Race and Public Policy in the United States

Race and Public Policy in the United States

I was an undergrad at the University of Nevada when the Black Lives Matter movement first began to take shape. I didn’t have a deep understanding of race in the United States. I generally thought that since we didn’t use racial slurs directly toward minorities in public and since there were not any visibly active anti-minority groups and movements in the town where I grew up, that racism was over in the country, and no longer contributed to the inequalities between racial groups in America. Of course, I was very wrong.

 

At a certain point, our country stopped addressing race head on. Policies meant to specifically keep black people out of political power, separate from white spaces, and intended to limit black economic advancement were removed from the books across the country. What we refer to as Jim Crow laws were struck down, however they were never replaced with laws that would explicitly help the black people who had previously been harmed by public policy. What is more, our nation seemed to decide that if we couldn’t have laws directly targeting a racial minority in a negative manner, then we couldn’t have laws explicitly targeting race in any way, even if the laws sought to undue previous injustice and help advance real equality and equity.

 

The result was not a race neutral utopia where public policy was equal for everyone. The result has been a steady march of laws that appear to be race neutral, but clearly have disparate racial impacts. There may not be a single measure that anyone could point to in order to say, “That right there, is racism in action via public policy,” but the effects and intents of legislation often are not hidden very deeply.

 

In 2019 I did a mini dive into drug policy in the United States, and author Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream shows how drug policy was designed with explicit racial prejudices, even though drug policy was race neutral at face value. Hari describes the efforts of a man named John Marks, a psychiatrist in the UK, to provide drugs legally to drug addicts. The legally provided drugs were safer than drugs on the street, and when provided free to drug addicts, it prevented harm to the user, and reduced theft as people no longer needed to break into stores or mug people to obtain money for drugs. From this point, Marks could begin to work with the addicts to address their drug use and help them move forward in a more healthy way.

 

Many people hated his approach to drug addiction, and in the United States, whenever he traveled to discuss his radical approach to addiction, he was blocked by red tape and pressure from a congressman. Hari writes, “Everywhere they [Marks and his colleagues] went, at the end of the meeting, they were told the same thing – that the Republican congressman Jesse Helms had been pressuring the organizers to shut them down and shut them up. Helms didn’t want anybody to interfere with the war on drugs. A few years later, on a CNN phone-in show, a caller thanked him for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers, and he replied by saluting the camera and saying: well, thank you, I think.”

 

More on that call and on Helms can be found here. What I want to highlight from this quote is how race neutral drug policy was understood by people to be explicitly designed to hurt racial minorities. The caller understood that public policy that negatively targeted drug users and people with low socioeconomic status disproportionately affected non-white people, contributing to racial inequalities that presumably advanced the caller while limiting opportunities for people of color. It was not just an unfortunate consequence of drug policy that black people suffered, it was the goal.

 

Today we need to accept the realities that so many of our public policies have had. We need to accept that race neutral policy can have different impacts on different racial groups, and that such policies are not really race neutral. We need to address the realities that some groups have been politically favored and advantaged over others through out nation’s history, and we need to start implementing policies which will help racial minorities at disproportionate rates. It is important that we be honest about that reality when moving those policies forward. This requires a change in the way we think about race in this country. We have to move beyond the dismissive idea that all lives matter, and specifically address the harms that have been done to racial minorities by recognizing that black lives matter, and that all lives won’t matter until we recognize that black lives do matter. We must use the energy of the present moment to change the ways we think about race and public policy in the United States, and redesign programs that have historically contributed to racial inequality.
An Addiction to Consumerism

An Addiction to Consumerism

Johann Hari doesn’t believe that the answer to solving our nation’s drug problems lies in locking up drug users and dealers. He doesn’t believe that those who develop addictions are some type of moral failure. He doesn’t think that what we need is better enforcement of laws, more policing, and better deterrence through the criminal legal process. What Hari believes is necessary is that we focus on reducing the harms of illicit drug use, and start asking larger questions about what motivates all of us, and how we interact and connect with one another.

 

There is a larger addiction than drug addiction that Hari is concerned about, addiction to consumption in general. As a culture, the United States has spent years believing that we could be content and happy in our own homes, as long as we can buy lots of things to fill our homes. We moved to suburbs where we could drive to and from work, park our cars in our garages, hire people to do our yard work, and never have to see or interact with people we don’t know. We watch TV, scroll through social media, and stay inside where it is safe and where we can be around our possessions.

