Vision For Justice: The 50th Anniversary of the War on Drugs
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Vanessa: Hey, it’s Vanessa. Thanks for joining us. This episode is part of our very special series, “Pod for the Cause, Vision for Justice.” Over the course of this series, I’m very excited to share hosting duties with some really amazing advocates, as we delve deeper into how we reimagine our criminal legal system. So, now, enjoy the show.
Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez, coming to you from Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us for a very special show today, the first episode in our series, “Pod for the Cause, Vision for Justice.” The Leadership Conference in partnership with the Civil Rights Corps, released Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond: A New Paradigm for Public Safety. This is a comprehensive platform that provides actionable policies aimed at transforming our criminal legal system and changing the way we approach public safety in this country.
Vision for Justice 2020 and Beyond has been endorsed by 117 civil and human rights and social justice organizations. A number worth noting because of the breadth of reach it represents. This platform offers critical policy guidance for drafting robust criminal justice reform agendas, such as amending the pre-trial process, public defense, prosecution, policing, and the criminalization of poverty. Today, we’ll be discussing the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs. This month marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon gave a press conference declaring drug abuse as public enemy number one. The day prior, Nixon sent a special message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control, calling for more federal resources for the prevention of new addicts and the rehabilitation of those who were addicted. And thus, the war on drugs was born. Fifty years later, the war on drugs has ravaged havoc on communities of color, who have disproportionately been policed and incarcerated for drug offenses.
And with that, I’m so excited to welcome our first guest, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, representing the 12th Congressional District of New Jersey. Representative Watson Coleman is serving her fourth term in the United States House of Representatives, a continuation of her career in public service, advocating for the needs of New Jersey families and the equitable treatment of all people. She’s the first black woman to represent New Jersey in Congress, and she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, the first caucus aimed at bringing both the tremendous challenges and incredible successes of black women to the fore in Congress’s policy debates. However, the thing that I love the most is that she has a history of working to correct systemic wrongs, including profit gained from incarceration. She brings it all together. So, hello, to Congresswoman Watson Coleman.
Rep. Bonnie: Hi, Vanessa. Thank you for having me.
Vanessa: Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time. We know how valuable your time is. So, before we go any further, I want to share some stats from the Drug Policy Alliance. Number one, drug offenses are the leading cause of arrest in the United States. Out of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., 1 in 5 are incarcerated for a drug offense, with black people being 26% of those arrested, even though they’re only 13% of the population. Every 58 seconds, on average, someone is arrested for marijuana offense. And in 2019, ICE made over 67,000 drug arrests. So, 50 years later, what have been the most devastating effects of the war on drugs?
Rep. Bonnie: So, can I just share the context in which I have functioned for the last 50 years as it relates to the war on drugs? I know it came out of the Nixon administration. And I had Mike, who’s my communications director, look up something for me that had been troubling me for so long, and it has to do with Ehrlichman’s statement with regard to the war on drugs. I mean, he said, “You really got to enemies, the lefties and the black folks. And we can’t really come out against the black folks per se, or the lefties, but we can catch them doing the things that they do, like, smoke some pot or whatever.” So, this was an intentional way of diminishing people. This was an intentional way of disrupting and destroying the family structure in the black community in particular. For me, we now look at these issues on some levels like opioid issues such as health issues. But we still look at the marijuana issue, the cocaine issue, even if it’s just a use issue, as a criminal issue. That didn’t work.
Fifty years later, our communities are not safer. Fifty years later, our black communities have been disrupted and destroyed. Fifty years later, the black family is in crisis because the father is in prison. And in many instances, the mother may be as well. And 50 years later, folks are finding new and different drugs. The only difference we have today is they found out that white folks were addicted more to opioids. And so, eureka, it is a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. And so that’s just an extension of the structural racism that we’ve dealt with in this country. And it disgusts me.
Vanessa: And it continues to feed on itself.
Rep. Bonnie: Yeah. Right.
Vanessa: We set up these laws, arrest more black men, they’re incarcerated, and then there’s a profit made from that incarceration. It just continues and continues.
Rep. Bonnie: And there’s a further destruction, and their children, and the grandchildren of those folks who’ve been in prison unfairly, unjustly, and for long periods of time, don’t have the sense of value and expectation in their lives. It’s always a vicious cycle.
