Seven years ago, when I told my mom I wanted to make a film to help end America's War on Drugs, she asked me, with a look of some concern, whether I was ever going to make a feel good film. Don't get me wrong. My mother's no coward in the face of life's challenges, but she'd watched me spend the previous decade taking on other seemingly unwinnable fights -- examining whether Henry Kissinger should be brought before an international tribunal, restoring a shred of realism to Ronald Reagan's legacy, and seeking to explore how America's military-industrial complex helped drive the country into the Iraq War. So when she heard I wanted to expose the flow of nonviolent drug users into America's system of industrialized mass incarceration, I don't think she was hoping I would remake Fantasia; I think she genuinely just feared that I would end up disappointed, my optimism shattered by a sobering confrontation with an indomitable monster.
Well, Mom, it's different this time, because this monster is actually vulnerable. In fact, it may be the only vulnerable adversary I've ever chosen. And that feels incredibly good. In the sea of bad news the public receives every day, the Drug War has become one of the leading bright spots, with each day bringing yet another change, the first steps toward rolling back four decades of soul-crushing injustice.
Now, to be clear, there's reason for optimism, but it must be guarded. No one should underestimate the cutthroat appetite of a system that has come to rely upon a steady diet of smalltime drug-using and -selling human beings to fill its beds, create its jobs, justify its existence and bring economic and political profit to those who legislate and administer it.
What we have seen thus far are just some changes in policy and perspective from political leadership across the country. It began at the state level:
- In 2012, Colorado and Washington decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana, a first step toward closing the gateway that a first marijuana arrest represents for so many young people into a vicious cycle of deepening involvement in the criminal justice system.
- Also in 2012, California voters overwhelmingly passed Prop 36, a landmark change in the state's notoriously draconian "Three Strikes" law, ensuring that offenders would no longer be given life sentences for petty, nonviolent third strikes, like possession of a small quantity of drugs or stealing a slice of pizza (a true story!).
- Next there was New York, where we first saw the repeal of the infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws and, more recently, the federal appeals court smackdown of the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" practice as unconstitutional and race-biased.
- And this past January Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont declared an official shift in state policy from addressing drug addiction as a criminal matter to treating it instead as one primarily of public health.
At the federal level, too, the changes have been even more far-reaching:
- In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors across the country to change how they prosecute low-level drug offenders, curtailing the practice of citing drug quantities in their charges. These quantities are what trigger the outlandish mandatory minimums established by Congress, so this amounts to a tacit recognition by the nation's leading law enforcement officer that a bureaucratic workaround was needed to restore common sense to drug sentencing.
- In recent months, we've seen a President noted for his emotional detachment express uncharacteristic passion in an area that, perhaps more even than health care reform, may prove his most lasting legacy -- the need for greater justice and improved life chances for young men of color, both through his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative and his announced plan to grant clemency to low-level drug offenders -- disproportionately minorities -- imprisoned for excessive mandatory minimum sentences.
- Now, beyond the States and Executive branch, we even see that Congress -- once the engine of the nation's overzealous narcotics policy -- is now poised to vote on the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, an historic measure which, if passed, will mark the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs as we know it. This law is the most sweeping piece of Drug War reform ever to have a real chance of passage, with a Senate vote expected in the coming weeks. The law has been endorsed by the President and Attorney General, but perhaps far more telling is the wide bipartisan support it has received in Congress.
What does this all tell us? Two things. First, the Drug War's failure over the past forty years has become so self-evident, profound, and indisputable that it has become one of the only things a brutally divided Washington can see eye to eye on. On what other issue do the Koch brothers and Obama agree?
Second, it calls upon us now as citizens to become engaged and make sure that we seize this historic moment. That's why I made JUST SAY NO...to the War on Drugs. It's a two-minute video that aims to put this 40-year fiasco first in sharp perspective and then to bed. At the video's end, you can click, enter some info, and letters will automatically be sent to your members of Congress telling them to support the Smarter Sentencing Act. It's a first step toward ending the 40-year madness of America's War on Drugs. And that would feel good.
P.S. If you don't have the time or interest to watch the video, I won't be insulted. But please, click here to send your letter to Congress in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Charlotte Street Films in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug-related crimes. To watch a video supporting the bill, watch here. To support the bill, read here. To see all the other posts in the series, read here.