I love talking to people. I strike up conversations with folks all of the time, from the parents at the local park where I take my daughter, to the people at the pool table at my local bar. When connecting with folks, at some point "what do you do for work" comes up. I tell them that I work at the Drug Policy Alliance. Many hear the word drug in the title and curiously ask what type of group is that? My 30-second answer is: "We believe the war on drugs is a failure. We think if someone has a drug problem, they deserve treatment and help, not to sit in a jail cell for 15 years. Medical marijuana for people who are sick. Clean syringes for people who inject drugs so that they don't get HIV or Hep. C. We believe substance abuse should be a health issue not a criminal issue. "
I try to gauge the other person's interest. Sometimes it's clear that it's time for a new conversation topic, and we'll move on to sports or where they are from and what brought them to New York. But more often than not, people are ready to go deeper. One thing I have always loved about my work is that most people are ready to talk -- either about their personal experience or about a family member or friend who has either a good or a bad relationship with certain drugs. I am pleasantly surprised how many people, right off the bat, say they agree that the war on drugs doesn't work. Many will say that we should legalize marijuana and say that it is safer than alcohol or make the connection to alcohol prohibition. Prohibition didn't work with alcohol and it doesn't work now. Or they will talk about the money that can be made by taxing and regulating it.
My next rift is about our society is swimming in drugs, but only some people go to jail for using drugs. We have Prozac and Ritalin and Viagra and weed and cigarettes and steroids and alcohol, but it is mostly blacks and Latinos who go to jail for using drugs. Most people in our society are using one drug or another, but 90 percent of the people behind bars on drug charges in New York are people of color, even though government statistics show that people of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white people. I admit to people that I smoke marijuana on the streets of New York on a regular basis and ask them, "how many times do you think the cops have stopped and searched me?" I then answer, "never." I can see that they believe me.
Many people nod their heads and they seem surprised and happy to know that there is a group out there fighting to end the war on drugs. For others, they seem slightly amused and imagine that I and my colleagues are driven to this issue simply because we like to smoke marijuana or use other drugs. And then there are some who are disturbed and upset by what I'm saying. Many people have had their lives messed up by drugs or know someone who has.
The truth is that I do like to smoke marijuana. Smoking marijuana is something that both relaxes me and gives me inspiration. It is something that I enjoy doing, doesn't hurt people around me and I don't think I should be a criminal for using it. But my passion for this issue is much deeper than that. It breaks my heart that we put people in cages for years because they either choose to or can't stop using a drug.
Let's be clear. I know that drugs can cause terrible damage and seriously ruin someone's life. I have friends who have been addicted to meth and ended up in jail and/or alienating the people closest to them. I know people who have lost jobs or marriages because of alcohol and cocaine. I have shed my own tears over my addiction to cigarettes and the pain it has caused my loved ones and have kept myself up at night worrying about my drinking and drug use.
But it is so clear that incarcerating people is not the answer and that so many of our drug laws make substance use so much worse. I don't think that we should end prohibition because drugs are harmless -- rather, it is precisely because drugs can be harmful that they need to be taken out of the black market and sensibly regulated.
While no one would advocate for people to inject drugs, the truth is that many people do. How can we not provide clean syringes to reduce HIV?
The thought of friends and loved ones using legal or illegal drugs and overdosing is a terrifying nightmare. But our priority has to be saving their lives if they do overdose. Too often, when someone is overdosing, friends are afraid to call 911 -- even though that would save a life -- because they know that calling 911 may lead to cops showing up and them being arrested for drug use. It should never be a crime to call 911 to save someone's life.
When I state my belief that we need to legalize marijuana and treat addiction as a health issue, I say this not because I am pro-drug use. Again, I know the damage that can be caused by drugs.
I am in favor of sensible regulation rather than prohibition because I am pro-life. I want to end drug prohibition because I want to keep people from getting HIV by allowing them access to clean syringes. I want to end the prohibition of drugs because I want to reduce people dying from drug overdoses. I am pro-regulation because it saddens me to read about 20,000 Mexicans being killed over the last three years because of drug prohibition. I want people who have drug problems to get treatment and help and not be locked up in a cage for 10 years -- that does nothing to help them and makes their children and loved ones' lives more miserable.
I am also anti-prohibition because I'm pro-choice. I believe people have sovereignty over their bodies and minds. I don't think they should be punished or incarcerated because of what they choose to put in their own bodies, absent harm to others. Who are we to say that someone can't choose to smoke a joint instead of drink a martini at the end of the day? Why is it okay to go to a doctor and get legal anti-depressants or sleeping pills, but if you use similar drugs purchased from the street because you don't have insurance you land in jail?
We have to learn how to live with drugs -- because they aren't going anywhere. People have used drugs for thousands of years and will use them for thousands of more. It is time for those of us who are pro-life and pro-choice to find an exit strategy from this unwinnable war. The war on drugs is a war on all of us. And war is not the answer.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)