Vanessa: And the community lost all these brilliant people who should be in the community being a part of their community, gone. In 2019, you introduced a resolution for Congress to issue an official apology for its role in the war on drugs. Can you tell us why you think Congress and the federal government should apologize? And do you think we’re going to get it?
Rep. Bonnie: I’m not so much focusing on the resolution as I am on a piece of legislation that reforms drug policy. Congress has a responsibility, and those who were in charge of our various government entities have a responsibility to apologize because they were co conspirators here. They allowed this to happen. We passed laws. We’ve got the mandatory minimums. We’ve got the three strikes, you’re out. We’ve got if you get caught with powder cocaine, you’re dealt with one way. If you get caught with crack cocaine, you’re caught another way. It’s just been, I think, a failed measure on the part of dignity, respect, and equality in this country. And so, Congress, as the law making entity at the highest level in the United States, owes the communities and owes the country an apology.
And when we think about all the money we use in the criminal justice system, incarcerating people, re-incarcerating people, building new prisons, and engaging with private prisons, creating a whole cottage industry around the oppression of black men and brown men particularly, but other poor folks, simply because they had a dime bag of marijuana in their pocket. It’s just a reflection of the lack of equality of rights and privileges in this country.
Vanessa: I really want to bring that thread through that you talk about because it also lifts up privilege, right? As we read, every 58 seconds, on average, someone is arrested for a marijuana offense. But now, more and more states are legalizing. And so the question comes up, okay, well, what about all these people you’ve incarcerated, some for decades, for large chunks of their lives because of marijuana use? What happens to them? And so, what are your thoughts on how those two tracks are kind of not really in sync?
Rep. Bonnie: Well, first of all, I’m glad that these states have decriminalized marijuana. I think that the United States of America ought to do the same. And I think that we ought to put our resources into other things. I think that we should be dealing with the whole substance abuse issue as a healthcare issue. And if we want to get people healthy and not do drugs, whatever it is, marijuana, cocaine, or whatever, then we need to have healthcare options for them. As we look at who’s languishing in prison now for little abuse issues, some low level drug issues. The legislation I’m proposing addresses that and says that we need to have judges look at those cases individually and then release these people. And when you release them, you need to release them with the kind of services and support that they need. We got to eliminate all those other barriers that exist. There’s so much work to do in this field, to create a more equitable approach, but we need to be as intentional as they were to undo us, we need to be that intentional to do us over.
Vanessa: I really love that. I love the intentionality that you’re speaking of, because it’s the intentionality of creating the system that needs to be used to bring down the system, and the intersectionality of all of these people’s lives and what happens when they get out. You can’t just say, okay, go and expect people to flourish. So, as we talked about in the beginning of the show, this is our first episode in the special series, “Pod for the Cause, Vision for Justice.” And I want to bring that back in. So when we talk about vision for justice, we really center reimagining. So let’s just do that. Had the war on drugs never taken place, how would communities of color look differently today? Are there still things that we could do to start moving towards that reality? I know you’ve mentioned a couple of things, but I think it is really difficult for people to wrap their mind around a different system and a different look for society.
Rep. Bonnie: Okay, well, the prisons wouldn’t look like they look, nor would we need as many prisons as we have. That’s for one thing. Families would probably still be intact. But I would think that, if I really want to be realistic, even about reimagining…
Vanessa: Yeah, please.
Rep. Bonnie: When we realize that people had drug abuse issues, and when those drug abuse issues interfered with their going to work, or being the best parent, or being the best employee, or whatever, then we should have had a system of care established, that would help them transition into a healthier lifestyle. Had we looked at the issue of the impact on the individual with regard to substance abuse, and what do we need to ensure that our communities are strong and healthy, and that this nation was strong and healthy, then we would have families intact. We’d have safer communities today. And we’d not have third generation little boys and girls not thinking that they have no value, simply because they’re black and poor, and their daddy or their mommy has not been at home with them, they’re in prison.
Vanessa: That is heartbreaking, because it starts from a lack of value for the person, and in particular, a lack of value for black men.
Rep. Bonnie: And that’s very intentional. You know, to diminish the value of black men, and even brown men, to some degree, is very related to the lack of empirical supremacy of white men. How’s that?
Vanessa: There you go.
