The film showed how the War on Drugs created massive growth in the prison population and how African Americans suffer incarceration in numbers that are highly disproportionate. One in three black men, according to The Sentencing Project are likely spend time in jail or prison over the course of their lives while the corresponding figure for white men is 1 in 111. Drug use among blacks and whites is relatively the same.
This film leads one to question whether the nation's approach to drug use to lock so many people up for lengthy periods of time in prison even helps in any way to reduce violence or crime.
I am a writer, and communications director for an organization that fights for human rights, but my views on the War on Drugs aren't simply about expressing deeply held political views. They're personal for me. Drugs were dealt for years just a couple of blocks away from the house I grew up in. Gunshots would ring out at night fairly often in the 1980s and 1990s when crack dealing was huge in New York City.
The people I grew up with knew the people in the neighborhood who dealt drugs. A number of them were just neighborhood kids when I was growing up, but later they ended up dead or in jail.
I have a mater's degree in journalism from Columbia University and spent years as a journalist working for daily newspapers. But I also grew up in Springfield Gardens in Southeast Queens in a virtually all-black lower middle class neighborhood.
None of the kids I grew up with had lots of money growing up in the 1970s and 80s. But we came from stable two-parent families had parents who owned their own homes and took care of us. Our lives didn't make it into the negative statistics you often hear about black people. We didn't drop out of high school and as young adults weren't chronically unemployed.
But in the mid-to-late 80s when crack dealing became a huge underground industry, violence and death were always around us. Waking up to gunfire in the middle of the night was commonplace. I remember getting down on the floor one night, along with my mother, when it sounded like bullets were right outside our window. I also remember the time I left the park around the corner from my house after playing basketball with a friend and seeing several young guys who looked like they were barely out of junior high school, looking terrified, while holding guns in their hands. Me and my friend spoke to them briefly as we walked by and left talking about how sad it was that they were so young yet putting their lives in such danger to sell drugs. It wasn't the only time I saw guys in the neighborhood eholding guns or pulling them out. It was their youth and the fear on their faces that stuck with me.
I remember the two brothers from around the corner who I occasionally played with, who were definitely mischievous but not bad guys. Apparently they both made a lot of money dealing.
I remember seeing one of them driving his white Mercedes Benz around the neighborhood and driving by another time and seeing him by the bus stop and thinking, next time: I need to catch up with him and talk for a few. Our lifestyles were completely different but he was still the kid from around the corner who I knew when we were wearing running around wearing Keds and tube sox. But several months later, I learned he was killed after being set up in a phony drug deal. His older brother who also dealt drugs was murdered in a separate incident of drug violence.
Then there was the girl from around the corner who used to play punch ball with us when we were kids when that was the thing to do for a while in the summers. Years later, she was arrested on a slew of drug and gun charges when the police were really trying to catch her boyfriend. Her cousin was linked to one of the biggest drug dealers in Southeast, Queens, a guy nicknamed, "Tony Montana" after the drug lord played by Al Pacino in Scarface. My neighbor's house was very much like mine. I knew her sister and would wave at her mother and father whenever I saw them. I didn't know why her life took the path it did. But we all make mistakes in life and being deeply involved with a drug dealer was definitely one of hers.
There was the time I was playing basketball in the park near my house when some detectives stopped and cut down some laundry bags that were hanging from a picket fence. They peered at the bags and took notes. It was obvious that something was seriously wrong. The detectives walked from house to house, canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses. I kept on playing for a bit. But after a while I felt I just had to go. It turned out there were body parts in the laundry bags. It seemed so insane that someone would do something like that.
There were drug dealers in Springfield Gardens who made a lot money in other neighborhoods like South Jamaica, Queens and neighborhoods in Brooklyn that would then move in after making lots of money. One lived around the corner. And I remember seeing him walking in and out of his house wearing a black leather trench coat. He kept Jaguars parked in the driveway. One night he was murdered in his home after the phone lines were cut. Apparently, he had multiple homes, we learned after reading about the killing in the news. Police attended his funeral fearing that bullets would start flying because rival drug dealers were expected to show up.
I could go on for a while with stories about how drugs touched our community. It was hard to make sense of it then and it's still hard. That fact that his was all going on around us and involved people we all knew is hard to grapple with. It seemed so incongruous that we inhabited the same community and in some cases had played together, been friends or, at least, acquaintances and our lives had diverged so much. I still struggle to understand the risks some took with their own lives and the lives of others for material gain.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the violence surrounding drug deals results from the prohibition of drugs, which inflates prices and boosts profits for drug dealers. The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s is often cited as an example.
So I wonder how things might be different in the U.S. if this prohibition of drugs was overturned. What if drugs were sold by the government at a cost that would undercut the ability of any drug dealer to sell at a lower cost? What if we could provide treatment on demand to those who need it instead of spending billions to keep addicts locked up?
How would life have been different for those from the neighborhood who did jail time or died from selling drugs? How many would've turned their lives around?
Unless there's serious reform of the nation's drug laws, I guess we'll continue to see mass incarceration and enormous racial disparities as young black men and women continue to fill the nation's jails and prisons.
Rushing is writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and works as the Communications Director for Rights Working Group. The views expressed are his own.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.
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