TO END, OR NOT, THE WAR ON DRUGS
Zachary K. Thomas, first year writing UNC Asheville student
In the mountains of Western North Carolina lies Asheville. One of the gems of the south where tourists flock to enjoy a unique atmosphere. Where, as Buzzfeed writer Kelsey Jones puts it, the “Gay Capital of the South” (2015) meets Beer City USA. Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded by gorgeous scenery and good vibes. However, underneath this touristy, extravagant exterior, you have the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens. Created by DeWayne “B-Love” Barton, Founder and CEO of Hood Huggers International, in 2003 as a peaceful response to the War in Iraq and Heavy Drug activity in the Burton Street Community. Rising from an overgrown lot heaped with garbage, into a place full of art, beauty, and love (Peace Gardens, n.d.).
Within the Peace Gardens, is a sculpture park where local artists have created sculptures using reused items to illustrate different stories of social and environmental injustices and black history (Peace Gardens, n.d). One such of these sculptures is the installation “Mayberry Undercover” designed by B-Love himself. The sculpture, as a whole, represents the problem of drug addiction in America. More importantly, it talks about the underlying issues that the proliferation of drugs and the War on drugs have caused in the Burton Street Community. From racial profiling, Police brutality and discrimination against African Americans, the negligence of the upper-middle class, and the incrimination and incarceration of drug users.
The sculpture raises a question that International and National governing bodies have been trying to answer for decades; How to deal with illicit drug prevalence in the world? United Nation treaties have emphasized criminalization through the use of law enforcement (Alexandris, 2017), The United States has forged on with the War on Drugs targeting the drug supply and demand, while local level governments drown in International and National level policies, unable to deviate without incurring repercussions from national and international governing bodies. The United Nations policies need to be reformed, and the War on Drugs needs to come to an end. Their current methods of criminalization and attempts to eliminate the drug trade have led to a devastating impact on our communities and the people’s lives within them.
To better understand the impact on local communities, you must know about the policies starting at the International level. Three United Nation Conventions define the international drug control system. The first convention was held in 1961. This convention required nations to criminalize the non-medical use of drugs and derivatives from cannabis, cocaine, and opioids (Room & Reuter, 2012 and UNODC, 2013). The preamble for the 1961 convention states, “Recognizing that addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind” and that countries should be “conscious of their duty to prevent and combat this evil,” (UNODC, 2013). This is the moral justification the UN has used to define drug use as harmful and that it causes harm not only to others but to the drug users themselves (Alexandris, 2017). The second convention in 1971 extended the drug list to include synthetic drugs and the final convention in 1988 focused on controlling the suppression of illicit markets, primarily through the use of Law enforcement (Room &Reuter, 2012). These international treaties have two main goals; to focus on the suppression of supply and demand and the distribution of illicit drugs, while providing drugs for medical purposes. (Room &Reuter, 2012) These treaties require all signatories to maintain the policy that the production, use, and distribution of illicit drugs is a crime. Therefore, this leaves little room for experimentation for National governments. The variation in these systems come from a government’s focus on priorities. Whether they focus on the reducing the consequences of drug use or rely on law enforcement to treat drugs as problematic and focus on the suppression of trafficking (Room & Reuter, 2012).
America’s War on Drugs
According to Alexandris, America was amongst the first countries to raise their banners in support for the UN’s policy choice; Deciding to use the UN’s law enforcement paradigm as a means for drug control (2017). In a press conference on June 17th, 1971, Richard Nixon announced that drug abuse was “America’s public enemy number one” and officially launched the War on Drugs. This war led the United States’ government to increase funding for drug control agencies and a push for new drug laws concerning criminal penalties for illicit drug users (Nixon, 1971). The War on Drugs was further expanded on in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan and his administration launched a media campaign to build support against the proliferation of crack cocaine. This campaign had a huge impact throughout the 1980s and as Michelle Alexander wrote “the media bonanza surrounding the “new demon drug” helped to catapult the War on Drugs from an ambitious federal policy to an actual war.” (2012, p. 5) Using the justification presented by the UN that drug use is morally wrong, and the media’s demonization of drugs, The United States government implemented policies that violate basic human rights and have been ineffective in combating the proliferation of drug use in America.
The most ineffective strategy taken by the US is the use of Drug Law enforcement as the main vehicle to deal with the issues of drug abuse (Alexandris, 2017). Drug enforcement policies tend to target supply, demand and the trafficking of drugs, with little to no concern about the impact these policies have had on the human population. USA Anti-trafficking efforts in Mexico have led to 35,000 homicides between 2007 and 2010 (Room & Reuter, 2012), which has only increased disorder and resulted in higher rates of gun violence (Alexandris, 2017). Efforts to decrease supply have also been fruitless. Despite the increased rate of incarceration of local drug dealers and suppliers, the supply of illicit drugs has remained relatively constant. Since the drug markets are already established, eliminating one supplier only leaves room for another supplier to step in. As Ethan Nadelmann said, “Knock out one source and another inevitably emerges” (2014). The only success that these policies have had is that incarceration rates concerning drug use have skyrocketed. From 1980 to 2005, the prison population of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses increased tenfold (Room & Reuter 2012). So now, our prisons are overflowing, the statistics of drug abuse have seen little to no decline, and there has been little consideration for the impact on local communities.
Impact on Local Communities
These drug policies have led to many problems for our local communities. Since the main focus has involved criminal sanctioning, treatment and prevention programs come second in importance and, in some cases, are even hindered by law enforcement (Alexandris, 2012). Alexandris provides an example by noting that the threat of law enforcement can put users in a panicked mood which potentially leads to improper procedures for administering the drug and that this could lead to health complications and even overdose. He also mentions a cross-country analysis that confirms the link between higher rates of law enforcement and HIV prevalence (2012). Nadelmann supports this idea discussing that because of the drug policies emphasis on criminalization, good people have lost jobs, homes, freedom, and family members only because someone chose to do drugs (2014). Even harmless drug use leads to incarceration under these policies and this affects not only the individual, but their families as well.
