Simple Things/ Lang Kenneth Haynes
The War on ...
Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of a Lang Kenneth Haynes column from February 9, 2012.
A few days ago I listened half-heartedly to a discussion on the failure of the war on drugs. The only thing that was surprising was that we're
still talking about it. In 1969 and 1970, I had the occasion to work as a community center director in East Harlem, New York. If I remember
correctly the prison population on the United States of America was under two million. Heroin was the illegal drug that flowed in the streets
back then. You can come to your own conclusions about the intended and unintended consequences of the drug policy but the fact is that it
didn't work then and it doesn't work now. It takes a while for a new policy to kick in or to show demonstrable results but the United States
drug policy has been around for a long time and the results are not good no matter how the data is presented.
Older mentors told young people not to mess with heroin but the warnings fell on deaf ears largely because they were uttered by adults
who spit and dribbled the words through lips that were pink and broken from consuming the legal street drug - alcohol. The community
center I worked in was in the basement of a church and it appeared that just about everybody in the place was high on something.
Cheap wine. Expensive wine. Rum. Bourbon. Malt liquor. Beer. Heroin. Before you turn up your nose and walk away, think about this for a
second: Is there a chance that you could be an addict if you slam down five martinis before dinner every evening, or snort white
crystalline cocaine instead of swilling cheap wine or smoking crack? What are the consequences to you, your family, your neighborhood,
community and country? What are the costs?
I'd show up for work, at the community center, and ask the whereabouts of a particular kid. A group of young people would stand around
looking at each other before one of them found the nerve to blurt out, "Yo Moose man (Yes. They called me Moose back then) didn't you
hear? He overdosed last night." One drug death a year is one too many. Unfortunately, I found myself in the middle of similar conversations
on a weekly basis. The kids were dying all around me. And they were kids. The young people I'm thinking about, as I write this, were 10
and 11 years old.
Mark Twain — among several others — is one of the people who reportedly said that there are essentially three types of lies: 1) Lies, 2)
Damn lies, and 3) Statistics. I tend to agree so I will not bludgeon you with numbers. Suffice it to say that Black people make up about 13
percent of the population of the United States and about half of the people in the nation's jails and prisons. Black people are more likely to
get stopped by police for many reasons, two of them are housing segregation and the inability to blend into a crowd. I submit to you that if
you were to go into a jail in this country in a town where the Black population is very low (let's say less than 1 percent) — you would guess
that the Black population was far greater than less than 1 percent and your guess would be informed by the proportion of Black people
The term "War on Drugs" came into common usage during the Nixon administration but the posture that underlies the term has been around
for a long, long time. The basic stance is to pummel the adversary into submission whether it makes sense or not. Use force to bring about
the desired outcome. Sure. Innocent people will get swept up along with the guilty but let's let the courts sort that out. Who knows, you
might even get lucky and scoop up some people who would likely have gone to jail or prison anyway. And if you're really lucky some of
you might make more money than the people who hang out on street corners in neighborhoods that you never go to. Damn the torpedoes,
full speed ahead.
President Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with a West African saying that goes something like, "Speak softly but carry a big stick." I'll
take the liberty to change the saying to read, "Yell at the top of your lungs to let your opponent know how big and bad you are." It is my
contention that war is a bad idea whether the consequences are intended or not. Call it anything you like but any policy that starts out in a
fighting mode is bound to fail. There is nowhere to go once you've made up your mind to fight. I am not saying that conflict can always be
avoided. To say such a thing would be naïve or worse. I am saying that if you start out a negotiation with your fists and mind clenched
shut, there isn't anywhere to go from there. There are those who prosper from war and in most cases they are not the people who stand on
the street corners. They are not the people who fill the jails and prisons of this great land. They are not the ones whose sons and daughters
are reduced to cannon fodder to support some cause or other.
By the way, the minute heroin became more difficult to obtain and the cost of the drug became prohibitive, methadone — which was used
to treat heroin addiction — replaced heroin as the #1 illegal street drug. I saw it happen at the community center in East Harlem, New York
40 years ago and it's coming soon to a neighborhood near you wherever you are — if it's not there already. We have the ability to be
clairvoyant by looking at the past instead of the future. Looking at the past can be instructive in that we can see, feel, taste and document
what does not work. The so-called war on drugs does not work.