 

“We all know deep down it doesn’t make us happy,” Hari Writes, “to be endlessly working to buy shiny consumer objects we have seen in advertisements. But we keep doing it, day after day. It in fact occupies most of our time on earth. We could slow down. We could work less and buy less. It would prevent the environment – our habitat – from being systematically destroyed. But we don’t do it, because we are isolated in our individual cages. In that environment, the idea of consuming less, in fact, fills us with panic.”

 

Across the United States we have developed an addiction to consumerism. We have lost the sense of community that has held together human beings for our evolutionary history, and we have limited our interactions with people in the outside world to meaningless transactions. We then criticize those who cannot find meaning in our consumerism and turn to drugs. We failed to provide them with a community and real relationships with other humans, and as a result people turned to drugs and we further outcasted them. Our consumerism has many negative externalities, and Hari would argue that isolation and addiction are consequences of our consumer culture. To solve drug addiction, he believes, requires that we re-think our ideas of consumerism, and start to look more toward re-engagement with community over individual purchases of things.
Addiction and Loneliness

Addiction and Loneliness

A little while back I wrote about the connection between isolation and addiction that Sam Quinones described in his book Dreamland. I wrote about the Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Mirthy, who has also recently published a book about loneliness in the United States, arguing that we have a loneliness epidemic that is causing a number of health issues for people across the country. Mirthy was interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, and the idea of loneliness has been one that Klein has returned to over and over in his show, with small comments or questions to many of his guests during conversations about a wide range of problems in American life.

 

The connection between addiction and loneliness is also something addressed by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari focuses on the importance of community in helping people avoid drug misuse and addiction, and in helping people recover from addiction. On loneliness he writes, “One recovering heroin and crack addict on the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver, CA], Dean Wilson, put it to me simply. addiction he said is a disease of loneliness.”

 

Addiction is not limited to people who live on the streets or who have no friends and find themselves in an apartment, isolated from any friends or family. However, isolation in that manner does make illicit drug use, prescription drug abuse, and addiction more likely. Addiction is also not limited to chemical substances. Hari argues that when we feel isolated, when we lack meaning, when we have no community to participate with as part of a broader mission than buying shiny consumer products, we are more likely to form bonds with chemicals, with sex, or with behaviors such as gambling. A sense of loneliness leaves us wanting something more and something different, and often, we can find ourselves addicted to something to distract from our loneliness.

 

Punishing people with addiction challenges, making it harder for them to be part of society, limiting the opportunities for them to have a meaningful job and work toward a social goal makes it harder for them to overcome their addiction and loneliness. Hari writes, “The heroin helps users deal with the pain of being unable to form normal bonds with other humans. The heroin subculture gives them bonds with other human beings.”

 

If we try to fight the addiction and the drug itself, we create a subculture of other lonely humans, who bond together through  their shared addiction and isolation. We almost guarantee that people struggling with addiction will be trapped, unable to find meaning in their life, stuck in isolation, and miserable. The answer from Hari is to instead focus on redeveloping our communities and social infrastructure. To fight loneliness and not addiction, to give people more meaning in their lives by developing more connections between us, and to reinvest in our communal spaces. By building institutions and cultures that push back against loneliness we address the upstream causes of addiction, and help cut away from the pressures that drive toward addiction. This is the ultimate message of Hari’s book, and it is not just a way to fight addiction, but a way to help us all have more meaningful lives.
Addiction Can't be Fought with Pain

Addiction Can’t be Fought With Pain

With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction.  Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.

 

Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.

 

These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.

 

Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”

 

So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.

 

Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.
A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing The Scream Johann Hari briefly writes about human practices of using drugs dating back well over 2000 years ago. He uses a story about Greek rituals at the Temple at Eleusis to show how common and widespread drug use was, and how it occupied a central and almost sacred role in human life for ancient Greek civilizations. Hari writes about the downfall of the ritual use and near celebration of drugs which occurred at the temple. A downfall that doesn’t appear to have been brought about by negative consequences of drug use, but a downfall that was a deliberate power grab.

 

“The early Christians wanted there to be one rout to ecstasy, and one rout only – through prayer to their God,”  Hari writes. “The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief. If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own.”

 

Hari writes that drugs alter states of consciousness and can give people a new sense of wonder, of awe, and of being something more than themselves. These senses, he argues, were what the Christian Church wanted to offer people through their religious experiences. Church and drugs were competing for the same mental faculties and experiences, and the Church wanted to limit outside exposure to sources that gave people a supernatural feeling.

