I’ve never hidden my disdain for the so-called War on Drugs. It was as wrong-headed a move as sending soldiers into Vietnam. If you count casualties as not just those who have died or have been killed, but all the lives that have been wasted because of incarceration—including their children who are often raised in single parent homes or by grandparents—we’ve lost many more lives to the drug war than we did in East Asia. It’s as if the same dumbasses who pushed Prohibition in the early part of the 20th century were resurrected in the latter half and thought, Let’s try it again. I’m sure we can get it right, this time.
You may already know that my beef is personal. The casualties mentioned above include my mother and an uncle that was, when he wasn’t locked up, the closest thing I had to a father figure until my teens. My little brother, Joe, not quite seventeen when my mother passed, died from AIDS a few minutes after midnight on the day after Christmas in 2006 while my family was speeding to North Carolina from Baltimore to say our goodbyes. Joe barely made it into his 30s.
I remember Joe coming to me for help years before he got sick. My sister and I did what we could to find him a place where he could detox and begin recovery. We couldn’t afford to send him to a private facility, but there was at least a two-week wait for a public bed in Baltimore. I knew then, having experienced my mother and uncle’s attempts to rehab, that it was unlikely Joe would make the two weeks without a fix. I was right. Joe lasted about a week before he took off. It would be a couple of years before he was ready to take another stab at rehab, but by then the drug use and HIV virus had ravished his body. It was too late. At that point the strategy became: buy as much time with your little brother as you can, before he’s gone.
To this day, I still wonder what would have happened if our government had long ago realized its mistakes, pulled money out of enforcement and instead invested it in more beds to help indigent addicts, the real victims of our War on Drugs. Maybe Joe would’ve ended up the same way, after all. He eventually did get off drugs and onto antiretrovirals, but who knows what a difference a couple of years would have made? That’s why I’m always happy to see someone with a bit of pull step up to the plate and denounce the drug policies that continue to do more harm than good.
Recently, Sting—yes, that Sting, the former lead singer of The Police and tireless social justice advocate—came out in support of the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) stance on the War on Drugs agreeing that it “is an absolute failure whose cost to society is increasingly unbearable and absolutely unjustifiable.”
I know what you’re thinking. That’s just what we need, another celebrity taking up a pet cause to attract attention that won’t amount to any real change. I agree, to a point. It takes people with real power to effect real change. The trouble is that U.S. drug policy is still a third rail for politicians. No politician wants to come out and say we have to soften our stance on narcotics. The Obama administration has come as far as admitting that the drug war is a failure, but has yet to propose how they plan to fix it. Being politically powerless, advocates of harm reduction, like myself, have to settle for big names outside of the political arena to call attention to the cause.
Celebrities aren’t always ineffective, either. Bono’s work in the social justice arena has led directly to aid packages in the billions of dollars to benefit poverty and AIDS in Africa. Even Sting, who has worked with Bono on behalf of Amnesty International, can claim his own successes, however indirectly. His song Russians from his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, provided a powerful anthem for people who were tired of living under the constant Cold War era threat of mutually assured destruction. Its simple refrain, I hope the Russian love their children too, offered inspiration and hope that underneath all the posturing and rhetoric, both sides knew that there was something worth protecting. I’m not saying Sting helped end the Cold War, but I would give him more credit than Ronald Reagan.
So until a few prominent politicians grow some balls and start discussing effective ways to deal with our drug problem—including treatment in lieu of jail time, legalization of marijuana, the medicalization of harder drugs (addicts should be able to get a fix, if they need one, from a doctor, not my cousin Peanut on the corner) and better education to teach our children about the real dangers of illicit narcotics—I will take what I can get. What choice do I have?