The movie ‘Devil in a Blue Dress,’ set in the summer of 1948, presented an accurate picture of what many black neighborhoods used to look like. The main character, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, played by Denzel Washington, lives in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
In the movie, Watts is portrayed as a stable, predominantly black neighborhood that featured nice homes with manicured lawns, clean streets in which children could safely play, and intact families.
During the 1930s and 1940s, my mother’s side of the family moved from Louisiana to the South Central section of Los Angeles, seven miles northwest of Watts. At the time, South Central was similar to Watts’ depiction in the movie.
Suffice to say, it was a welcome alternative to life in the Jim Crow South.
Fast forward to 2021 though, and Watts and South Central look nothing like they did in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, they look like just about every other inner city. They’re over-policed, crime ridden areas taken down by drugs and the war to combat them.
However, Watts, South Central, and inner cities across this country can be liberated from the plagues of violence and criminality, but it’s going to take an out-of-the-box approach; drug decriminalization.
On June 17, 1971, then-President Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States.” The next year, Nixon created something called the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE).
The following year, ODALE, along with several other federal drug agencies, were combined into what is now known as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). From that day forward the drug war was on!
To be sure, the War on Drugs was not started with righteous intentions. In fact, it was a political move started for political reasons to reap political benefits.
“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people,” said John Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Nixon.
He continued, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
So, based on the advice of one of his top aides, Nixon started a drug war to eliminate political opposition. A war that costs American taxpayers billions of dollars each year, spawns about 20,000 no-knock raids each year, and basically turns inner city neighborhoods into “occupied territory.”
Even if the War on Drugs was started with the best of intentions, it still would have been destined for failure. Consider the fact that this country has already tried to prosecute a war on drugs, in this case alcohol, under the name Prohibition.
From the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919 to its repeal in December 1933, Prohibition was a demonstrable failure.
Prohibition led to a newly created power center (i.e., organized crime) that gave birth to mob figures like Al Capone and generated untold amounts of crime, destruction, and death across the country.
A similar power center exists today, created by the illegality of controlled substances like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.
The prohibition of these and other controlled substances gave rise to a government-created power center with a black market in drugs as its foundation and the ability to earn millions of dollars per year as its reward– along with the violence necessary to protect it.
If Prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s and 1930s, and the War on Drugs is not working today, it’s time to try the other option in drug decriminalization.
Other countries have seen success in decriminalizing drugs.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs, which meant that possession would no longer be a criminal offense. Rather, drug possession would be an administrative violation, punishable by fines or community service, not prison.
Prior to decriminalization, Portugal had one of the highest overdose death rates in Europe at nearly 80 deaths per million.
Drug decriminalization called drug abusers out of the shadows, leading increasing numbers to voluntarily enter treatment facilities.
The results were telling. Rates of overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses fell dramatically. Ultimately, overdose death rates dropped to three deaths per million, significantly below the European average.
If marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and every other illegal drug were decriminalized, it would remove the government-created power center and the foundation upon which it currently rests.
The “drug game,” with all its violent, life-destroying underpinnings, would eventually be a thing of the past.
Neighborhoods ravaged by the effects of the drug war would, over time, stand a good chance of becoming stable and family-oriented, as well as increasing property values.
In addition, grandfathers and grandmothers could move about freely in their neighborhoods “without fear of being mugged by their grandchildren.”
Moreover, the monetary benefits of decriminalization would be staggering.
Since 1971, the War on Drugs has cost the United States an estimated one trillion dollars. In 2015, the federal government spent $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug related offenses– more than $3.3 billion per year.
State governments spent about $7 billion dollars in 2015 alone to incarcerate individuals for drug-related charges. North Carolina, the state in which I work, spent more than $70 million incarcerating people for drug possession.
The money spent on the War on Drugs at the Federal and State level comes from taxpayers and/or government debt. Funds previously spent on the drug war could be returned to the taxpayer in the form of lower taxes.
Previously over-policed neighborhoods would be demilitarized, small businesses and the jobs that come with them would return, and the standard of living in inner cities across the country would increase.
To be clear, I am not advocating drug use. I do not do drugs. As an ordained minister, I teach anyone who will listen that drug misuse and abuse is something to be avoided at all costs. What I am advocating, however, is an out-of-the-box approach to winning the War on Drugs.
What do we have to lose?