 

I like to think about the world in terms of the systems and structures that shape the possibilities of our lives. Institutions matter, and they can inform what we find to be immoral, just, and common (or uncommon) parts of human nature. Hari’s research suggest that human desires to change their states of consciousness with chemicals are not in fact the immoral and uncommon problematic desires that we have portrayed them. Institutions, such as religions, have shaped the ways we think about and understand drugs and chemical intoxication. There are probably some true elements of public safety and health in our drug prohibition today, but much of our policy stems from and still maintains a system of authority, power, fear, and xenophobia. Drug use can be widespread and accepted, even if it is problematic – just look at alcohol use in the United States and across the globe. It can also be prohibited and marginalized, it just depends on the institutional systems and structures we chose to attach to drug use. We can develop ways to use drugs responsibly and safely, or we can force drug use into illicit and shady corners of society, where a guarantee of safety and protection is a laughable idea.
The Why Behind the Drug War

The Drug War’s Goals

A book I haven’t read, that has been on a reading list of mine for a while, is Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. While I haven’t read the book, I am familiar with Sinek’s ideas and have listened to him in several podcasts and TED talks. At the root of the book is the idea that great leaders think deeply about the why behind their actions. They understand their motivations, understand their goals, and understand how the things they do contribute to a larger picture of the world. When we start with why, we ask ourselves about purpose, about our fit for what we do, and we consider our end goals and how we can best approach the outcomes we want.

 

The global drug war, which the United States leads and forces upon smaller countries, doesn’t really have a why at its heart. In researching his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari traveled across the globe to discover and write about the impacts of the drug war on the lives of drug users in the United States, communities controlled by drug cartels in Mexico, and public policy officials from Vancouver, Canada to Portugal. Everywhere he traveled he saw lives destroyed and people left with nothing, not just due to their own drug use, but also due to the policy responses and financial drives of the governments and people confronting each other in our global drug war.

 

In the face of all the violence and destruction of the drug war, Hari asks, what is the rational for the drug war? What is the why behind the global prohibition on drugs and the global persecution of drug users and suppliers? He writes, “The United Nations says the war’s rational is to build a drug free world—we can do it! U.S. government officials agree, stressing that there is no such thing as recreational drug use. So this isn’t a war to stop addiction, like that in my family, or teenage drug use. It is a war to stop drug use among all humans, everywhere. All these prohibited chemicals need to be rounded up and removed from the earth. That is what we are fighting for.”

 

I think Hari would argue that this why is under-developed, impracticable, and unreasonable. He details animals like mongoose and elephants that do intentionally use chemicals at times to alter their states of consciousness. Humans, he explains, are not alone in using drugs, and there are some common times when animals and humans will turn to drug use. The elimination of all chemicals, Hari believes, is not a real goal that we should be working toward as a global community.

 

For some reason humans have decided that all drugs besides alcohol should be strictly prohibited. We seem to accept that alcohol can be fun, stress relieving, and enjoyable, despite the fact that it can also be addictive, harmful to health, and deadly if used inappropriately. Other drugs that might be recreational, are not given the same leniency as alcohol, and our efforts to stop anyone from ever using other drugs has created a deadly war, with rival gangs competing for product and territory, and drug users pushed out of society and shunned from basic healthcare and normal functioning human connections.

 

Hari believes that we will fail in our efforts to eradicate all drugs from the planet because the why behind the goal is so weak. The rational is built on the fear and egos of those who don’t use drugs and think of themselves as being superior to those who do. The drug war doesn’t fully consider the reality of humans, society, and animal nature to respond to hardship by altering states of consciousness. The why misses the point, so the how will never be successful.
Police and Violence

The Connection Between Police and Violence

A few weeks back the United States saw huge protests against police violence and use of force by law enforcement officers. That violence and use of force falls disproportionately on minority populations who have been evicted and incarcerated at rates beyond what one would expect given the demographic breakdown of the United States population. Amidst protests of police brutality, in several dramatic and high profile instances, what the United States saw was extreme police aggression toward protesters, bystanders, and media reporters that seemed to confirm the idea that police use of force was out of control and in need of reform.

 

Following the protests, there were questions about whether police presence at protests actually incited more violence than it prevented. People asked if police needed to show up in riot gear at Black Lives Matter protests, and what would happen to the police and during protests if police forces had not shown up with riot gear.  Many argued that the police themselves sparked the violence that they responded to with force – in effect, the argument suggests that police showing up prepared for violence furthered the violence.