Rep. Bonnie: You know, it has to do with their insecurities, you know.
Vanessa: Oh, man, it’s all coming to the head now. In February, after New Jersey legalized marijuana, you tweeted, here we go with the tweets. “New Jersey has finally legalized adult use of Marijuana. While the work to end the failed war on drugs is not over, this is an important step.” So what other steps do we need to take to just end this war, call it what it is. It was a failure, let’s move on. What should be the next steps we take?
Rep. Bonnie: Next step we should take, as far as I’m concerned, is to consider my policy on the reform of Drug Policy Act, because it refocuses the whole issue of youth substance abuse and substance use from a criminal aspect to a health aspect. It even transfers the authority to look into that situation and to respond to it from the Attorney General to Health and Human Services. And it creates a commission to advise the secretary on issues of, what are the drugs that we’re talking about? What is a usual individual use situation? What are the kinds of systems that we need to have in place to help those that need to get through the drug abuse that’s doing damage to them? And I’m not suggesting that a particular user of marijuana or whatever has got an issue that he or she’s got to deal with. I think it’s the individual, individualized situation.
And I think that we ought to be focusing on, you know, things like mental health. We ought to think about depopulating the presence of people who were there. But making sure that like we said before, as they transition out, they transition to something. They are not going to be scavenging for food, or shelter, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or whatever needs in terms of healthcare. And we need to make sure we’ve got jobs for them and job training programs. Because these prisons have failed in preparing these men to come back into society. Not really done the literacy things that they should have done, not really done the skills, experience, and exposure that they should have been doing. And certainly not taking care of them mental help, or even whatever problem they may have been having as a result of their drug abuse, if that were a situation.
So there’s a lot of remedy that has to take place. But, you know, we can do anything we want to do in this country if we find a will. Because we can find the dollars, and we can find the systems, and we can tweak the systems or we can create new systems, whatever we have to do, to ensure that people who have been marginalized, been overly incarcerated, have been ignored, have been downtrodden or whatever, have a shot at a decent life in this country. It’s all about our will.
Vanessa: One hundred percent. And I think that we show that, right? When we want to do something, we’ll do something. When we wanted to push to communities of color to really turn out, 2020 election to vote, they turned out in record numbers during a pandemic, right? So we can really push and galvanize people to do something.
Rep. Bonnie: Can I just say something to that?
Vanessa: Yes, go ahead.
Rep. Bonnie: But you can’t expect them to keep showing up if we don’t show up for them. And so if they don’t see improvement in the system, or in the delivery of services, or in their opportunities, then they’re going to, like, go, “What the… Hey, what am I doing this for?”
Vanessa: Right. I waited in line all those hours, you promised me change. I really appreciate how you are centering that reimagining piece, right? It’s about changing the thought and really finding value in the community, and the people, and how we view individuals, right? I know in my own life, I’ve had many family members who have been addicted to different types of substances. And sometimes it was kind of a joke, because it was marijuana, it was just weed, it wasn’t a big deal. And sometimes it was harder, and there was a definitive impact on the family. Right? And they were also treated very differently in sentencing, which is also really eye-opening. To that point, we do have people in this country who will still say, “Well, they could do better if they wanted to do better. All you have to do is say no, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” All of those things you’ve heard. What do we say to those people?
Rep. Bonnie: That goes back to even Reagan, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and they don’t even have shoes on their feet, let alone a strap to pull up. I would say to them, that you recognized that the substance abuse associated with opioids was a health issue, because it was primarily impacting white folks. And so you found value in treating them as opposed to incarcerating them. And this is no different. The only difference is the race of the people that you have put behind bars for less than what you have allowed white folks to get away with. You’re right about how we showed up in this election, and how we showed up on behalf of Joe Biden, and whatever slim majority we have in the House and in the Senate. Well, we better damn well respect it, because we have a debt to pay back. And we’ve got a system of persistent and institutional racism that we need to address, confront, and dismantle. And if we can’t do it now, I don’t know when we can do it.
Vanessa: Right, I hear you. And why not now? Why not now, if ever? Let’s get going. And it’s not going to be easy. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. We’re dismantling systemic racism that’s come from the root of our country.
Rep. Bonnie: Nor is it going to be quick. But people need to see us moving in a direction that they can measure progress.
