War on the War on Drugs
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.