One Of The Most Brilliant Ways Ever Invented To Discriminate Based On Skin Color? The War On Drugs.

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The biggest takeaway? The war on drugs has failed, and worse, it's changed the "justice" system into the most racist thing since apartheid in South Africa. Not kidding.

(I'm not going to do the "at 2:00, he blows you away, at 4:44, blah blah blah" thing. You'll seriously just want to watch this all the way through.)

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Gabriel Sayegh: Hi Binghamton. How are you all doing today? Good. This is really great to be here. The hosts of the program have been very gracious and it's been awesome to be in Binghamton even though it's cold. I'm looking at my stopwatch here. 

We're in an interesting time in the United States when we're talking about drugs. We're actually at a moment that presents a unique opportunity to change the way that we've done things, and to move into a future where we can do things very different. Across the country, drug laws are changing, attitudes are changing. We've got marijuana prohibition that is now an open source of discussion. Two states have legalized Marijuana fully; Colorado and Washington. There's twenty states that have medical marijuana laws. 

But it's going beyond that. States are questioning their drug laws right now and even in the federal government and our President and the Attorney General have said, "we've got to do something about this war on drugs, we've got to do something about mass incarceration." 

What are we gonna do? It's an important question for us to ask because so much of the society we live in today has been shaped by what we've done. So before we can go forward, we should at least understand where it is that we are, and how it is that we got here. 

This is a really interesting time for me to be giving a presentation like this because twenty years ago this spring is when I first started using methamphetamine. I grew up in a rural area of northern California, farm town community. One of the other speakers knows right where I lived. We lived in towns next to each other. And the community that I lived in had working class people and  poor people and some middle class folks. But people used drugs just like across the rest of the country. People used alcohol and tobacco and marijuana mostly. Those are the most prevalent used drugs. But they also used things like cocaine, they used pills, opiates, psychedelics and methamphetamines. 

Now, the evidence that we have on drug use is very interesting, and I saw it play out in my town. Most of the people, and certainly the adults, who used drugs did so in a way that we might say was responsible. They got up and went to work, they took care of their kids, they raised families, they contributed  to their community, maybe they came home at night and smoked a joint or had a beer or some wine or something else, but they were responsible in their lives. 

And then there was a smaller number of people for whom their drug use was a very serious issue for them, it was a problem. People with full blown addiction. People who couldn't get their life together. Where their drug use was creating a profound problem for them. The doctor and writer, Gabor Mate, says that most addictions can be traced back to trauma and abuse. And he said that all addictions can be traced back to some kind of pain. 

And that was certainly true for me at eighteen. I had witnessed and experienced quite a lot of violence in my community and my family. I was estranged from my family, living on my own. I was trying to graduate high school. I was having a tough time. I got kicked out of the main high school for fighting and getting in trouble and showing up drunk a lot. I was sent to the school where they send the kids that are largely known as the throwaway kids. And I needed to deal with this pain in a way that made me feel whole. I had a lot of pain. And I didn't know how to deal with that. I wasn't equipped with the skills to know what to do.

Now I had been drinking for a while and I smoked cigarettes, which I loved, but when I started using methamphetamine I found two things: one was a feeling of euphoria that I enjoyed a great deal. The second was the pain that I experienced felt more distant and that made me feel powerful. It gave me a sense of control in a way that I'd never really had before. 

Now I was holding down two jobs at the time living on my own and going to high school and I thank goodness finished high school by the skin of my teeth, but I didn't have a path to go on that felt like it had much meaning to it. I wasn't a college bound kid, so that didn't ever seem like an option to me. I wasn't gonna go to the military. There wasn't a lot of structure in my life and I was using methamphetamine and my primary concern was to make sure that I didn't come into contact with the pain that I felt, so I kept using. And as I used more, my tolerance increased and I needed to increase the dosage rates and as I increased the dosage rates I was spending more of my money on meth and as I did that I was spending more of my time with people that were using and as I did that I found that I was spending less time with people who weren't. 