Vanessa: Yes, ma’am. I want to go ahead and give you final word. Tell us a little bit more about where your piece of legislation I, how can people help out, make sure that we’re getting the word out there. And then we will wrap it up.
Rep. Bonnie: Thank you. Thank you for having me. And let me just say this, I know that there’ll be people out here who think that this piece of legislation is revolutionary. But I know that there are people out there, like in the Leadership Conference, and all of us who’ve tried to work on the issue of civil rights, and human rights, and equality, recognizing that we’re addressing a system that has disproportionately negatively impacted black and brown. And that our communities suffer as a result of it. And that if we can find the will to look at opioids as a health issue, then we should be able to look at the whole issue of individual drug use as a health issue, and not a criminal issue. And if we think that we can continue to be the strongest best and baddest nation on the face of the earth, by keeping our black men and brown men in particular incarcerated. Whoa, we need to wake up.
Rep. Bonnie: We need to wake up on so many levels.
Vanessa: Absolutely. Oh, this has been exactly what I needed on this day. I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you, to the always inspiring, the one and only, Ms. Bonnie Watson Coleman. Thank you so much, Congresswoman, for your time. We appreciate your advocacy and your voice.
And now I’m going to turn it over to a special co-host, who’s joining us for an important conversation. Kassandra Frederique, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Welcome, Kassandra.
Kassandra: Thank you, Vanessa. And thank you, Congresswoman Coleman for that insightful and powerful conversation. We have some amazing guests for our next segment, where we will be discussing the impact of the past 50 years of the war on drugs, and what it looks like to reimagine public safety. We’ll be joined today by some of my favorite people. First up is Andrea James, the Founder and Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
Andrea: Hi, Kassandra. Thank you for inviting me here. Looking forward to a conversation with you.
Kassandra: Next we have Juan Cartagena, the President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
Juan: Que pasa, Kassandra? Wonderful to be here with you and looking forward to this conversation.
Kassandra: Next we have Kara Gotsch, the Deputy Director of the Sentencing Project.
Kara: Hi, so happy to be here.
Kassandra: Welcome Andrea, Juan, and Kara.
Juan: Thank you.
Andrea: Thank you, Kassandra. Nice to be here.
Kassandra: Andrea, can you give us kind of your synopsis of 50 years later, what has been the most devastating effects of the war on drugs?
Andrea: From our perspective, it’s the increase in incarceration and entanglement in the criminal legal system of women and girls, particularly the women who have traditionally been in our communities, holding us together, while so many of our men and family members were, for decades now, cycled in and out of the carceral state. You know, I served my time in a federal prison. And it was really devastating to see that up close and personal, how many women, the majority of them were mothers, that were serving long, draconian, mandatory minimum sentences, and from the same communities across the country. But you ask them, where were their husbands, their brothers, their uncles, their fathers. Many of them were in federal prisons, men’s prisons. And now the women were in there as well. And so you have to ask yourself, well, who is left at home to take care of the children?
And that was a very eye-opening experience for me. But it really went to the heart of the level of familial disruption, the level of fiscal disruption that our communities have, the fallout from this war on people, on black and brown people in particular, and many poor people in general, in this country. It’s devastating for our communities, because women have held us together long into the war against many of the menfolk.
Kassandra: How do we get here? What have the 50 years been like? What are the intentional policy choices that have set us up to be experiencing some of the things that Andrea laid out?
Kara: You know, what’s interesting is the war on drugs tracks very much with mass incarceration. In the early 70s, the rates of incarceration in the United States had been consistent for the previous 50 years. In the 70s, is when we started to see a gradual increase of incarceration throughout the United States. And certainly, the war on drugs was a contributor to that.
Kassandra: Juan, I want to bring you in here. How do we think these policy choices impacted generations of Latinx, and black people, and indigenous folks in the U.S.? What do you see as how the drug war has intentionally destabilized these communities?
Juan: Kassandra, thank you so much, first of all, for using the word intentional. Let’s remember that the same president who declared a war on drugs is the same president who was recorded many times in the White House, saying things like, it’s all about those damn negro and Puerto Rican groups that are building up resentment against the war, and against the use of hippie culture, and everything else that they were doing at that time, collectively with other white folk and everybody else. Nixon was a pretty clear racist demagogue on many issues. And the war on drugs, obviously, a failed war on drugs, which turned on a prohibitionist model, was never about the drugs. It was about the people using drugs. It’s never been that way. No one in this country declared a war on drugs when cocaine was available over the counter, when white folks were using it for various elements. The war on drugs became a way for social control.
