Despite a $40 billion a year "war on drugs" that is premised on the goal of creating a "drug-free society," our country is swimming in drugs.
Most people start using drugs before they even leave the house in the morning. Yes, that first cup of coffee is what many of us need to start the day. The next drug that millions of Americans use, sometimes up to 20 times a day, is our nicotine! And then, after a long day of work, many of us head to a local bar or to our refrigerator and pour ourselves a cocktail, ice cold beer or a nice glass of wine.
And I'm just getting started. There are over 100 million Americans who have used marijuana. Thirty years after Nancy Reagan told us to "Just Say No," half of high-school seniors will try marijuana and 75% will try alcohol before they graduate. And what about the college students who use Ritalin to help them focus and put in long hours at the library? And how about all of the superstar athletes who use performance enhancing substances? What about all of the men (and women) who are deeply grateful for the "little blue pill"? And how about the businessmen who stay up until three in the morning with the help of a "little bump"?
Drugs are so popular because people use them for both pleasure and for pain. Drugs can be fun. How many of us enjoy having some drinks and going out dancing? How many of us enjoy a little smoke after a nice dinner with friends? Many people bond with others or find inspiration alone while under the influence of drugs. On the flip side, many people self-medicate to try to ease the pain in their lives. How many have us have had too much to drink to drown our sorrows over a breakup or some other painful event? How many of us smoke cigarettes or take prescription drugs to deal with anxiety or stress? Throughout recorded history, people have inevitably altered their consciousness to fall asleep, wake up, deal with stress, and for creative and spiritual purposes.
While it is clear that drug use doesn't discriminate and the majority of us are using one drug or another, the reality is that the war on drug users does discriminate. More than 1.8 million people are arrested every year on nonviolent drug charges. In New York City, "moderate" Mayor Bloomberg's police arrested close to 50,000 people for marijuana possession in 2009 - and 87% of those arrested were black and Latino, despite similar rates of marijuana use as whites. The reason for the discrepancy is that the NYPD stops and frisks blacks and Latinos - but not white people. Last week the New York Times ran a front page story that showed blacks and Latinos were nine times more likely to be frisked than whites.
The racist enforcement of drug laws is not limited to just New York or just marijuana. Thanks to the mass incarceration of people for nonviolent drug law violations, the U.S. is the world's leading jailer. The U.S. has 5% of the world's population but has 25% of the world's prison population. Nationally, blacks are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges as whites, despite similar rates of drug use.
Why are some drugs legal and other drugs illegal today? It's not based on any scientific assessment of the relative risks of these drugs - but it has everything to do with who is associated with these drugs. The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, were directed at black men. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the early 1900s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans.
Too often, the stereotypical "drug user" is someone we see panhandling on the street or the image of a young person of color. The reality is that most Americans use some drugs and most families include someone who is dealing with addiction to a legal or illegal drug. By declaring a "war on drugs" we have declared a war on ourselves, our families, and our communities.
We have to learn how to live with drugs, because they aren't going anywhere. Drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harms of drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems, and leave in peace the people who are not causing harm. And we need to take action against the incarceration of so many of our brothers and sisters who are suffering behind bars because of the substance that they choose to use.
Tony Newman is a drug user and the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)