And after a while, this just got dull in some way. I didn't enjoy it anymore. The euphoria was long gone and the pain kept knocking at the door. I couldn't get it far enough away from me and I thought I could keep using to do that, but that wasn't going to work. What was I going to do? I didn't know. I thought about treatment, but the only thing I really knew about treatment at the time was that movie stars went to these thirty day rehab centers in Malibu or Aspen and I was certainly not a movie star. Now I knew about N.A. and A.A. and I had checked that out but it just really wasn't for me. I thought about going to the doctor maybe, but like millions of Americans I didn't have insurance and so that seemed out of reach. I knew some people who had gone to treatment or other kinds of programs like it, but those people were all in court mandated programs.They'd all been arrested and gone to jail or prison. I was certainly not trying to get myself arrested. I didn't know what to do.

The interesting thing about drug use and the data that we have about it is that the majority of the people who have problematic use or full blown addictions actually stop without any formal treatment. That doesn't mean that people who do get treatment are somehow less than or whatnot, but it just means that that's what the body of evidence tells us. Most people stop without any formal treatment. But they do do something else. They find something that provides them a sense of self respect, value, dignity. Maybe they go to school. Maybe they start a family. Maybe they get a job. 

That's what happened for me. I knew I needed to get out of the place that I was in. I decided that I would try community college. I moved hundreds of miles away to try that out. I was terrible at going to school at first, but I got out of that space and I was able to find my ground, find my footing and sort of identify what my north star was. 

And after awhile I began to ask questions about that experience. Why was it that I couldn't find anything in my home town to help me? Why was it that I felt so shameful talking about my experience with using methamphetamine with people in my life. Why did I feel like I couldn't bring it up without people looking at me funny? Why did I feel like I had made a mistake on my own and couldn't figure out what it was? Did I miss something? Was there something local that I wasn't looking in to? And what about my community and the people in my community and my family who needed assistance, where were they gonna go? 

That question has driven me for the last twenty years to try to find out what was going on. I start asking questions about drugs in this country and you start asking questions about drug policy and if you ask questions about drug policy, you have to talk about the War on Drugs. 

Now the history of the War on Drugs is long, longer than we can get into here. But an important chapter in the modern era begins in nineteen seventy one when Richard Nixon says we're gonna declare a war on drugs. Drug abuse is public enemy number one. Wars are not fought against inanimate objects. They're fought against people. And that war really became animated, and we got a sense of what it was going to look like right here in New York in nineteen seventy three. Nelson Rockefeller, who had long supported treatment, said, "treatment doesn't work, we've tried it. Social programs don't work, we've tried that. The only thing that's gonna work is to get tough, put people in prison." And that's what they did. They passed the Rockefeller drug laws here in the state of New York, the harshest drug laws in the country. Mandatory prison terms for even first time drug offenses, even just possession. Fifteen years to life, you gotta go in.

Other states adopted this approach. And that train had left the station. By the time Reagan comes into office, in nineteen eighty, states across the country had replicated the Rockefeller drug laws in their own jurisdictions. We're gonna get tough! We're gonna have a war! You're gonna use drugs? We're gonna get you and put you in prison so you better stop. 

Now Reagan relaunched the War on Drugs, and as he did so he had something that Nixon didn't. He had a national infrastructure at the state based level ready to move that war forward. Reagan puts more money into building prisons, more courts, more police. He says that if you're using drugs you're un-American. Nancy Reagan says that we need to make drug use intolerable and the people who use it intolerable and she launches the Just Say No program D.A.R.E. Now that was in the eighties and I was in elementary school. I am a D.A.R.E. graduate. I actually won the sixth grade Just Say No essay contest for my district. I was very pleased with that. 

But subsequent administrations followed suit. Bush one, Clinton, all continued this War on Drugs. Bush two. And so you get to the point today where you have two point three million people incarcerated in jails and prisons at the federal, state and local levels and seven point five million people under correctional control. They're either incarcerated, on parole or on probation. I do this work a lot and I tend to believe that we can't fully comprehend what these numbers mean because they are so big and they are so outrageously disproportionate to anything else that's going on in the rest of the world. 

