How long do you keep the lie going? This is the unstated question in the blossoming drug-war debate.
Speaking last week at the Shadow Convention in Philadelphia, the Rev. Edwin Sanders of Nashville's Metropolitan Church was unequivocal in his answer: "This needs to be the time when we collectively raise our voices and say that this is the end." Sanders' speech was part of a breakthrough day in the drug-policy-reform movement. Speakers as varied as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the biggest cheerleaders for the drug war in the 1980s, and Gov. Gary Johnson, R-N.M., the highest-ranking elected official ever to challenge our national drug policy, took to the stage to echo Sanders' sentiment that the time has come to declare an end to a war that has destroyed far too many lives.
In the audience, hundreds of parents, children and spouses of those incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges held placards with the pictures and stories of their loved ones. They had arrived on buses from around the country, representing the millions of Americans whose world has been torn apart by this disastrous war. People like Julie Colon, 21, whose mother is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for a first-time drug offense. "The last time I lived with my mother," said Colon, "I was 9 years old." Or Eileen Flournoy, 74, whose daughter Veronica was arrested on drug charges while she was pregnant with her second child and fell under the mandatory sentencing laws. "At my age, I sure didn't expect to be raising my 4- and 5-year-old granddaughters," she told me.
"We have absolutely become numb to what's going on in this country," Johnson, a triathlete and teetotaler, told the Shadow Convention crowd. "The bottom line is, we need a new drug strategy. Why don't we see if we can have fewer nonviolent drug offenders in jail? The message that needs to resonate to kids and adults is 'Just Say Know to Drugs. K-N-O-W.'"
Because the fact is we do know. We know what works -- treatment. And we know what doesn't work -- incarceration. About the only thing we don't know is how to convince our politicians of the truth of what almost everybody else now seems to know. But we're getting closer.
Jesse Jackson knows. He railed against our "failed drug policy whose friendly fire is killing Americans rather than helping Americans -- a policy whose unintended consequence is to build an ugly, shameful jail industrial complex, a policy driven by fear, race and greed." Pointing to the 75 percent recidivism rate of drug offenders, Jackson brought the crowd to its feet with his trademarked cadenced delivery: "They go into jail sicker and come out slicker and return quicker, and around and around and around they go ... Because if you are young, poor, brown or black or don't have a lawyer, there is no category called youthful indiscretion."
Drug-policy reform is moving from the fringes to the mainstream. And for every public figure who speaks out, dozens more are waiting in the wings until they consider it safe enough to say openly what they now dare say only privately.
Two elected officials speaking out are Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., now running for the Senate, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. In one of the unexpected alliances produced by the fight against the drug war, they have joined forces in favor of California's Prop. 36 -- a major policy shift from incarceration to treatment.
Campbell offered the Shadow Convention crowd a stinging bit of history from the drug war: "The street price of heroin and cocaine is less than one-fourth of what it was in 1981. The purity of heroin available on the street has increased more than fourfold since 1981. Incarceration for drug arrests has risen tenfold since 1981. The number of drug-overdose deaths has increased more than fivefold since 1981. The proportion of high school seniors reporting that drugs are readily available has doubled since 1981. This is not victory. This is failure."
But the greatest indicator that we are, as Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, put it, "at the beginning of a new anti-war movement, a new movement for political and social justice," came not at the shadow gathering but at the Republican convention. Colin Powell, in the one bit of truth shining through the phony multicultural fog, made it clear that it was time to rethink America's drug-war policy, which has led to more than 2 million Americans behind bars: "If you want to solve our drug problem, you won't do it by trying to cut off supply and arresting pushers on the street corners alone ... It's time to stop building jails in America and get back to the task of building our children."
It's a conclusion shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans: More than 70 percent are now in favor of treatment over incarceration for those convicted of nonviolent drug charges. And the media -- in a growing number of editorials, columns and news stories -- have begun to actually shine a light on the drug war's casualties and call for new policies.
Yet George W. Bush did not have one compassionate word to say on the subject beyond grandiloquently promising to "tear down that wall" that traps our citizens in "prison, addiction and despair." And you can bet that, come next week, Al Gore will be equally silent on the subject.