Ending the War on Drugs: It’s time to have the conversation

History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush
, the video we did with dream hampton, Jay Z and Molly Crabapple, has officially won best nonprofit video of the year!!! Thank you to all who voted and shared!! Be with me for a moment as I share some thoughts about why this was important:

Winning this award helps us center the critical importance of ending the drug war–for those of us who value human rights, freedom, justice, compassion and dignity. Make no mistake. The drug war started by Nixon in 1971, was a direct response to the civil rights movement. Period.

Ending the drug war is not only about ending a set of intricate series of policies rooted in racism, xenophobia and false morality. It’s about transforming a way of thinking that would even allow those policies to be enacted and thrive. That way of thinking has helped make us the world’s largest incarcerator. It has provided a disturbingly large range of people cover when police kill our kids and our elders. It has allowed us to shrug as our own neighbors and family members struggled and died. It has destroyed families, ripping children from their parents’ arms. It has created a created a nation evermore deeply committed to the horrific, really, the demonic, notion that some lives are valuable and others wholly expendable.

Our movement is a big tent and as such we hold space for everyone but unlike many other movements for justice and peace, we also hold space the most disenfranchised, the most harmed: the poorest, the darkest, the criminalized, those least afforded civil rights because of where they were born or the gender they identify/don’t identify with or the person they love–and of these groups of people, those additionally disparaged because of their involvement with drugs. Our work is noble and life-saving because our work speaks for the least of these, for people often rejected by their very families and scapegoated by all of society.

As soon as it’s said that someone uses or sells drugs, all other questions seem to fall away. Did they actually harm anyone else? If so, how and what’s a way to respond to that harm that restores all to whole? Was that person themselves a target of harm? How does that factor in the equation? Since every society in recorded history has used drugs, what is the way to respond to that without hurting people? What keeps people alive and safe????? These are questions even the progressives among us have sometimes shirked, but it’s time to have the conversation.




(Image and Video Credit: YouTube / Drug Policy Alliance)

Virginia’s war on women of color

Earlier this week the Virginia House of Delegates refused to restore the rights of nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society … again. Governor Robert F. McDonnell had made re-enfranchisement a priority of his final year in office. The Governor spoke compellingly of “a nation that believes in redemption and second chances.” His Republican confreres in Richmond were not impressed.

Virginia is one of four states that permanently bars felony offenders from voting or running for office. At present, only the Governor can restore those rights, and that takes a long time, a great deal of work, and, not insignificantly, the commitment of a Governor who thinks it’s worth the time and effort. Most don’t.

In Virginia, as elsewhere, the disenfranchisement of former felons stems from, and adds to, centuries-old histories of racial and ethnic exclusion, oppression, and State violence. Approximately 378,000 Virginians, or 6.8 percent of the Commonwealth, fall under the `felony’ ban. This lifelong ban affects one of every five African Americans in Virginia. That’s no accident. That’s public policy.

These numbers are particularly noxious when one recalls that sixty percent of Virginia felony convictions do not merit jail time, and many are for nonviolent offences.

The lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans immediately, and on communities of color, more generally. In recent years, however, it has also been a weapon in a war against women of color.

The so-called war on drugs has targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws. These laws basically catch women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. The women often, perhaps usually, receive extraordinarily harsh sentences. In Virginia, the case of Santra Lavonne Rucker is illustrative. Her boyfriend was thought to be a major dealer, in Virginia and New York. Rucker was charged with him, as an accomplice, and convicted, despite what many think was flimsy evidence of her actual involvement. But here’s the kicker. Rucker was sentenced to life, lives actually, in prison. Despite overwhelming evidence that, at most, she was a bystander, she was sentenced as a major kingpin in a statewide conspiracy. Santra Lavonne Rucker is still waiting to see the light of day.

Malinda Jenkins, of Lynchburg, Virginia, discovered that, thanks to drug conspiracy laws, absolutely ordinary everyday interactions between intimate partners can result in a narcotics prosecution. Jenkins was brought in with her boyfriend and others. Despite the agents’ testimony that they had never witnessed her or knew of her having any relationship to any drug deals, Jenkins was convicted with the whole crew. On appeal, her conviction was reversed because there was no evidence. It wasn’t insufficient evidence. It was nonexistent evidence.

These are just two cases, but they speak to the last thirty years of the war on drugs and its impact, nationally and in Virginia. In Virginia, being convicted of a drug offense can mean a lifelong ban on welfare benefits as well as a lifelong ban on voting. For women and their children, the ban on welfare has meant an impossible life. This has particularly affected Virginian women of color. That’s no accident. That’s public policy.

