This is a slightly edited transcript of a speech given by Ethan Nadelmann at the NAACP Centennial Conference held at the Manhattan Hilton Hotel in New York on July 13, 2009.*
*The original speech can be viewed by going to www.youtube.com and entering "End the Drug War Now" into the search bar.
Good afternoon to all of you.
Let me begin by saying that the views I hold are held by people who are white, black, brown, yellow, red, and everything in between. They are held by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. They are held by people who have been addicted to drugs, people who love drugs, people who've lost loved ones to drugs, people who have no problem with drugs, people who have been behind bars, and people in law enforcement, and they are opposed by people from all those categories as well. I just want to be clear that this is only a point of view—one to which I hope you will all open your minds and hearts.
When I talk about the harms of the drug war, I am not coming at it, first and foremost, as someone concerned with racial justice. Rather, I am primarily concerned with human rights. As a human rights activist, however, you cannot escape the fact that the war on drugs is not just a human rights issue but a direct assault on racial justice as well.
Just look at the numbers. In the United States today we have less than 5 percent of the world's population, but almost 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. We rank first in the world in the per capita incarceration of our fellow citizens. The Russians and the Belarusians keep huffing and puffing trying to keep up, but they can't do it. We are number one in the world when it comes to locking up our fellow citizens. When it comes to locking up people for drug charges, we went from fifty thousand people in 1980 to over five hundred thousand people today, never mind the hundreds of thousands more locked up on parole or probation violations related to drug offenses. In America, we lock up more people for violating a drug law than all of Western Europe locks up for all charges combined—and they have 100 million more people than we do. Do any of you think that would be possible if the vast majority of the people behind bars in this country were white?
If the vast majority of those people were white, we would not be leading the world in incarceration rates. Something happens in your mind when you see a television program or a photograph of the prison population and see that it is made up of overwhelmingly black and brown men. There's this little thing that clicks and goes, "That's okay, that's right." The movement for reform would be moving a lot faster than it is right now if the vast majority of people being corralled into prisons were white.
When you look at the history of America, you can look from slavery, to Jim CroW, to the war on drugs. No better system has ever been created to imprison millions of people, disproportionately black and brown, to dehumanize them, give them a number, take them away from their homes, put them in remote communities, dissolve their identity, and treat them as second- and third- and fourth-class citizens for the rest of their lives. That is what the war on drugs is doing today.
This has got to change. To change it means struggling with ourselves as well. It is important to remember that the war on drugs is not just a matter of white people putting black people behind bars. The war on drugs that emerged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was a bipartisan struggle and a biracial struggle; the people who supported the original crack powder laws were not just white but black as well; the people who opposed needle exchange programs to stem the spread of AIDS were white and black; the people who bought into drug war hysteria were white and black. That means, quite frankly, that we have to look deep within ourselves and our fears, deep down, and allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable. Only through critical self-examination can we uproot this from American society.
I want each one of you to please think back twenty years, when crack was devastating inner-city communities. Were you the one saying, "Lock 'em up! Put 'em behind bars"? When people were saying that we needed needle exchange programs to stop the spread of AIDS, were you the one saying, "I don't want to give a needle to a junkie, why would I enable their addiction?" Were you the one saying these things, and only now, a few tens of millions of arrests later, do you understand that wasn't the appropriate response?
There is a price to a slow learning curve. When other nations understood what was right twenty years ago, we were slow. The price of our slowness is an incarcerated population that leads the world and hundreds of thousands of people who have died or are now living with HIV/AIDS. Now more than ever, we cannot afford a slow learning curve. We have to understand that no matter how much we hate drugs, the punitive war on drugs is not the answer. Criminalization and the criminal justice system are not answers for what is primarily a health issue. It is always a mistake to call in our oppressors to save ourselves from ourselves.
Twice as many people get busted for marijuana today as was true-twentyfive years ago. The 1.8 million people getting arrested on drug charges each year are disproportionately black. If they had been arresting as many people for marijuana twenty-five years ago as they are today, the man who currently occupies the White House might well have been arrested. Would that man have made it to the White House had he been arrested as a youth? How many people are being derailed, and how much promise wasted, because of our slow learning curve?
When we were ran a ballot initiative in California in 2008 to shift resources from prison and parole to treatment and rehabilitation, Alice Huffman (the director of the NAACP in California) signed onto it. When my organization led the effort to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws in New York, [the new NAACP director] Ben Jealous sent out an alert not just to New York members, but to NAACP's national membership, because he knew those laws were part of a systemic problem. Will you be part of the collective movement to end this war on people?
We can't just tinker around the edges of our ideological roadblock. I repeat, no matter how much you hate drugs, no matter how much you have seen the worst that drugs can do, the war on drugs, the criminal justice system, and the criminalization approach cannot and will not be the right way. It does not make sense to put our limited resources in the hands of the prison-industrial complex, allowing it to absorb a hundred billion dollars a year that should be directed toward treatment, education, health care, and housing.
I hope and I pray that as more reforms arise and as people start talking about drug policy more sensibly, not just giving lip service, that we all recognize a moral obligation to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug policy as much as possible. We are never going to be a drug-free society. There has never been a drug-free society, and there never will be a drug-free society. Our challenge as human beings and communities is to accept that reality and to learn how to live with drugs so that they cause the least possible harm, and in some cases the greatest possible good. Our obligation is to uproot our fears and actively fight for drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.
Thank you very much.