And if you’re asking the most clear question, which you are, Kassandra, and that is one of the devastating effects. We have to analyze this and talk about this from a perspective that even goes beyond the borders of the United States. The war on drugs is a war against countries that also exist south of the border, because the United States export its prohibitions paradox. The war on drugs is a war on immigrants. One in four, one in five people who get deported are deported because of drug related crimes. The war on drugs is a war on poor people of all races. And especially the war on drugs is a war on black and brown bodies in the United States. So what we’re seeing is these incredible levels of devastation. It’s the loss of human life. It’s the loss of human potential. Hundreds of thousands killed in Mexico alone to cartel, that’s based on production and based on the fact that there’s an insatiable appetite for drugs and illicit drugs in the United States. And no law is going to stop that trade from going north into the United States.
After 50 years of failed policy, it’s time to start reconsidering everything about the war on drugs, including its prohibitionist model, and start addressing it from a health perspective and health-centered approach. That will get us to a point where we can undo some of the greatest harms that have existed for five decades.
Andrea: The manufacturing of…what we call the manufacturing of carceral capitalism, you know, and we have to pay attention to this, we have built an international arm of the National Council. One of the most heartbreaking things that we see is whether it’s the sisters in the Bronx, or in Roxbury, or in Houston, or anywhere else, USA, black, brown neighborhood, the issues and the reasons that these women wind up on these prison bunks are the same as the sisters that we meet in our building and organizing with in Mexico, in Brazil, in Sao Paulo, in these other places that we’ve had the privilege of going to, and we’re building with now. It’s all about this carceral capitalism. And what we see, as we also attend UN events and things, is this manufacturing of United States drug policy. Everything from mandatory minimum sentencing to drug courts.
And we’re these outliers who are coming in to these places that typically don’t have most directly affected women in particular, at these tables, and raising this issue and raising the alarm, really, that we need to be helping people to understand that this is carceral capitalism. It’s the same thing we saw in The First Step Act, and that corporations are the ones that are benefiting the most and continuing to spread things out, as we’re working on things here in the United States, in areas of the rest of the world, where organizing hasn’t reached the level that it has in the United States.
Kassandra: I think we are very clear about what the drug war has done and the impact of it. You know, I think folks want to talk about what would have happened if the drug war never occurred. However, I’m also going to offer a B side of that question. Which is, if we build the policies, centering the most impacted, what does the world, after the drug war, when we win, what does that world look like?
Andrea: You know, I remember being in some briefing somewhere in D.C. and hearing Cory Booker, say, “From 1996 to 2008, we built a prison in this country every 10 days.” Even though we know that, to hear it being said, and we know that in our communities, we had 50 co-defendant cases back in the height of the drug war. That was not unusual. The use of conspiracy to cast a wide net around everybody. And so, imagine, those were all the black and brown people that filled those prisons that were built every 10 days during that span of time. And so imagine if we built parks, imagine if we built schools, imagine if we built the infrastructure of schools. Imagine if we helped people to create people’s assembly processes. Imagine if instead of gang units that we’re fighting in so many cities to get rid of, that we didn’t have gang units, that we didn’t eviscerate the constitutional rights of people in poor black and brown communities. Imagine if we did all of these other things.
You know, imagine if we did guaranteed income, basic income guarantee for the most vulnerable in the communities, planted trees, whatever. We would be in a very different place right now. We would be in a place where, communities now that are struggling just to survive, would be on the precipice of thriving. For the first half of that question.
And the second half is, you know, we can talk about it more, and I’ll shut up after this. But what will it look like? It’s what we’re doing now, what so many people on the ground, boots on the ground. We’re in our neighborhoods doing hyper-local organizing. We call it Reimagining Communities at the National Council. Twenty blocks at a time, saturating those communities with participatory defense, participatory budgeting, doing these 25 year budget look back so that communities can actually see you’ve invested millions of millions of dollars in law enforcement, police, jails and prisons. You’ve invested nothing in the people that live in the neighborhoods. And, you know, you can’t lie about what you invested in 25 years ago. It is what it is. And so being able to use those facts, participatory budgeting, transformative justice, so important, creating these alternatives to calling the police. We would be so much further down the road if we had been provided. But now we’re not waiting for the space to be provided. We’re creating that space because we have no confidence that the system is going to go away and just dismantle itself. We’re just done waiting. We’re tired of reimagining prisons, we’re reimagining our communities now.