Since 1990, Virginia has had one of the highest increases in time served by prisoners and keeps people in prison for longer than most states. This is true for those convicted of nonviolent as well as violent offenses. Only recently has the State, with the establishment of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, begun to address the possibility of diversion and alternative sentencing. As is so often the case, the Commission was a result of prison overcrowding in the Commonwealth. Nationally, prison overcrowding has often resulted in men being released much earlier than women for exactly the same offense. The State simply needed the men’s beds more than the women’s.

The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission applies a point system to each prisoner to establish `risk’ of recidivism. For drug and fraud offenses, women are deemed a much, much better `risk’ than men, nine times better. For larceny, men are a somewhat better risk, about 1.5 times better. In December 2012, these numbers translated as follows: 635 drug cases for review; 951 fraud cases; 185 larceny cases. In the overwhelming number of cases, then, women are a much better prospect for anywhere but behind bars. That’s according to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

It’s time to return the right to vote to those who have paid their debt, especially when much of that debt is the result of legerdemain. It’s time to stop the war on communities of color. It’s time to stop the war on women of color. Do it now, Virginia.


(Photo Credit: Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos/Slate)

Women haunt the War on Drugs

Yesterday, June 17, 2011, Dan Pfeiffer, White House Director of Communications, was asked, directly and repeatedly, “Is there a war on women?”

Of course, he did not answer, but his non-answer is all the answer one needs.

Especially when one considers that yesterday, June 17, 2011, marked the fortieth anniversary of the War on Drugs. But that was yesterday.

Today is June 18, 2011, and so begins the forty-first year of the campaign against women, called the War on Drugs. As part of the forty years of the war on drugs, women have become the fastest growing prison population, nationally, globally, and probably in your neighborhood. The forty-year long and ongoing `spike’ was no accident and was altogether predictable, and was predicted. There have been calls this week to end the global War on Drugs and the national War on Drugs, but few of those calls have noted that the War on Drugs has been an explicit frontline in the war on women.

The mass incarceration that is the War on Drugs, and its outsourcing and privatization, are one part of the larger War on Women. Women of color suffer higher rates of incarceration, for often minor offenses. All women suffer lack of women’s health services in prison. Women in some states are still being shackled in childbirth. Women are dying of thoroughly treatable illnesses. More than half of female inmates report having been sexually or physically abused prior to imprisonment. The vast majority of women prisoners are living with mental illnesses, and there’s no one to care for them. Women suffer isolation from family and community more often than men. The post prison conditionalities practically assure women will return to prison.

The War on Drugs has targeted women, and women have driven the campaigns against the War on Drugs and the larger War on Women.

But, as the soldiers sing at the very end of Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War, thirty years of war in never enough:

“The war moves on but will not quit.
And though it last three generations,
We shall get nothing out of it.
Starvation, filth and cold enslave us.
The army robs us of our pay.
But God may come down and save us:
His holy war won’t end today.”

Today, June 18, 2011, by Brecht’s generational calculation, the fifth generation of the War on Drugs front in the War on Women moves forward and moves deeper inward. Is there a War on Women? Yes, yes there is.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images) (Art Credit: Melanie Cervantes)

Who pays for the rule of law? Who will pay?

Birtukan Mideksa is currently being held in Kaliti Prison, in Ethiopia. Remember her name, Birtukan Midekas, and remember Kaliti Prison. There will be a test on prison geography and another on prisoners, with special attention to women prisoners. Women prisoners aren’t only in prison, however. Consider Mitmita. She’s an Ethiopian human rights activist. Mitmita is not her name. She can’t write in her own name. Reading Prespone Matawira’s series on Zimbabwe, I’ve been thinking of the anonymous and pseudonymous women, those one knows about, those completely obscured, in the shadows, disappeared. How many named and unnamed are there, officially or existentially political, imprisoned and confined women, in Ethiopia, on the continent, globally? Why do we know some names and not others? How many are hidden under or within, how many are blurred and waiting a proper reading, a proper enunciation? For every Prespone, for every Mitmita, for every Birtukan Mideksa, for every Jestina Mukoko, how many go unheeded, unrecognized? What becomes of their lives and stories? How much of silence, shadows, blurs is gendered? How do these women, and these women’s issues, mark a border between human rights and women’s rights? How is that border different from the militarized U.S. – Mexico borderlands, that actually extend across Central America, that home sweet home in which women are trapped in the transnational household, and how are they identical?

