THE BLOG
04/08/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Enough Is Enough: The Tide Is Turning in the War On Drugs

Today, on HuffPost, John Legend and I are premiering a music video of his new song, "The House I Live In", with images from my film of the same name. Both pieces cry out for reform of our four-decades failed War on Drugs. John's performance is heartbreaking, and I can't say enough about the depth he brings to covering an American anthem first popularized by Frank Sinatra and Paul Robeson.

When John sings "what is America to me?," he asks a question at the heart of so much that needs fixing in America today. Wherever we look, we see communities whose best hopes have been hijacked by an unholy mix of political and economic greed that places profit before people and principle. Nowhere is this immoral calculus more brazen than in the War on Drugs, which literally has made mass-incarceration one of America's leading industries. The good news, though, is that ending the Drug War -- so long overdue -- may actually be within reach.

Why do I think this? For those who know the realities of our mass incarceration system, the unholy alliance between "tough on crime" politicians and the companies and unions that fund them might seem insurmountable. It is, after all, a system that literally trades in poor people, most often minorities, and it holds formidable power. How else could any national program self-perpetuate despite a forty-year record of total failure? Since 1971, America has spent more than $1 trillion on the War on Drugs, conducted 45 million drug arrests, and amassed the world's largest prison population, with 2.3 million Americans behind bars, more than any other country on earth. Yet for all this, drugs are cheaper, purer, more available, and used by younger people than ever before. We have the toughest drug laws on earth and yet our demand, undeterred, remains the highest in the world.

So the drug war by any measure has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet, as a business, it's booming, with new mandatory minimum sentences being written into law and new prisons being built every day. So it's no surprise that veterans I talk to at all levels of the system -- dealers, users, cops, judges and jailers -- all look at me with world-weary pity when I idealistically suggest that an end to the war might be in sight.

I'm not naive. I know what bureaucratic thrust drives the war and what an obstacle this represents. Yet still, everywhere I look, I also see the writing on the wall. Everyday, a growing number of states (this week Florida) move closer to legalizing marijuana as Colorado and Washington did on Election Day. Marijuana arrests are of course just one part of what drives the war. But in 2011, marijuana arrests represented a full half of all drug arrests nationwide, the vast majority for simple possession. So the increasing spread of marijuana legalization is highly significant.

Other states, too, have seen their voters shift away from the old pattern of excessive sentencing of nonviolent offenders. In California, on election day, an overwhelming 68% of voters elected to reform the state's notorious 3-strikes law when applied to nonviolent offenders. Matt Taibbi has written an excellent cautionary article on the shortcomings of this reform, but the message from California's voters is reflective of a national shift in public opinion away from blindly punitive approach to crime. And lawmakers are taking note. This Tuesday, the California legislature will vote on a measure to revisit the sentences of some 21,000 inmates sentenced as juveniles, provided they've shown a decade of good behavior. Connecticut is currently considering the same motion. And in Oklahoma this week, the Governor announced her intention to review the sentences of some of the most long-serving nonviolent offenders. That may help Kevin Ott, one of the prisoners who appears in my film, who is currently serving life without parole for possessing 3 ounces of methamphetamine.

I recognize of course that these are individual victories, just baby steps against the inexorable march of the vast machinery of the Drug War. But they represent nonetheless a pattern in which voters are increasingly willing to see our nation's drug policies as excessive and counterproductive and to vote against them. So, because politicians lead from behind, many who once thought "tough on crime" rhetoric was the only way to get elected, are starting to notice the political benefit of being "smart on crime." By reducing the severity of its 3-strikes law toward nonviolent offenders, for example, California can boast a win-win, fostering smarter law enforcement and greater fairness while saving the state a minimum of $100 million a year. With states across the country facing budget crunches and sequestration, what official wouldn't want to take credit for that kind of savings?

There's more. This week, the Pew Research Center released a study saying a majority of Americans favor across-the-board legalization of marijuana. This is the second such nationwide poll to deliver this verdict and moves America one step closer to Portugal. Why Portugal? Because for those who continue to advocate for America's draconian prohibition, Portugal is a dirty little secret, an inconvenient embarrassment.

