End the War on Drugs

October 13, 2015

This commentary is occasioned by the partial legalization of marijuana and government efforts to regulate it. But I’d like to take the occasion to look at the drug problem more broadly.

Let me start with a story. Aside from the time a neuro-opthalmologist put a drop of cocaine in my eye to test for a nerve condition, I have had drugs in my system only once. Shortly after we got married, we were at a party in the Village and were offered Alice B. Toklas brownies. I was too naïve to know what they were but boy they tasted good and I had a few too many. Then my limbs started drifting off into space and I got pretty upset. Plus I was upset with my wife who refused to call the doctor. Once I came out of it and understood what had happened, I wasn’t interested in repeating the nightmare.

In the seventies, we were offered drugs by friends. Having had that experience with the brownies, I was not about to accept their offer. But I had two other thoughts that were and are equally important to me. First, whatever drugs we accepted would undoubtedly have passed through the hands of organized crime, thieves and murderers among them. I was not about to support that pipeline. And I would have put my license as an attorney at stake if anyone had found out.

But, like the ACLU and the NYCLU, I have long supported the decriminalization of drugs.

Decriminalization is partly an opportunity to regulate to prevent drugs being cut or concentrated in dangerous ways. Medical marijuana should give us that opportunity although, at the moment, it will have to be state by state. I would try selling it in state stores the way alcohol is sold in some parts of the country.

Decriminalization is also an opportunity to take some of the money out of the criminal pipeline, to withdraw our financial support for the Mafia and other organized crime enterprises in many parts of the world that supply the American drug habit. And decriminalization will also withdraw some of the money that goes into the financial pipeline for terrorists and terrorist organizations that are also exploiting the drug trade in many parts of the world.

I understand that long term FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, feared FBI agents would be corrupted if they policed the drug trade. Indeed police involvement in the drug trade has been reported in many communities. Decriminalization will cut off that lure to joining the underworld.

Decriminalization would help us address the process of turning people under the influence into hardened criminals. And decriminalization will help us address the negative impact of the criminal justice system on the African-American community. Whatever the reason, whether it’s stereotyping, discrimination, or the fact, as many police chiefs have described, that it’s easier to find drugs on low level users and sellers on the streets than the more lucrative but more hidden traffic into the suburbs, decriminalization will help us deal with the mass incarceration of the African-American community and the damage that does to all of us, both Black and white.

The remedy, the so-called War on Drugs, has been much more harmful than the disease.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 13, 2015.

Dr. King’s Message of Love

January 20, 2015

Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. We are still much too far from a post-racial society. For the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we think of Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Rehnquist Court did its best to chip away, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which the Roberts Court is doing its best to tear up. There was another victory that I’d like to talk about, just a few years after Martin Luther King shared his dream at the Lincoln Memorial.

It often seems like a postscript to Dr. King’s legacy but was actually at its very core. When the NAACP planned its attack on school segregation, they started with graduate schools, racking up a string of victories so that any other decision in Brown would have flatly violated the teaching of a whole group of recent precedents abandoning separation in law school, medical school, graduate school in one state after another. But until Brown they didn’t touch grade school. They had concluded that grade school would be the most inflammatory and most difficult because of southern fear of what they called miscegenation, marriage between whites and Blacks. There was a sense in which worrying about marriage of kids in elementary school rather than adults in graduate school seemed backwards. But they understood the fear and went with it.

Fear of intermarriage was a very big deal with reason. Sociologists have been finding that one of the main ways Americans have been putting stereotypes and prejudices behind them has been intermarriage, not just Blacks and whites, but Jews and Christians, whites and Asians, different white ethnic groups, and now the marriage of gay or lesbian children of straight families, all of us to some degree have been marrying out of our ancestral groups, introducing our families and producing children who celebrate all sides of their heritage. Marriage and intermarriage matter.

Rabbis don’t like Jews to intermarry – they’re afraid to lose another Jew to the assimilated culture. When Jeanette and I married, it was hard to find a rabbi who’d marry us. There are a lot of mixed families in our Temple, creating the loving, open community we love.

In the 1950s Mildred Delores Jeter grew up down the road from Richard Loving in rural Virginia. Richard was a white bricklayer; Mildred a young Black girl. In that part of the state, Blacks and whites often socialized, but didn’t marry. Mildred and Richard weren’t thinking of Dr. King or making a racial statement. They just fell in love, married and wanted to raise a family together. For that they were arrested, jailed, convicted and kicked out of Virginia. They were together until, tragically, Richard was killed in a traffic accident nearly twenty years later.

The year Martin Luther King shared his great dream with us, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their inability to visit family and friends in Virginia. Kennedy sent them to the ACLU whose lawyers brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 the Warren Court gave us the historic decision of Loving v. Virginia, one of its great decisions, establishing the right to marry, and marry without discrimination.

That part of the Civil Rights Movement seems resilient and lasting – we keep meeting, befriending and learning to love each other. The world changes, though slowly. It has always seemed appropriate to me that they were Mildred and Richard Loving. Dr. King’s was a message of love; love needs to run this world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 20, 2014.

The New Jim Crow

July 16, 2013

While coming to record last week’s commentary, I was listening to Michelle Alexander on Alternative Radio. If you haven’t heard her or read her book, The New Jim Crow, I strongly recommend it. Some of us knew the basic facts but she fills in the details and makes the argument brilliantly.

I want to elaborate something implicit in her talk but not fully expressed – what she described is why civil liberties matter, one of the major reasons the ACLU was formed, and why Alexander was an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. Read the rest of this entry »


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