It is really such an honor to be here with all of you. I look out and I see so many faces that I recognize, so many people that I deeply admire, people who have inspired me, whose work has guided me and challenged me in countless ways – (names obscured by applause) — the list could go on and on. People who have made such a remarkable difference in my own life.
I’ve been giving some thought to what I might say here today, how I spend my short time that I have with you. I could spend all of it just singing the praises of the people in this room and celebrating the extraordinary accomplishments, the victories that have been won in recent years, as recently as yesterday.
But I want to be more than a just cheerleader right now. I want to speak candidly as someone who, like many of you, considers myself part of this movement but also as someone who is concerned for its future. Standing here I’m filled with such an odd mixture of overwhelming gratitude and some trepidation.
In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform. There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of extraordinary successes – mind-blowing victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, due in no small part to the brilliant and strategic advocacy of people in this very room. Public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have never been higher – at record highs. Last November marijuana legalization initiatives prevailed in four states, medical marijuana prevailed in another four states.
It seems as though we have reached a tipping point. And yet, at the same time, at the same very moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison. A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that drug overdose deaths totaled over 64,000 last year, a 21% increase over 2015. About 3/4th of all those deaths involved opioids. America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths. And many experts predict that we have not seen the worst of it yet.
Already drug overdose deaths are more numerous than HIV deaths were in 1995 in the first year ever of the AIDS epidemic. Drug overdose deaths last year alone outweighed American fatalities in the entire course of the Vietnam War. And, yes, there is an outcry over the opioid crisis but it’s relatively new considering the magnitude of the crisis. And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation — opioids and crack
The crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today. And yet a literal war was declared on the users of crack – a purely punitive, militaristic war. Today the opioid crisis is much, much worse. And yet there is no wall-to-wall media coverage, demonizing and shaming opioid drug users and dealers. There’s no live TV coverage of drug addicts and dealers rounded up in mass raids. (applause drowned out some words here). And there are few politicians portraying them as people worthy of care and compassion, not as despicable scum of the earth that have to be gotten rid of by any means necessary.
Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why. Whiteness makes the difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion for people struggling with drug addiction.
I want to be clear that I am very glad that the Executive Police Research Forum is actually bragging in a recent report that many police departments are sending officers to the home of addicts to pay them kind visits and invite them to treatment and offer support. But I’m not as optimistic as some of my friends about the future of drug policy.
I’m told that this new-found tolerance and compassion for white users will translate into a permanent ceasefire for the drug war and that the shift in law and policy will ultimately benefit peoples of all races and classes in the long run.
I have my doubts about this. Clearly, the victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have benefitted people of all colors as arrest rates have declined dramatically in many states, even though severe racial disparities still remain. Discriminatory enforcement hasn’t changed much. But at least the total number of people arrested and criminalized has declined. This is a positive development of all peoples of all colors.
No, my concern lies elsewhere. I’m concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories for legalizing marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum. They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an election that was made possible in no small part by deliberate and explicit appeal to white racial resentment and anxiety.
Some have said this is a very strange paradigm – progressive drug policy sweeping the nation at the very same moment that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States and fierce drug warrior is appointed Attorney General. How do we explain this crazy state of affairs?
Yet from where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There is a common denominator underlying both this drug reform victory and the election of Donald Trump. It is called whiteness. Over and over again in American history, this nation has unleashed a wave of punitiveness whenever a drug came to be associated with black and brown people. And then predictably – you can set your watch to it – when the color of drug users and dealers fades to white – our nation suddenly reverses course.
Attitudes change. Policies change. Compassion bubbles to the surface in the public discourse. Numerous historians have documented this unmistakable pattern. And by the same token, throughout our nation’s history, there has always been fierce, the overwhelming backlash against even the appearance of racial progress. Always. You can set your watch to that one, too.
And while some may argue that the racial justice gains of the Obama election were symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, inciting an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the presidential election and the drug policy victories of the last year were solely about race. But at the same time, can we honestly imagine that the drug reform victories of the last year in all those states would have been possible in the midst of the crack epidemic?
Just for a moment try our nation legalizing any drug, of any kind, in the middle of any drug epidemic that was affecting primarily black or brown people. Imagine pot being legalized near the peak of the crack epidemic. And then try to imagine that all the newly legal drug empires that are being launched are being led by young black men with wild Afros and tattoos rather than young rich white men with ponytails and beards.
Drug reform policies became possible in these years because the media was no longer saturated with images of black and brown dealers and addicts. The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, so we as a nation got nicer.