 

The idea that police enforcement lead to an increase in violence is one that I came across about a year ago while reading Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream. In the book, Hari argues that greater drug enforcement and more police action against drug users and dealers leads to more crime, not less. He writes, “Professor John Miron of Harvard University has studied the murder statistics and found that statistical analysis shows consistently that higher [police] enforcement [against drug dealers] is associated with higher homicide, even controlling for other factors. This effect is confirmed in many other studies.”

 

Arresting drug dealers and gang members doesn’t reduce the demand for drugs in a given region. Arresting low level drug dealers and gangsters doesn’t lead to much other than an arrest record for the individual, making it hard for them to find legitimate work, leaving drug dealing as one of the few lucrative opportunities available. Arresting a high level drug dealer or gangster creates instability. If you remove a leader in the drug trade, then a power vacuum exists. Competing gang members will vie for the top spot, and might also have to face off against rival gangs to defend their turf. Arrests and enforcement end up creating instability and more violence than they solve. This is part of why homicides increase after a gang member is arrested.

 

Similar to police forces that respond to protests with riot gear, and contribute to the likelihood of people actually rioting, police who arrest gang members and drug dealers actually create more violence and murder, not less. At a time when we are questioning the role and effectiveness of our police services, we should think about whether their actions achieve their intended goals, or whether their actions create a cycle that leads to more police enforcement. If responding in force creates situations for violence violence, then our police should not respond forcefully before it is necessary. If enforcing drug laws creates more violence, then we should ask whether we should be doing something else with our law enforcement.

 

Our police can be what we need them to be and what we ask them to be. The last few decades, what we have asked them to be is a quasi-militant force. The focus was not saving all lives, but on showing force and dominance. It is fair to ask if this is the goal we really want for the police, or if we want them to actually contribute to more safety and less violence for all lives in our communities.
Violence and the Drug War

Violence as a Reason to End the Drug War

My last post was about violence related to drugs. When we make drugs illegal, we open the door for a black market. The best way to control a black market is through force and violence. A direct result of drug prohibition is violence related to black markets. We saw this in the United States with alcohol prohibition and in the 1970’s as the drug war in the United States escalated.

 

In Chasing the Scream Johann Hari writes, “By the mid 1980’s, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and right-wing icon Milton Friedman calculated that it [drug prohibition] caused an additional ten thousand murders a year in the United States. That’s the equivalent of more than three 9/11’s ever single year. Professor Miron [Jeffrey Miron, Harvard University] argues this is an underestimate. Take the drug trade away from criminals, he calculates, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by between 25 and 75 percent.”

 

What Hari is doing in this quote is turning around the justification for a drug war and using it as a justification for ending the drug war. The typical argument that someone would make would be along the lines that drugs cause crime, so drugs should be illegal. Hari instead writes that drug prohibition causes crime, so drugs should be legalized.

 

The first option is instinctual and popular. Hari’s opinion is counter-intuitive, and would be a tough political sell. Nevertheless, I think Hari is correct.

 

I think it would be terrible to have huge numbers of people using recreational drugs during all their free time. I worry about the economic losses our country would face as people chose to do more drugs, harming their brains and bodies. These considerations make me fearful of finding legal ways to provide safe drugs to people.

 

However, that perspective doesn’t consider the costs that are in our current status quo. The current drug prohibition creates criminals and black market drug dealers. It gives gangs a profit source, and leads to young people choosing gangs over legal ways to make money, and in the process, still destroys the lives of huge numbers of people. Perhaps a legal system would reduce our deaths, and maybe even if drug use picks up, the overall number of people dying and losing opportunity to meaningfully contribute in this world would decrease. We wouldn’t have as much gang violence, wouldn’t arrest so many young black men, wouldn’t have so many people die from using unsafe drugs. Hari argues this trade-off will pay off, and I think he might be right.
Gang Violence and Drug Prohibition

Gang Violence and Drug Prohibition

Imagine the following: A recreational drug has been in use for quite a while and has enjoyed relatively widespread use. A lot of people use the drug in social or private settings, with some people developing an addiction and some people using the drug inappropriately and causing property damage or loss of life to other people directly as a result of their drug use. Government agencies respond by making consumption, possession, and sale of the drug illegal. An underground market of suppliers, buyers, and places to enjoy the drug pop-up, along with gangs to enforce rules and norms that are hidden from formal legal structures or the police. Gangs compete for territory and distribution, and a few top gangsters make tons of money, while street level thugs are shot up.