You can see that the impact the drug war had here by looking at the explosion of incarceration. This is just state prisons. This doesn't even account for jails. But you can see from nineteen twenty five all the way until the early seventies it was roughly steady the number of people we had in prison. And all of the sudden it explodes right there with the drug war. 

Now to be clear about this, what's happening in the U.S. is very different than what's happening in the rest of the world. Through this process we've become the world's number one jailer. And in fact we've after forty years, one trillion dollars, forty five million arrests, we have built a system of mass incarceration. We have built a system that is easier for many people to find the services that they need through the criminalization system than through regular social service systems. The largest drug treatment provider in the State of New York is the prison system. One of the largest mental health treatment facilities in the country is Cooke County jail. I think we can all agree that among the many things that prisons and jails are, something that they are not is a treatment facility or a mental health facility. But that's what it is that we're doing here. 

One point six million people arrested for drug offenses, the vast majority of those are for possession and roughly half of that one point six million is for marijuana alone. We incarcerate more people for drug offenses in the United States then the European Union incarcerates for all crimes combined and they have a hundred million more people than we do. We're doing something here that's never been done in the history of the world.

Now, if we did this and we had outcomes worth pointing to and saying hey, this is fantastic, that's one thing. But we don't We've done nothing to the addiction rate in this country. It's remained relatively stable this entire time. Because remember, we weren't going to deal with addiction. We launched a War on Drugs, which is a war on people. So we built with this trillion dollars a system of incarceration the likes of which the world has never seen. 

And now we're in a situation where people understand that they could get in a lot of trouble when they call for help. Accidental drug overdoses have now overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. What's really tragic about this is that nearly every single overdose death is preventable. Most people if they're with someone when someone overdoses do no call for help. Do you know why? There's a lot of data on this, it's very interesting. They're afraid of getting a ride in the cop car instead of a ride in the back of an ambulance if they call 911. That is a reasonable fear in a country that has spent the last forty years locking people up for drug offenses. 

But that's not the only problem that we have. The racial disparities associated with these practices are egregious, they're ugly, they're indefensible, they're inhumane, they distort our democracy, they create a scenario where scholars like Michelle Alexander say, "The Drug War is the new Jim Crow." She says, "You cannot understand racial disparities in the United States today unless you go back and connect it to slavery." That you had slavery and then you had the Jim Crow system that was dismantled by the Civil Rights revolution and then that system transmogrified into what she calls the new Jim Crow. 

If you want to understand a little bit about how this looks, you look at marijuana arrests because marijuana's the most widely used illicit substance in the country. A hundred million people have tried it including a number of our current and recent presidents. Maybe many of you. The usage rates for marijuana are roughly equal racial and ethnic categories. There's not a lot of variation. And yet you can see here, this is from a report that the ACLU did, that the arrest rates are very, very different. And if you want to look even deeper into this, you can see that in every major city in the nation, arrest rates of black people for marijuana possession are higher and sometimes dramatically higher than they are for whites. Remember usage rates are roughly equal and this is possession, these aren't sales. Those are roughly also equal I should note, but for possession, that's what we're talking about here.

Now when you look at New York City a very interesting thing happens. We do a lot of work in the city trying to address the marijuana arrest issue both in New York City and around the state because there's more marijuana possession in New York State then any other state. When you dig down into the usage data, interesting things come out. So while drug use is roughly equal across racial categories, when you look at, say, eighteen to twenty five year old white males, or males and look at black an Latino and Hispanics, white males are far more likely to be using marijuana then are Hispanics or blacks. And yet in New York City, roughly eighty five percent of the people who are arrested for possession are black and Latino. But those numbers aren't only in New York City. Anywhere you go in this state including here in Broome County and Binghamton, you'll see these types of disparities. 