Now that’s not to say that these changes were inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying at all. An enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into those victories. I’m just asking us today to pause long enough to absorb the truth that the white face of medical marijuana in the media, and the white male face of legal pot entrepreneurs, and the white male face of drug users and abusers of the current opioid epidemic, and white face of drug heroes in the media, such as those featured in Breaking Bad, made it possible for mainstream white voters to feel a kind of empathy that was entirely lacking for black and brown folks just twenty years ago.
Again, my point isn’t to minimize these legislative victories in any way. Rather, it is my hope that we will interrogate these victories and consider what they might teach us about the future of our movement.
As I see it, the movement convened right here in this room stands at a critical crossroad. What happens in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the path we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole.
I hope it is not controversial to say that our democracy is in a state of crisis. The gravity of the situation can be overwhelming. And it’s tempting in times like this to narrow our focus and think small. To think narrowly, very, very pragmatically and even defensively about what can be done to advance a single issue in a complex and worrisome political environment.
But I want to challenge all of us here today to think big, to go big – or stay home. Let’s be reckless, throw caution to the winds? Not at all. But I say think big. We must begin to think bigger. Much, much bigger. Beyond drug policy, and consider more carefully how drug policy fits into the bigger picture of American democracy. We must dig deep enough so that our victories truly become truly victories for all of us. All of us. As I see it, any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all.
When my book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was first released, and no one was reading it, I had a meeting with a very influential leader and thinker of drug policy reform. He said to me, “I’ve read your book and I agree with just about everything you say here. But there’s one thing that bothers me. It seems like you’re arguing here that we need to end racism in order to end the War on Drugs. I don’t think so. I think we can win this War on Drugs without ending racism. I don’t think we’re going to end racism in our lifetime and I intend to end the War on Drugs with or without ending racism.
Shortly after Trump was elected, and a drug warrior was appointed attorney general, with his white supremacist attempted a revolution, I sent an email to this individual: “Remember what you said you didn’t have to end racism to end the War on Drugs? What do you think now?”
I was half-joking. I’m not so naïve to think that we are going to end racism just by having better organizing strategies or by waving a magic wand. But I do believe that we must be committed to placing race and racial justice at the very center of the drug policy movement.
Lately, I find that when I talk to drug reformers and say things like that, racial justice must be central to our movement, people nod, and they say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s so right, oh yeah.” And for a while, I was just really encouraged by these platitudes until I started asking some follow-up questions. And then I found that whoever gave this new-found commitment to racial justice was a little thin in practice.
For some advocates, making racial central means quoting a lot of racial disparity data. It means posting to social media the latest, most horrific thing that Donald Trump has said. I’m not a fan of this approach. Nearly all of the available research shows that merely sharing racial disparity data without a great deal of political and social and historical context, and lots of story-telling, only confirm pre-existing racial stereotypes and biases.
There’s a deeper problem lurking here. And the deeper problem has nothing to do with what doesn’t work to change people’s minds. The bigger problem is understanding what does work. People do change their minds when victims of drug policy are white. People do become far more punitive when the face of drugs or crime is black or brown. That’s a fact.
And these facts are not merely inconvenient. The implications are profound. Taken together, these facts mean that so long as the progressive public consensus about drugs is rooted in compassion for white people, the consensus will not last for long. Why? Because sooner or later, the face of drug abuse will change. It always has. No racial group has ever had a permanent monopoly on drug addiction. And the minute the color of addiction changes, that so-called consensus will begin to unravel, and we’ll be back to a full-out war.
Now, this dilemma is not limited to drug policy, of course. In every of public policy, there is the risk that progressive gains that are made with white people in mind will vanish the minute that black and brown people become the primary beneficiaries. Research shows that white people are more generous and forgiving of each other than of those who are conceived as others.
Cognitive science teaches us that they can’t help it most of the time. We are all primed to value and prefer those who seem to us. This is true of whites, for whom centuries of brainwashing have led them to actually believe they are in fact superior.
Mark Mauer, in his excellent book Race to Incarcerate, provides data showing that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse. The nations with the most compassionate or the most lenient criminal justice policies are the most homogeneous. We like to say that diversity is our strength, and it may actually be our Achilles Heel.
Researchers have reached similar conclusions in the public welfare context. The democracies that have the most generous social welfare programs – universal health care, cheaper free college education, generous maternity leave, on and on – are generally the most homogeneous. Socialist countries like Sweden and Norway are overwhelmingly white. But when those nations feel threatened by immigration, by so-called border invasion, public support for so-called generous public welfare begins to erode. We see this quite sharply.
