In 2005, a group of die-hard Fiona Apple fans began an ill-informed but well-intentioned campaign called "Free Fiona" to get Sony Records to release her Extraordinary Machine album, sending hundreds of foam apples to the label in protest.
Seven years later, the artist's fans must respond to a force more irrational, brutal and inefficient than America's record industry: our drug laws. Apple was arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas for possession of marijuana and hashish, which is a felony in Texas.
She's not the only one. More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug law violations in the United States in 2010, making drug law violations the most common type of arrest. According to the FBI, almost 82 percent of all drug arrests are for possession alone. More than half of drug arrests are for marijuana, and 88 percent of those are for simple possession. Although the rates of people who use and sell drugs are similar across races, two-thirds of all people in U.S. prisons for drug law violations are people of color. As Michelle Alexander explains in her book The New Jim Crow, this system ends up having many of the same effects as the Jim Crow laws of the 1950s, and arguably worse ones as well. Since the drug hysteria of the 1980's, public opinion about drug policy has dramatically shifted -- but the worst policies that were enacted then are still in place.
The number of people in state prisons for drug law violations has increased 550 percent over the last 20 years. More than 5,000 people in Texas are doing between five and 40 years in prison for possession of cocaine alone. You can see their names here. In Texas, simple possession of more than four ounces of marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days to two years in prison -- this, in a state with an annual $9 billion budget shortfall.
If there's one thing Americans love more than throwing people in prison, it's music. We love Fiona because she is the genuine article. As a performer, she is all generosity and authenticity, never covering the cost of being so present with her audience. She is a brilliant musician and songwriter whose lyrics articulate pain. Her voice is the unity of all this genius: sensitive, translucent, strong, nonconforming, the channel determinedly open. In a way, Fiona has exemplified much of the shared female experience in America: she is a survivor of sexual violence and has openly struggled with eating disorders, OCD, self-harm and other externalities of a culture brutal on its women. Now, like so many others, she is impacted directly by another tentacle of this interwoven system of oppression. Those of us who follow her religiously shudder to see her mug shot in prison stripes. But of course, the massive costs of the war on drugs are paid in full every day by women shackled while giving birth, trans women forced to shower with men, children separated from parents, formerly incarcerated people trying to get jobs, and simply and absurdly, the millions of men and women deprived of their free lives for using drugs.
We are a nation of drug users, along with all our other coping mechanisms that counter the kind of personal pain Fiona articulates so openly. And we have yet to come up with a convincing answer to the question of why doing something that doesn't hurt anybody -- including, often, even oneself - -should land you in jail, even for a night.
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