Kara: I want to believe in Andrea’s vision of if we never started the war on drugs, we’d have exactly what communities need, which is all the resources, and education, and health services, and children not living in poverty. I fear, though, that if it wasn’t for the war on drugs, there would be other ways people would enforce structural racism and find an alternative that would be just as devastating and deplorable as the war on drugs has been. I look at, you know, the issue of mass incarceration, which is something my organization focuses a lot on, and obviously drugs has a huge impact on that. But mass incarceration does not go away even if we legalize drugs. You know, we still are an incredibly punitive society. We often think the worst of others and are very willing to point a finger when we feel like someone’s done wrong, instead of trying to figure out how can we change ourselves to make sure that we don’t enter into problematic behavior, or that we’re supporting communities instead of punishing them.
It’s really hard work. And I feel like there’s so much change and transformation that desperately needs to happen. You know, racism is at the core of all of this. We need to address racism, before we ever can achieve what I think we all want to achieve, which is a more just, and merciful, and equitable society.
Juan: The entire criminal legal system would look a lot different if the war on drugs had not occurred, right? To the disproportionality and the fact that Latinos are 17% of the population but about 48% of all the convictions or processing of court cases in federal courts today. We could look at some models, right? So, Portugal decriminalized drug use, and made incredible strides in its health indices of healthcare. Steep declines in HIV rates and loss of life due to overdoses. Incredible shrinking of the entire criminal legal apparatus in that country. And then we could start looking at jurisdictions that start to legalize marijuana, you can see some different ways in which those dollars can then be used for what Andrea was talking about before, if we forced the hand of states to start investing in restorative practices to undo the worst aspects of the criminalized prohibitionist model of marijuana possession.
So we’re seeing the opportunities here to envision by looking at some examples of today, of what a new paradigm would look like if the war on drugs had not occurred. It is incredibly important to recognize that the harms that have already been visited upon poor people and people of color in this country because of the war on drugs must be addressed and rectified. We have to undo all these harms, and find ways to reinvest in the communities that have been harmed the most, and then start addressing issues about what it would look like for a new world, a new country, and a new kind of model in which these things are no longer being used to excessively criminalize, and excessively ostracize and marginalize people of color.
Andrea: What we don’t often think about is what came along with the drug war policies, which also was the Adoption and Safe Families Act. When we talk about what has happened because of the drug war in our neighborhoods, we very seldom tie it to the stealing of black and brown children, in particular, using another policy that came along with the 1994 Crime Act, which was the Adoption and Safe Family Act. And still, the incredible harm that that has caused generations. And I’ll speak for my community of African Americans in our neighborhoods. We’re a household where I’ve done prison time, my husband’s done prison time, but my husband did significant amount of prison time because of the drug war. And the last time being a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, while our children were young at that time. And so they all grew up without him present in the home.
And so what we just don’t understand that there are layers to the level of harm, not just the separation, but just the incredible disruption in the lives of our children, in the sense of security, in the sense of family, culturally, all of these things that have been significantly disrupted. And it’s why I always say, and people don’t like when I say it, but I mean it. The criminal legal system, there is no legitimacy to it as far as we’re concerned, because it is rooted in slavery. And the same policies that were exacted upon black folks during slavery are the same types of policies that we see with a different lipstick on a pig type of thing. And so we really have to understand that there was significant, significant harm caused to families that just disappeared entire families that aren’t in existence anymore, because of this drug war. And all of the other pieces of policy that came along with it, that allowed the state and the government to steal children from black and brown families in particular.