It seems that it is an aspect of human nature to be tempted to be more punitive, to be less generous to those we view as others. So when a nation like the United States, where we are just a few generations away from slavery and Jim Crow, where inequality is skyrocketing due to global capitalism, where we are now a nation in which no racial group is a majority; a central question we must face in this movement is whether ‘We the People’ are capable of overcoming our basic instinct to respond more harshly, or more punitively with less care and concern, for people we view as different.
Can we evolve? Can we evolve morally and spiritually – to learn to care for each other across lines of race and class, gender and sexuality, across all forms of difference? In times like these, clearly, these questions are pressing in the Age of Trump. These are also the very questions that we must be asking regardless of who is president.
On the home page of the Drug Policy Alliance website, the first sentence of the mission statement says, “We believe drug policy should be based on science, health, and human rights; not fear and stigma.” I read that mission statement as challenging us as a nation to alleviate each others’ suffering, rather multiplying it, to respond with reason and compassion rather than fear and stigma, and to honor basic human rights. It’s a mission statement that points to something bigger, much bigger, than just drug policy reform.
The state of our democracy depends in no small part on what happens in spaces like this. Whether and how we learn to build movements that re-imagine ways of seeing and relating to one another, will determine the future not only of drug policy but the future of our democracy. And, in so many ways, the fate of the global community hangs in the balance.
Now the good news is that drug policy presents incredible opportunities for reimaging what our democracy and can and should be We have the opportunity in this movement to educate people of all colors about how our racial history defines us all.
White folks today would have a much better public health infrastructure and more treatment options available to them if it wasn’t for the birth of a racist drug war. Many white folks are suffering and dying today because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind. Thousands of immigrants are being locked up, warehoused in private detention centers that would not even exist today but for the anti-black racism of the drug war.
We have the opportunity to demonstrate through our movement how the same forms of racially divisive politics that helped to birth the drug war and mass incarceration are playing out all over again in strikingly similar fashion, this time leading to a system of mass deportation playing out on a scale rarely seen in human history. We can do that through this movement.
Few issues, few causes, few movements provide a better opportunity to practice reparations. We have a lot to learn. As a nation, we don’t have a lot of practice at repairing the historical harm that has been caused to poor people and people of color. But we can get started in a real way in this movement, right here and right now.
And I think it’s fair to say that this movement, as much as any other, provides an extraordinary opportunity for us to practice with one another and with the communities we serve what it means to show care and compassion across lines of race, class, and difference. People of all races and backgrounds are losing loved ones to this drug war, some to fatal overdoses, others to addiction, and millions more to prison and jail cells.
Finally, this movement gives us a chance to talk about capitalism, our culture of ruthless competition and individualism, its possible role in creating so much of the despair that makes the United States the world leader in drug addiction as well as incarceration. By interrogating capitalism in the context of drug policy reform we can also ask important questions such as: what really does a fair market look like when some groups are denied access to markets in this new business? And when, if ever, should the free market be trusted, particularly when dangerous drugs are the commodity?
These essential questions regarding race, capitalism, economic justice, racial justice, and reparations are all bound up in drug policy reform today, making this movement extremely fertile ground for beginning to reimagine the kind of democracy and global community we aim to co-create.
None of this will be easy, and I won’t pretend to have the answers to many of the most vexing questions. But what I do know is that simply citing racial disparity statistics and retweeting racism won’t build a sturdy foundation for a truly transformative movement. Nor will efforts to capitalize on the empathy for white folks in the midst of an unprecedented drug epidemic.
If we choose to think big, really big, and deliberately align our drug policy with the larger work of building a thriving multiracial, multiethnic democracy that truly honors the lives of all of us, a world of possibilities begins to emerge. Suddenly we’re not just fighting for isolated drug policy reform battles anymore, we’re steadily building the foundation for a new way of life, a new way of life together.
As we go down this revolutionary road – and it is a revolutionary road – we’re going to have to build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-gender, grassroots movement from the bottom up. We are going to have to learn to reach across the lines that have divided us, not just for decades, but for centuries. We’re going to have to learn to listen to each other, argue with each other, and work together to build this sturdy foundation. We’re going to have to learn to listen and accept leadership from the people who have been most harmed.
No matter where you find yourself in this work today, I hope that you will eventually come to see this beautiful, vibrant, raucous movement as being about much more than drug policy. It can, if we let it, become a movement that is fundamental to the remaking of our democracy.
I hope and pray that one day when the history of this movement is written, that it will be said that we, those of us in this room today, vowed to do more than win kinder, fairer, more compassionate drug policy. Instead, we committed ourselves to a revolution, to placing racial justice at the center of our world, and committed ourselves with all the courage we can muster to build a New America.
Transcribed by Alexander E. Sharp
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy
NOTE: Some words lost to applause as the speech was taped.