African Americans are in fact 13 times more likely to go to jail for the same drug-related offense as their white counterparts. Meanwhile, in New York City 80 percent of all marijuana arrests were of blacks and Latinos. Like Richard Pryor said, "There's no justice, just us." And when these individuals are set "free" after doing their time, they enter a legal purgatory where the right to vote, work, go to school, borrow money, or rent an apartment can be legally denied.
The main goal of many police departments is to generate statistics so big city mayors can appear to be tough on crime and have something to brag about to a public that is afraid of the gang violence that drug prohibition causes. Recently, the NYPD has been under fire for illegal searches resulting in thousands of low-level marijuana arrests, mostly of people of color. As corrupt as this practice is, testimony from Stephen Anderson, a former NYPD narcotics detective, shows it's just the tip of the iceberg. According to Anderson, who testified recently, New York City police regularly planted drugs on innocent people to meet quotas.
Even without the corruption aspect, arresting non-violent drug users is just a grotesque waste of human capital. Scarce resources are being diverted from real crimes like murder, rape, arson, fraud, and robbery to chase down people who casually use recreational drugs in their homes.
We should end this failed drug policy so that more African-American children will have fathers to help raise them. The logic of "protecting the children" by putting millions of their parents in prison is perverted. We need African-American youths to stay in school, earn a diploma, and learn a trade instead of being successfully tempted by the lure of easy money selling drugs on the street corner.
Without a War on Drugs, a black man like William Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, won't have to yell, "Why, because I'm a black man in America," when he is arrested for accessing his own home. Without the War on Drugs, his legitimate paranoia about the cops will seem antiquated.
How is it that our leaders could feign outrage at the leaders of South Africa over Apartheid when in America we incarcerate blacks at a rate five times more than South Africa did during Apartheid?
During my time in federal prison, I met inmates, mostly African Americans, who were serving drug sentences much longer than murderers convicted in state courts. Because Congress recognized how grossly unjust these sentences were, it approved, albeit minor, sentence reductions recently. I distinctly remember Donnell Kelley, who was eligible for a sentence reduction subject to a federal judge's discretion. Upon receipt of the letter containing the judge's decision, Donnell's friends gathered around him in great expectation of an early release, perhaps immediately to rejoin his family after 20 years of imprisonment.
But it was not to be. And as his friends wept, this Christian man who was the head of my prayer group calmed and reassured his friends that it was OK. "God has a plan," he said. I was in awe of his serenity and faith. It was at that point that several of his friends turned to me and pleaded that I had to do something about this barbaric system. "They'll listen to you," they exhorted.
At the time, I was incredulous that they thought I could do something. Now, I feel I must at least try. I know there will be naysayers, there will be critics, but as Admiral Farragut once famously exclaimed, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
Thomas Ravenel is the former State Treasurer of the State of South Carolina and a successful businessman living in Charleston, S.C.