THE BLOG
12/18/2012 05:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

The War on Drugs: A Shake-down, Not a Fair Shake for the Middle Class

In the wake of President Obama's re-election and the fervor around "fiscal cliff" negotiations, issues related to middle class empowerment and fairness are rightfully at the center of our national policy agenda. Decisions related to tax burden allocations and spending priorities are being made that have the potential to affect the middle class for a generation. It is a watershed moment for our nation to end policies that have unfairly kept people from entering or remaining in the middle class. The "war on drugs" is one such policy. It has become the longest standing war in American history -- spanning half a century, while being waged mostly within our borders and against our own people.

President Obama stated that his re-election gave him a mandate "to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try and get into the middle class." The president spoke inspiringly throughout his campaign about the idea that everyone is entitled to a fair shake. And he continues to speak specifically about economic policies to bring about this progress. The war on drugs is an impediment to realizing that vision. Instead of giving people a fair shake, we are giving them a shake-down.

In New York City, for example, marijuana possession remains the most common arrest charge within the criminal justice system. Indeed, the vast bulk of all charges pending in the system are drug related and a byproduct of the aggressive, almost hysterical policing of residents (overwhelmingly of color) within our cities. Beyond the short-term humiliation that people must endure while being stopped and frisked, or booked and jailed, the longer term effects for both individuals and communities can be disastrous.

A recent FBI report, for example, found that there were 1.5 million drug arrests across the country in 2011. Through punitive enforcement and ever expanding legal and social penalties, these arrests have devastated individuals, families and whole communities in its wake -- all without actually addressing or rectifying the real damage drug addiction can actually have on people. And quite expectedly, they represent impassable roadblocks for families hoping to stay in the middle class or those with aspirations to join it. The war on drugs has prevented and continues to preclude mass groups of people from upward mobility -- keeping them locked into legal limbo, economic stagnation and state-sponsored social instability.

At The Bronx Defenders, we see firsthand and try to fight against the catastrophic fallout on families from the endless prosecutions of non-violent drug-related offenses. For a primary breadwinner of a household such as a utility worker or building janitor, the mere fact of an arrest can mean the loss of a job. For a teen with aspirations of going onto college, marijuana possession conviction can bar financial aid for a year. For mothers and fathers, a drug arrest can mean the removal of their children from their homes and the placement of the kids with a foster family or in a group home. For those of limited financial means, mandatory court fees and fines related to minor arrests can snowball, damage credit scores and trigger collection agency actions. For a non-citizen lawful resident, simple marijuana possession convictions alone can result in deportation to a foreign country that they know no one in and nothing about. For whole families, it can mean temporary or even permanent exile from public housing, or eviction from their private apartment. When multiplied by the thousands in a city like New York, and by millions across the nation, the consequences become increasingly clear, and increasingly dire: a cycle of individual, family and community destabilization with permanent scarring for everyone involved.

But this is a solvable crisis and one ripe for our re-consideration at the national level. A GQ Article from this past summer suggested that President Obama was considering focusing his attention to the war on drugs in a possible second term. Let's hope he does. Beyond the moral impetus of treating our fellow countrymen with dignity and equal justice, increasingly high-profile appeals for significant reforms to the country's drug laws from a diverse pool of fiscal, libertarian, and macroeconomic perspectives are emerging. What many across the political spectrum are finally realizing is that the war on drugs costs too much, impinges on our personal liberties and unnecessarily prevents people from fully contributing to the economy.

We can end draconian policing, move towards decriminalization of marijuana, treat substance abuse as a public health problem and not a criminal one, and invest in our youth and adults by supporting, not targeting, our communities. We can spend our resources developing the middle class, not shrinking it. To do so, we must eliminate the crushing collateral consequences of our extreme and arcane drug policies. Federal, state and local policymakers all have a responsibility and role to end this so-called war on drugs, and to allow our fellow residents to live in dignity and with equal opportunity for real middle class advancement. It's the fair thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. And the timing, more than ever, is right.

Kumar Rao is an attorney at The Bronx Defenders in New York City and a fellow at the Center for American Progress Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C.