War on the War on Drugs

 Just Say David Simon and the writers of HBO's "The Wire" have put together a damning indictment of the War on (some) Drugs that deserves wide circulation. And I completely endorse their prescription for civil disobedience:

If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

I'm a Baltimore resident, and last year I sat on a jury. A 15-year-old black kid was on trial for allegedly distributing tiny bags of powder cocaine. Each bag was worth about $10 on the street, and the total haul was perhaps $2-300. He didn't have a gun, and neither did the other kid who was arrested with him. They were busted by some undercover cops cruising their neighborhood.

The evidence was thin—the drugs had been hidden in a nearby transformer box in a vacant lot, and the cops only saw the kid taking money from someone else. He also had roughly $200 in cash in his pockets. No drugs were found on him, but it was quite possible—even likely—that he was selling. I know plenty of people who would have jumped at the chance to throw the kid in jail.

He was enrolled in a vocational program, and was working as a plumber's assistant. He had no criminal record. If he was guilty, he was clearly not a major trafficker—just a kid trying to make some extra cash. A stupid decision, sure, but I didn't think it was worth putting him behind bars. So I did my best to convince my fellow jurors to let him go. Surprisingly, most of the jurors felt the same as I did. Most believed that he probably was guilty, but only one person wanted to convict.

Eventually, that one person relented. We let him go.

After the trial, I caught up with the judge in the hall. "What would have happened to him if we had convicted him?" I asked.

"He could have gone away for twenty-five years," he said.

Twenty-five years. A kid's life utterly and completely destroyed by a so-called justice system seemingly designed to turn him into a lifelong criminal.

Now I can hear some people saying: "Hey, drugs destroy lives, too. I have a cousin/friend/spouse/father/mother whose life was destroyed by (insert drug here). The kid made his choice, and if he was guilty, he should pay the price."

I'm sorry, but I don't buy that argument.

When I drive around Baltimore, I see parts of it that are a fucking war zone. Poverty and race seem to define those areas. I do not believe, and I can't condone, a war against my fellow citizens who happen to be born into blighted circumstances, with poor schools, chronic unemployment, and little chance for escape. That's not to say I wouldn't throw someone in jail for committing a violent crime—as a proponent of nonviolence, my rule is simple: If you physically injure another human being, you can expect no mercy from me. But sending a nonviolent drug offender to prison is not a solution—it's part of the problem.

Simon et al have taken a bold and principled stand, and their courageous call to civil disobedience deserves to be heard, loudly and widely.

The Wire's War on the Drug War

David Simon's story from The Stoop Storytelling Series.