The bigger problem here is the fact that drug law enforcement has been used as a tool to perpetuate racial discrimination against socially excluded minorities, specifically African Americans (Room & Reuter, 2012 and Alexandris, 2017). Michelle Alexander calls this phenomenon “The New Jim Crow,” and she goes on to relate how it is legally acceptable to discriminate against criminals and how this has enabled people to deny them their rights to vote, to employment, to housing and other government benefits (2012). In the video “The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush,” The Drug Policy Alliance, in collaboration with JAY Z and artist Molly Crabapple, discuss how the drug war has been used to target minorities. One example is that despite white people using and selling crack cocaine more prolifically there was a higher percentage of black people being sent to jail for the use of the same drug (2016). Ethan Nadelmann also discusses that the origin of drug laws stem from racist fears and he makes an analogy saying, “if the principle smokers of cocaine were affluent older white men and the principal consumers of Viagra were poor young black men, then smokable cocaine would be easy to get with a prescription from your doctor and selling Viagra would get you five to ten years behind bars.” (2014). These examples show that the use of illicit drugs is not the only issue but underlying social prejudices have also played a large part in how these policies came about in America.
Impact on Buncombe County
The impact of these policies can be felt here in Buncombe County as well. The Asheville-Buncombe Drug Commission states in their First Annual Report of 2012, that Buncombe County is not immune to the impact of substance abuse, and that the issues affect the users, family members, friends, employers, and the community. They also state statistics about drug abuse in Buncombe county and point out that “Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Buncombe County is ranked twentieth” (Dererio, 2012). According to News 13 WLOS, Asheville is in an opioid crisis, and the number of overdoses has risen drastically over the last couple of years and that the Asheville Police Department’s drug unit was dispatched 117 times for overdose cases in 2016 (Emert, 2017). In their interview with Lt. Geoffery Rollins of the Asheville Police department, he discusses that their main goal is to target supply to make an impact on what is available and then continues to say that they “won’t be able to arrest their way out of this or seize a significant amount that will cause reduction”. This reflects the ineffectiveness of the drug law enforcement strategy even here in our community of Asheville.
Furthermore, there is not a community in Asheville that has felt the impact of the War on Drugs more so than the Burton Street Community. During our tour of the Barton Street Community Peace Gardens, DeWayne “B-Love” Barton described some of the histories of the community for us. In 2001, the Burton Street Community was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Asheville. Drugs proliferated the community, drug deals were occurring everywhere and cops roaming the streets while racially profiling young black men. As a native of Asheville, Barton gives an inside, and personal point of view in his unpublished poem, “Mayberry Undercover.” He alludes to many of the same issues that Michelle Alexander described as the New Jim Crow by writing, “chasing the stereotypes off the corner, stopping cars with white teeth and eyes, shoot first-sweat hood, dark skin, baggy jeans,” illustrating how police have used drug laws as an excuse to persecute minorities. Additionally, he questions national policies writing, “War on drugs? Poor man mandatory drug laws fills jails with those who choose a home-grown cheaper stimulant,” showing that the only thing the War on Drugs has succeeded in is the mass incarceration of minorities.
Change is Gonna Come
However, not all is dark and dreary in the Burton Street Community nowadays. Through the efforts of B-Love Barton and his “Hood Huggers,” the Burton Street Community Peace gardens has brought the community together. The Peace Gardens provide a safe space for young individuals of the neighborhood and provides opportunities to learn about gardening and environmental responsibility. The Peace gardens represent one small step in the right direction for overcoming the socio-economic issues brought upon by the War on drugs. Showing that the initiative to engage and educate can turn one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Asheville, into a peaceful and cohesive unit.
The steps taken in the Burton Street Community are not the only ones though. The Asheville-Buncombe Drug Commission has begun to focus on solutions for the future. One of these initiatives is called P.A.G.E 1 (Prevent, Act, Grow, and Engage). The purpose of P.A.G.E. 1 is to tackle drug use positively and shifting to a “treatment and prevention” point of view. These steps aim to stop drug use before it becomes a problem, to give treatment to those who have developed problems of drug abuse, to use positive engagement to develop as a community, and engaging with lawmakers and family members about the issues of drug use (Derserio, 2012). On a larger scale, Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance and an avid human rights activist, has built an organization that focuses on new drug policies that use science, compassion and human rights as a means to deal with drug abuse (2014). It has also become evident at the international level that the policies in place are ineffective. In the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation Towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UNODC, Mr. Antonio Maria Costa admits that the current policies are flawed. He states, “drugs are not harmful because they are controlled- they are controlled because they are harmful,” and that lifting the current drug policies is not the answer, but reform is necessary to protect public health while combating the world’s crime (UNDOC).
The efforts of DeWayne Barton, Ethan Nadelmann, The Asheville Buncombe Drug Commission and others like them, have shown that drug law enforcement is not the only way. They show that focusing on the criminalization of illicit drug use has had little to no positive impact but has, in fact, caused a multitude of negative socio-economic issues. To combat the prevalence of drug abuse, we will need more people like DeWayne Barton and Ethan Nadelmann. More people who understand that our policies need a paradigm shift and that if we want to make a difference, then we need to focus on the person and not the criminal. We need to de-demonize the drug user and provide positive treatment programs while creating educational campaigns to raise awareness of the issues brought upon by drug abuse. Perhaps one day, enough small steps in the right direction will lead to one giant leap for mankind in our efforts against drugs.
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