America's longest running war is not in Afghanistan or Iraq. It's the 40-year war on drugs -- and the war on drugs is a war on us.
Last year more than 1,600,000 people were arrested in the United States on a drug charge. Almost half of them -- 750,000 -- were arrested for marijuana possession alone. Our government spends more than 40 billion dollars a year trying to make us a "drug-free society," yet drugs are as readily available as ever before.
Nancy Reagan told us to "Just Say No," but in reality we are a society swimming in drugs. Coffee, cigarettes, Prozac, weed, steroids, Ritalin, alcohol -- that's just a sample of the drugs that people take to get through the day.
How does our government get away breaking down our doors, pointing guns at our heads, and locking us in cages over the substances we choose to put in our own body? They do it through fear and racism, and by dividing us. We need to break down the false divisions between people who use illicit and legal drugs. The people divided will always be defeated.
Too often, when people think of a "drug user," they envision someone panhandling on the street, or some other person who's life is in disarray -- someone "not me." But the reality is that most Americans are drug users in one way or another. People who use certain drugs think of themselves as superior or feel no connection to people who use other drugs. Most alcohol and cigarettes users don't even consider themselves drugs users or addicts because their drug of choice is legal. Marijuana smokers often think of themselves above the "hardcore" people who use cocaine or methamphetamine because they tell themselves that their drug of choice is a safe medicine. And people who get their sleeping pills or anti-depressants from doctors look down at those who use drugs that are almost identical but just so happen to come from the streets.
Ironically, cigarette smokers are becoming increasingly marginalized. While they may have been glamorous in the past, these days they are looked down upon and made to feel both stupid and dirty. "Keep that stinking, deadly smoke away from me." No more smoking at beaches and parks. Hospitals announcing that they won't hire people who smoke because of health care costs. People asking out loud why anyone would be choose to kill themselves with the "cancer sticks." For many years cigarette smokers looked down their noses at marijuana smokers and were silent as the hundreds of thousands of people were arrested a year -- and now they're experiencing similar stigma and discrimination, and can see criminalization just over the horizon.
It's time for us to break down our divisions. Marijuana smokers and cigarettes smokers, people who use legal or illegal, those who take "soft" and "hard" drugs -- we are all on the same team.
I'm reminded of Pastor Martin Niemoller famous quote when he describes the rise of the Nazis: "First they came for the communists and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."
We have to learn how to live with drugs, because 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 to others. 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 the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)