This is a huge problem. This has lead to a destruction of communities across this country that we're not yet talking about. This has created a scenario where you have laws that are applied differently to different people based on the color of their skin. You know where else they did that? Apartheid South Africa. And I don't mean to be hyperbolic here, but the problem that we face is severe. What if we were to incarcerate white people at the same rate that we do black folks. White folks are incarcerated, there's about seven hundred and fifty thousand white people in prison and jails right now. There's about eight hundred and ninety thousand black folks. But the rates are different. The white rate is three hundred and eighty, for black folks it's two thousand two hundred and seven. If we were to incarcerate white people at the same rate we did black folks, there would be four point three million white people in prison and I can assure you that I would probably be one of them.

I'm not making light of that. I'm saying that in my life, I've come in to contact with enough of the criminal justice system, including during my years of meth use, and I made it out of that without getting funneled into this system. I'm fairly certain that I would had we been treating things equally. Clearly this is not the kind of equal outcome that you want to pursue. 

So where do we go from here? In this new moment, as laws are changing across the country, as they're changing across the world, as there's a new opportunity to ask questions about how we deal with drugs, we have an opportunity to stray the course so to speak. We don't have to do things the old way. 

The first thing that we should do is have a health based approach. We should recognize what we've been doing for the last forty years is a criminalization based approach that hasn't worked. We've seen some of the outcomes there. We should have a health based approach. And we should begin by de-criminalizing all drug possession. They did it in Portugal over the course of the last twelve. They've had fewer overdose fatalities, fewer transmissions of blood-borne illnesses, more people gaining access to services and treatment, a drop in drug related crime. But the most important thing to me is that they had a system in place where they have people coming forward saying, "I no longer feel stigmatized. I no longer feel like a criminal. I've got a problem and I feel like I can talk about it with my family and my neighbor and my doctor without feeling like I'm a monster." 

The second thing that we should do is put together a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the legacy of mass incarceration in the United States. Particularly the legacy of the impact upon communities of color and specifically the impact on black communities. We cannot just go ahead and start reforming laws and not account for the fact that for forty years we've been doing something that has lead to disproportionate outcomes and we didn't do anything about it and that those outcomes, people with criminal records, people with longstanding rap sheets, people where their father has gone off to prison and that's happened in entire communities where nobody's got a father anymore because they're all in jail, that has generational consequences. It's the reason why Michelle Alexander say it's the new Jim Crow. It's the reason why you have to look for something like apartheid to find something that's even remotely comparable. 

The final thing is that instead of Nancy Reagan's Just Say No, we need to Just Say Know. We need to know more about drugs. There is a lot of data that we have about what works and what doesn't work, but we don't tend to put that into play when it comes to making policy. Here in Broome County and across the state of New York, here's a problem with heroin use. We've heard a lot about it. I see a lot of the stories saying, "There's a heroin scourge, there's a heroin problem, we gotta do something about this." I never see in the newspapers for instance the one thing that could do to actually help people, which is to say, "Hey, don't do heroin, but if you do, don't mix it with other drugs because it's far more likely that you're going to OD and die that way. If you're gonna use heroin, make sure that you use with other people and those folks have Naloxone nearby so that they can bring you out of an overdose in the event that you go into one. 

We need to understand that people are gonna use drugs whether we like it or not. And a lot of people use it because drugs bring great pleasure and joy for some people. And no doubt, drugs bring a great deal of harm to some people. But we need to create policies that allow us to establish a baseline so that we're treating people like human beings and not monsters, that if somebody does have a problem, we can do what Gabor Mate says. He says, "Don't ask about what the addiction is, ask about why the pain." And if we can figure out the pain that drives a lot of the worst of our addictions in our communities, we can likely figure our way out of this mess and create a future where everybody has equal access to the things that bring themselves dignity and respect and if they fall into a situation where they are having an addiction problem, then we don't treat them like an other, that we don't treat them like a monster, but instead we say, "why the pain?" And figure out how to get them back up on their feet. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

This clip is by TEDx Talks/TEDx Binghamton University. The speaker is Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York. See more from him on The Huffington Post. Find him on Twitter and check out the Drug Policy Alliance on Facebook.

Apr 15, 2014

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