Kassandra: We are in this current moment where we have elected officials saying, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. Marijuana should be legalized. We need to end the war on drugs.” And then in the same breath, the same elected officials will say, “Fentanyl is the worst thing we’ve ever seen. We need to lock everyone up for it. We have to go after the sellers. These are killing our communities. This drug is different than anything.” You know, it really reminds me of what we experienced with the difference between crack and cocaine, right? Where people were like, “Cocaine, yeah, maybe you shouldn’t do it.” But crack is, “We’ve never seen this before. This is super dangerous. We got to lock everyone up.” How do we reduce the harms associated with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids? Because they’re using the same criminal legal strategies that are punitive as a way to scare people? What do you think we need to do to navigate this current moment around fentanyl?
Kara: The overdose crisis happening right now largely attributed to all drugs, but opioids in particular, and now with fentanyl and its analogues. You know, it is scary. I think all of us want to stop the growing number of overdose deaths. That has to be our first and foremost priority, is to save lives. If anything the last 50 years have taught us it’s that prisons and criminalization do not save lives. It exacerbates the problem. It sends people underground. It prevents them from seeking help when they need it. I’m so tired of the fear mongering from all levels of government. And the talk of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues being somehow different, and therefore more prison and longer sentences, regardless of who that individual is, is the answer. Because it never has been the answer. And it’s never going to be the answer.
We’ve got to meet people where they are. We’ve got to make sure that they get the support and the care that they need. Because ultimately, we want to save lives. That is the most important thing. And that is where we have to put our focus. We need more education to make sure that that is clear. That should be everyone’s first priority.
Kassandra: It’s interesting, because there are so many people that never thought that they would be in this particular moment, where cannabis is being legalized across the country. And we have a federal bill where we are pushing for federal decriminalization of cannabis. And we know that the way it’s going, while exciting, has some things that we would change or we would prioritize. And so I’m interested in your thoughts about what do we need to adjust for marijuana legalization to optimally benefit the people most impacted by it, and having marijuana legalization serve as a platform for broader social justice change.
Juan: The fact of the matter is that, as we look at the question again, and again, and again, we have to anchor it in making sure that the restorative policies, that it’s inclusive, inclusive in a new paradigm that allows everybody to partake in this new legalized market. And inclusive in making sure that we have policies that undo those harms that I talked about before, that have been visited upon our communities because of the prohibitionist model. But at the end of the day, we’re looking at opportunities now. At the federal level, it’s a no brainer. It’s impossible to put these two points, they’re both in Congress. On the one hand, the federal government still has marijuana under the title of the worst drugs in the whole country, and is dangerous. You know, on the other hand, states have legalized it. This creates a complete contradiction. At a minimum, that has to happen. But the MORE Act, the federal legislation that you’re referring to, goes further than that and it should. But what we’re seeing is whether or not that’s going to work at the federal level, is one thing. These things that happen at the state level are a mile a minute.
Those of us who work in this space are constantly making sure that legalization does not occur in a vacuum, that it doesn’t occur just for the reasons of revenue generation and capitalistic profit. That it also allows for integration into the new markets, restoration of the harms that have happened before, and then a recognition of what this really means going forward. At the end of the day, were marijuana to be legalized in every part of the United States, that would be a major impetus to kind of like reimagining what all of drug use would mean. Because we’d be able to address some of the largest sessions. The consequences was, Andrea talked about before about separating families and removing babies in foster care, because of marijuana convictions. The indiculus [SP] panoply of two unrelated convictions that could result in loss of public housing access and loss of federal dollars for higher education.
All those things like dominoes, will fall, in part because of marijuana and the transformation that is happening now. But we have to make sure that it goes up beyond the marijuana legalization to a whole new other world of recognizing and centering all of our conversations about drug use, drug addiction, on a health centered basis, as opposed to a prohibitionist model that uses a cop, a prosecutor, and a judge, to address use of drugs in the country.
Kassandra: We’re used to talking about what has happened, what we want to fix. But I am going to ask you to put your imagination hats on and think 50 years into the future. I want you to draw for me what it looks like we’ve won. We’ve centered communities most impacted. We’ve reinvested in communities. We’ve divorced ourselves from punishment, stigma, and surveillance, abolition is here, we have open borders, all the jazz, right? Kara, the criminal legal system, 50 years later, jails and prisons, what do you think?
