During a panel discussion that took place on Saturday, Wayne County Sheriff Robert Ficano — one of the few people at the two-day gathering who staunchly defended the status quo of criminalized drug use — was asked by Metro Times why it was necessary to control marijuana by putting pot smokers in jail. After all, tobacco use has been drastically reduced in the past 30 years. If you can successfully attack a terribly addictive drug such as nicotine through education and treatment — without locking up a single cigarette smoker — why can’t the same approach be taken with marijuana?
Ficano responded by saying he thought perjury charges should have been brought against the tobacco executives who several years ago testified before Congress that nicotine isn’t addictive. It’s a fine sentiment, but as far as a response to the question posed, a virtual non sequitur. So he was asked the same thing again. His response the second time around was that not all pot smokers end up incarcerated. Certainly true, but it’s equally true that literally millions of people have been arrested because of marijuana-related offenses. A few of them were in the audience last Saturday, offering horror stories about paramilitary-style police raids on their homes based on the suspicion they were growing dope.
So Ficano was asked once more for a coherent response. When the moderator pointed out to the questioner that he was repeating himself, he replied, “That’s because I still haven’t gotten an answer.”
The moderator, constitutional lawyer Hugh M. Davis Jr., smiled and said, “I don’t think you are going to get one from the sheriff.”
And with good reason. Ficano had to respond with babble because there was no way he could provide a reasoned answer. And his intellectual dishonesty reflects the big lie that was debunked time and again at the conference.
The United States is spending billions of dollars a year in its so-called war on drugs, with nearly every federal agency getting a piece of the pie. It doesn’t matter that the prohibitionist approach is a costly failure. Too many special interests, from Ficano’s Sheriff’s Department to the U.S. Forest Service to the CIA are hopelessly hooked on the cash that the drug war pours into their coffers.
According to the federal government’s own statistics, comparative surveys of high-school seniors indicate that drugs such as heroin and cocaine have become easier to obtain in the past decade. Marijuana is almost universally available despite millions of arrests.
Even the well-established think tank the RAND Corporation, in a government-funded study, found that “Treatment reduces about 10 times more serious crime than conventional enforcement.”
Faced with this harsh reality, even some law-and-order types are admitting the current battle plan is failing. Former Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon, now a professor at University of Detroit Mercy, told the conference audience of about 200 that “we are fighting one hell of a war and losing it every day.”
“‘Just say no’ ain’t never going to work,” said McKinnon. “Let’s start thinking about areas other than ‘Put them in jail and throw away the key.’”
Those other areas, at least in part, were highlighted by community activist Grace Boggs, keynote speaker at a conference dinner held Friday.
Prior to Boggs’ talk, a documentary that showed her leading citizen marches on crack houses in Detroit neighborhoods during the 1980s drove home the point that she is anything but a defender of the drug trade.
On Friday, however, Boggs drove home another point: “Putting nonviolent offenders into prisons destroys a community.”
Particularly communities inhabited by people of color.
At least two speakers during the conference pointed out that minorities — especially African-Americans and Hispanics — are purposefully singled out as targets by law enforcement.
“Racial profiling is a real phenomenon, not just a bunch of stories,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Toledo School of Law.
According to Harris, who has written extensively on the subject, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration trained tens of thousands of law enforcement officers across the country in racial profiling tactics that resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos being arrested.
“Everywhere we have the numbers, this has shown up,” said Harris.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation: “While African-Americans constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population and only 13 percent of all illicit drug users, they make up 38 percent of persons arrested for drug offenses, 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses and 63 percent of those convicted of drug trafficking.”
In her analysis, Boggs said that to deal effectively with the problem we need to seek “restorative justice rather than punitive justice.”
It is an approach, she said, that can’t be limited to individuals.
“What we should be doing,” she explained, “is healing and rebuilding — not just people, but entire communities.”
It is a theme that was echoed throughout the conference. The real solution to America’s drug problem is not harsher laws and greater enforcement. The answer lies in taking the billions of dollars currently being wasted on police actions and redirecting that money into programs that will fight poverty and despair. Spend that money to improve education and health care and child care. Improve housing and public transportation and employment opportunities. Spend that money honestly teaching children about the reality of drugs. Make treatment programs universally accessible to addicts.
For that sort of transformation to occur will require a grassroots movement, observed Cheryl Epps, a former narcotics prosecutor for the City of New York.
“The public will have to be in front of politicians on this,” Epps advised. “Unless we get very political, we won’t put an end to this senseless war.”Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]