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This is Your Neighborhood on the Drug War

05/21/2015 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

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2015-02-04-Joni_Blecher_150x150.jpgBy Maj. Neill Franklin

Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.) ​is a​ 34 year​ veteran​ with ​the​​ Maryland State Police ​and Baltimore Police Departments and is now executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition​ (LEAP)​, a group of cops and other criminal justice professionals working to end the War on Drugs.​"​

Few people discussing the recent riots and protests in Baltimore have bothered to question why young people would feel angry enough to destroy their own neighborhood. Some have suggested the unrest can be blamed largely on the "breakdown" of the family structure in poor neighborhoods, particularly in poor communities of color, where fathers are frequently absent.

What that suggestion fails to address is why the family structure would be breaking down in the first place. The long and short answer is: The Drug War is tearing these families apart. People who suffer from addictions in poor neighborhoods don't have access to the kind of treatment options that middle and upper class families do, meaning parents with addictions are less able to be breadwinners and look after their children. These neighborhoods also have markedly fewer job openings, and feeding oneself and their family doesn't become any less imperative when you're poor, so selling drugs may be the easiest way to keep everyone fed and a roof overhead, however minimally.

One in three black men in this country can expect to enter the penal system during their lifetime. One in eleven black children in the U.S. have a parent in prison. Drug use rates are similar across racial groups, but blacks, who account for 13% of the U.S. population, make up 30% of drug arrests and 40.7% of the total state prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. People with drug convictions often can't return to their families if they reside in public housing and are often barred from entering the work force or even applying for college financial aid because of their record. Saying the cause of social unrest is rooted in the breakdown of families, without acknowledging what might cause that, is a horribly shortsighted position to take because it fails to see the policies affecting family structure, and it implies that people of color are somehow inherently more likely to be criminals or not care about the strength of their own families. Frankly, I'm not sure which implication is more offensive.

I condemn the property crimes, wish for those responsible to be held accountable, and hope for only peaceful protests in my hometown of Baltimore. In no way will I excuse the neighborhood destruction they have caused. However, we have to understand that what has happened is a natural progression of events. Many police departments across the country have unwittingly played into a system of racial prejudice that has unfairly targeted communities of color for drug crimes for decades. There are more black men in the penal system now than there were slaves in 1850, yet we're bewildered that anyone might get angry enough to burn down pharmacies or smash police cars after finding out yet another unarmed member of their community has died in police custody.

The solution to this problem isn't to simply stop arresting people for nonviolent drug crimes, although that's a good place to start. Decriminalizing low-level drug offenses helps redirect law enforcement focus back to crimes with victims, but it will not get rid of the dangerous underground marketplace that inevitably pairs with prohibition. Innocent and well-meaning people, including good police officers, will still get caught in the crosshairs of rival gang competition. People addicted to heroin or meth will get no closer to rehabilitation, all while getting closer to an overdose caused by drugs of unknown potency or purity. Children will still be recruited to sell and buy drugs on the street because no regulatory agency forces dealers to verify age before every hire and sale. It's certainly a crime to sell drugs to children (and it should always be), but it's impossible to enforce without regulation. The total lack of positive results from the last century of "enforcing" prohibition is more than enough evidence.

We must end the Drug War, provide effective treatment options to those who battle addiction, and allow those who have been disenfranchised by prohibition to gain the same rights they have always deserved; equal opportunity for education, jobs, and family stability. Cops are public servants who should be helping victims of violent crimes get justice. Prohibition has only created more violence and made neighborhoods more dangerous. Legalize and regulate drugs from a public health perspective, and put our cops back in charge of solving the nearly 40% of murders and 60% of rape cases that go unsolved.

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