Kara: You’ve just told me that they’re abolished, so that is really good news. You know, I sort of…in imagining what kind of future we are trying to achieve, I sort of think about children and how they will experience their lives. Because I think how we treat our children really will forecast how the rest of society operates, because that’s sort of like a mirror into the future. And what they achieve is really what we allow them to become. So in that sense, I imagine children being valued for who they are, and not putting them into boxes that separate them because of ability or misbehavior. We fundamentally understand where…that children are children, and that children misbehave. But that we, as loving guiding adults, are there to nurture them, and to make them realize their potential and address conflict. I know this sounds sort of like a simplistic sort of viewpoint, but I really think that how we treat kids is a reflection on what we can achieve in this society. So, if I’m thinking about 50 years from now, I’m thinking about schools that are nurturing and address emotional needs as much as academics. A population that embraces learning and togetherness, we can achieve more than our wildest dreams.
Kassandra: Andrew, I’m going to ask you to speak to 50 years from now, how would we address substance use disorder, rehabilitation and recovery?
Andrea: I wish some of my team members were on here because we abide by a very important rule at the National Council, nothing about us without us. And that adheres to us as well. Substance use disorder wasn’t my issue. And we have women who are the experts in that space. But certainly, I’ve been directly affected by it, because I am who I am, and I live where I live. I would hope this is treated no differently than cancer, that this is treated no differently than illness, diabetes. And, you know, that there’s abundance of money poured into research, an abundance of investment in people with direct experience. And that they would have just this abundance of research opportunity and investment in work to see that illness is treated like illness, and that people are nurtured. And that we understand that sometimes when somebody is a person that we would look at and say, why are they using? They’re living on the street. These drugs have brought them to the lowest of the low. Well, maybe that drug is the one thing that’s keeping them alive enough until they can find some way to heal. We put healing first.
But I want to, again, say, folks in the neighborhoods aren’t waiting. Folks in the neighborhoods are turning inward, and building alternate systems that are not run by systems that currently exist. They’re developing different ways of helping people who are reaching out for help. And folks is sitting around the table and figuring out what that looks like. So, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because we’ve turned that corner on hoping that a system is going to save us. No one is coming to save us. We’re here to work on ourselves.
Kassandra: So, to my padrino, Juan, I’m going to ask you this last question. What do our communities of color look like in 50 years?
Juan: First of all, the dawn of this new age, as you’re talking about 50 years from now, will be something that we’ll be a lot better prepared to protect, because we need to protect it. Fifty years is a very short timeframe, when you look at a hundreds of years of slavery, and hundreds of years of Jim Crow, and hundreds of years of settler colonialism, and hundreds of years of oppression because of white supremacy. So you didn’t include white supremacy in your list of the dawn of 50 years from now, or the elimination or complete curtailing of it. So, what I want to see is the following. If we were to achieve everything you just talked about in 50 years, the incredible leadership that exists on this phone call, and other people that we work with, those lessons will be amazing. And that leadership will be incredibly better positioned to make sure that we can protect what you’ve described we could have in 50 years, is preserving what we get so we can continue to go down that road, down that arc of justice. So that we can continue to fortify what you’re describing now.
While we can envision a world in which we had this incredible increase of solidarity among people of color, and looking at ways in which we can work together towards these aims and towards these goals. We’re not going to be fixing the entire problem unless we deal with this capitalist structure in which we deal with in the United States, and what it means, in which people are exploited for profit. And that profit is only made if you’re an exploitable workforce. I love how you talked about it. We can see how we progress by how we treat our children. But we can also see how we progress by how we treat the least of us. The people who are houseless and homeless, the people who are jobless, the people who are addicted, the people who will still be marginalized because of race. But imagining that the way you described it gives me incredible hope to understand that if that can be achieved in 50 years, is because of the efforts of people here. And that will put us in a position to protect those gains, so as we can work towards hundreds of years of this new paradigm, and not just a 50 year cycle.
Kassandra: I told everyone these are some of my favorite people. And hopefully, after hearing this conversation, they’re some of yours as well. Again, I’m Kassandra Frederique, the Executive Director at Drug Policy Alliance. And I’m so excited to build the vision for justice with so many of the people that are listening here today and those that we’ve been in conversation with as well. And with that, I’m going to kick it back to Vanessa to take us home.
Vanessa: Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. And thank you so much to Kassandra for co-hosting. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter, @PodForTheCause. And you can text us now, text Civil Rights, that’s two words, Civil Rights, to 40649, to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave us a five star review. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”