 

That scenario played out with alcohol prohibition in the Untied States, and we could easily apply the same perspective to the widespread war on drugs which launched in full force in the 1970’s and is still with us today. Forcing alcohol underground created gangs, just as making everything from weed to crack illegal today has produced gangs. As Johann Hari wrote in his book Chasing the Scream, “Professor Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has shown that the murder rate has dramatically increased twice in U.S. history – and both times were during periods when prohibition was dramatically stepped up. The first is from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol was criminalized. The second is from 1970 to 1990, when the prohibition of drugs was dramatically escalated.” 

 

Gang violence is related to black markets, to social structures that are disconnected from the rule of law and acceptable law enforcement. We look back at the time of prohibition and the gangs that appeared at that time in a somewhat nostalgic manner. We almost think highly of the mafia crime syndicates that were murdering people in the streets to control illegal alcohol distribution chains. But it is unlikely that their violence and viciousness was really much different than what we see in gangs today. What is likely very different, however, is the color of the skin that we associate with gangsters of the 1920’s compared to the gangsters of today.

 

Youth gang violence is a huge problem, and it is deeply connected with the war on drugs. Hari writes, “The National Youth Gang Center has discovered that youth gangs like the the Souls of Mischief are responsible for between 23 and 45 percent of all drug sales in the United States.” The violence we see is directly related to the gang’s control of illegal drug markets, markets that our policies and our war on drugs create.

 

I would agree with anyone who said they didn’t want widespread use of drugs in society and didn’t want people simply using drugs rather than contributing to society in constructive ways, but is the gang violence, our nation’s high overdose rate from unsafe drugs, and the social out-casting of anyone who makes a mistake and uses drugs really worth the prohibition we force on the country? Do we want to accept the high levels of incarceration for minority inner-city youth which creates a positive feedback loop of more violence, less opportunity, and more illegal drug activity? Perhaps giving people a safe space to use drugs sold openly and legally, in legitimate markets that take away from the black market has fewer costs to society than our prohibition efforts which create more gang violence and death. This was a trade-off our nation made with alcohol when it ended prohibition, but is it a trade-off we are willing to make with a vast suite of drugs today? For Johann Hari it is, and his book gives us plenty of reason to believe that it is a trade-off that might be beneficial for all of us.
Drug Related Violence

Drug Related Violence

In his book Chasing The Scream, Johann Hari writes about common misconceptions related to drug violence in the United States. Misconceptions influence drug policy, shape the way people think about drug crimes and drug users, and prevent us from taking real action to help reduce the conflicts and negative externalities related to the American war on drugs.

 

Hari writes, “When we hear about drug-related violence, we picture somebody getting high and killing people. We think the violence is the product of the drugs. But in fact, it turns out this is only a tiny sliver of the violence. The vast majority is … to establish, protect, and defend drug territory in an illegal market, and to build a name for being consistently terrifying so nobody tries to take your property or turf.”

 

What Hari suggests throughout the book is that many of the negative things we relate to drug use is more associated with prohibition against drugs. Making drugs illegal and trying to stamp out any drug use in an all-out war creates negative externalities that justify violence and prohibition. The war on drugs creates a positive feedback loop, making drug use and drug trafficking more dangerous, building support for harsher treatment and destruction of drug users and sellers.

 

When we make something illegal, we create a black market. On the black market, as I wrote about from Brookings Scholar John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History, suppliers don’t have to meet safety and quality standards that would exist in a regulated legal market. This is where the dangers of drug use arise and where drug related violence comes into the picture. Many of the people using drugs directly are non-violent, and don’t want to cause harm to others when using drugs. They harm others when they need to obtain drugs illegally, on a costly and dangerous black market. The sellers create relationships and build territory, and use their own force to control their territory, since relying on police protection and legal backing to defend property and product is not an option in a black market.

 

I don’t know what the world would look like without a war on drugs and with a legal market for obtaining drugs. I don’t know what new externaliteis would arise and how we would face them. But I do think that Hari is correct and that we should acknowledge that much of the drug related violence and crime, and much of the safety concerns related to drug use, stem from the very prohibition and war that we approve of to stamp out drug use. The current approach seems incapable of eradicating drugs, but it does seem to spur substantial drug related violence and safety issues.