Recently, in Tanzania, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs suggested a review of the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, SOSPA, because the sentences were too severe. Women’s and feminist activists protested the statement and decried the incompetence underlying its reasoning. Between 2006 and 2007, Salma Maoulidi conducted a study of Zanzibari attitudes towards sexual violence: “sexual violence continues to be viewed more as a moral crime rather than as a legal crime. It is thus not surprising that about 34 per cent of respondents consider sexual crimes as private issues. Only 16 per cent think that it is a criminal offence…. only 50 per cent of functionaries interviewed indicated using the Penal Decree in matters concerning GBV, the remaining 31 per cent used religious laws, and 18 per cent used medical guidelines when dealing with GBV cases. The study found knowledge of laws related to GBV to be very low in communities. Over 65 per cent of individuals interviewed were not aware of any law related to GBV. Largely, local customs and religious law are used to solve GBV matters.”

Moral crime, Legal crime. Human rights. Women’s Rights. What does it mean to categorize, to differentiate and perhaps by so doing to make some offenses more equal than others?

In Norway, a Muslim woman police officer requests permission to wear her hijab as part of her uniform, and all hell breaks loose. Is this the hell of human rights or of women’s rights? In Nigeria, a bill is passing through parliament that would further criminalize same sex  relationships and associations. Is this moral criminalization or legal criminalization?In Dar es Salaam, a culture of silence prevails for lesbian women. Is this the silence of morality or of legality?

Women are imprisoned, jailed, confined. In the U.S. almost 3 million children have their parents in jail. This occurs at a period of escalating incarceration of women, most of whom are Black or Latina, two thirds of whom are mothers of young children. What happens to those children? Who cares? Not the State. The State cares about war, war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror. They’re all wars on women. Women with names, women with pseudonyms. In Quito, Ecuador, as all over the world, women know that the war on drugs is a war on women.

In Tanzania, distinguishing between the moral and the legal is killing women. In the United States as well, where women immigrants in detention are dying for health care. Women are flat out denied or have to wait ridiculously long times for any sort of gynecological care, mammography and breast health care, any sort of prenatal or postnatal care. It’s a gruesome list, indeed, and women are targeted as women. And services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence? “ICE policy fails to comprehensively address the needs of survivors of violence.” Au contraire. Inaction is a policy, non-policy is a policy. If rape during border crossing is `routine’ and routinely unreported, and if those, mostly women, who have suffered sexual violence during their journeys across borders and across streets, at work and at home, if there is no address, is that moral criminalization or legal criminalization?  Human rights or women’s rights? Which state actually cares? Not the United States, not if you’re an `immigrant woman’, certainly not if one recalls that “immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States.”

The U.S. immigration detention complex is a black hole. “Victoria Arellano, a 23-year-old transgender woman from Mexico, was detained at ICE’s San Pedro Facility in May 2007. Arellano was suffering from AIDS though not exhibiting symptoms. In detention, her condition deteriorated because she was not given access to the antibiotics she needed.  According to The Los Angeles Times, her requests to see a doctor were ignored by facility staff. Other detainees dampened towels to reduce her fever and created makeshift trash cans from cardboard boxes to collect her vomit. Only after a strike and civil disobedience by detainees in the facility did staff take her to the infirmary. Arellano died two days later, after two months in detention, due to an AIDS-related infection.” Women, and children, in shackles. Transgender women violated every which way.

Nomboniso Gasa says all political prisoners in Zimbabwe must be freed now. Furthermore, the situations and conditions, and dreams and dignity, of women must be addressed: “All of the crises affect women more severely. One important issue is the widespread use of rape as a political weapon. And there has recently been a noticeable change in the way security forces relate to women. When Jestina Mokoko was arrested she was in only a nightdress. She asked if she could get dressed before she was taken but security denied her the right to her dignity by not allowing her to change clothing or take her female medication with her. And of course widespread shortage of food affects women more because they are always the last to eat. Even though they forage more food, after the men and the children eat it is the women’s turn, but by then there is nothing left.” The conditions in Zimabwe’s prisons are dire.

Across the United States, states are relaxing sentencing guidelines and softening drug laws. When Tony Papa, a victim of the Rockefeller drug laws, was finally released, he co-founded Mothers of the NY Disappeared. Now he feels truly released, and can exhale freely, if with a lingering sense of disbelief. So, the 70s at last may be laid to rest: “Nearly 40 years after the Rockefeller laws launched America down the disastrous road to wholesale incarceration, a more sensible and nuanced approach to drug sentencing is starting to take centre stage.” Where are the women in this account, in this relief program?

The rule of law targets many: drug users, sex workers, lesbians, immigrants, Muslims, activists, women. Everywhere. These laws have driven the hyperincarceration rates of women, in the U.S. and everywhere. The rule of law is a war zone. The laws change, they may be gone, but nothing changes until women’s names, bodies, lives are brought into the light of day. How many more stories, how many more articles, are required before that action is taken, before the war on women is acknowledged and addressed? Who pays for the rule of law? Women. Who will pay? There’s the question.

(Photo Credit: Ethiopia Forums)