Ten years ago, faced with its own national drug epidemic, Portugal made the radical choice to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs across the board. If a person possesses enough drugs to suggest they are a dealer, criminal penalties remain. But for the rest, it's compulsory treatment rather than punishment.

The result: a stunning success. Drug use rates among Portugal's youth are down. HIV rates are down. Violence is down. And naturally the burden on the criminal justice system has dropped precipitously. This has meant huge economic savings for Portugal, which spent just a fraction of what it's saved to establish one of the most robust and innovative drug treatment systems in the world.

The message? Drug addiction is a matter of public health, specifically requiring mental health services. And treatment works. Approaching drug use as a crime leaves the health matter unaddressed, only to worsen. When a country like Portugal realizes this and establishes a responsible governmental approach to the problem, it begins to actually make strides against addiction.

But the message for America goes farther, particularly amid the debate over gun violence that's emerged since the tragic shootings in Newtown and Aurora. While Newtown ignited a firestorm of partisan rhetoric on gun laws, the deeper and far less debatable reality it revealed is America's grave lack of mental health care. This massive shortcoming is also a driving force behind the nation's epidemic levels of drug abuse and, by extension, our incarceration of the nonviolent. The majority of our nonviolent inmates are people for whom mental health services -- and the drug treatment component of it -- were never available.

For my film, I spoke to Mike Carpenter, Chief of Security at Oklahoma's Lexington Corrections Center. He told me that since most people cannot afford private drug treatment, "the first time most of my offenders have ever received any mental health services is here in prison." Amazingly, Carpenter went on to point out that, though his guards are not trained in mental health services, "this prison (sigh) is the largest provider of mental health services in the state of Oklahoma." Imagine.

This is where our national problems of addiction on the one hand and of gun violence on the other meet. Each reflects our woefully inadequate approach to mental health. Each, too, will be significantly addressed the moment America elects to make mental health a national priority. Of course, what scant mental health resources do exist have been some of the first and hardest cut by sequestration.

David Simon paints the picture most vividly, I think, when he describes in my film how the drug war, by incentivizing cops to focus on petty drug arrests, both fills our jails with nonviolent offenders and distracts the police from solving more serious crimes. It's almost like, as a narcotics officer looks through his driver's side window for a petty dealer to arrest, through his passenger window he fails to see a mentally ill person headed with violent intent toward manifesting a real threat to public safety. A responsible public health system might have seen signs of instability far earlier than this late moment, but even the police as a last line of defense are distracted from the task.

In any rational society, a politician like Senator Joey Fillingane and his colleagues in Mississippi, for example, would be publicly humiliated for suggesting that the right time to stop a violently ill subject from opening fire on kindergartners is at the school door. Somehow, though, such primitivism merits airtime in today's surreal culture of rhetorical extremism. Likewise, the Drug War addresses the addiction problem too late -- once it has reached the street corner -- rather than at its root. To do otherwise would of course require that America ask some very tough questions about why we are the most addicted country on earth. Why are Americans self-medicating at such high rates? Are people just irresponsible or is American society producing a culture without meaning or hope for young people? What does it mean to have become a society that makes drug use and even involvement in the underground drug economy not only a viable option but perhaps the best game in town?

The good news is that the American people and a growing group of high-profile individuals across the political spectrum -- from Grover Norquist and Paul Volcker to Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons -- are coming to see the Drug War, after forty years of total failure, wasted taxpayer dollars, and savage inhumanity, for the monstrous and destructive force that it is. With that shift, more of our political leadership is beginning to see that voters expect them not to be blindly tough on crime, but to be smart on crime. This means, like Portugal, we need evidence-based public health policies rooted in science, an effective and just approach to public safety, and an end to decades of waste and failure. What we don't need are more guns at school doors and more nonviolent Americans behind bars.

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The House I Live In premieres tonight on PBS' Independent Lens at 10PM EST. Check your local listings.