Legalization, Liberty, and Incarceration

Speakers at ACLU Forum Advocate to End the War on Drugs

ACLU’s Santa Barbara chapter held a forum Wednesday evening on civil liberties, incarceration, and legalization of drugs. Around 50 people — ranging from doctors and professors to teenagers and hippie leftovers — gathered in the downtown public library to join in the debate. Approaching the issue from a variety of angles, speakers Kyle Kazan, Damien Schnyder, and Suzanne Riordan argued that the legalization of illicit substances is the most just, logical, and potentially beneficent course of action regarding the contentious issue.

The speakers urged for legalization and decriminalization, as well as efforts toward preventative education and treatment programs, in order to end the War on Drugs and stop what they described as the waste and injustice that’s characterized the conflict. Referencing countries that have experimented with legalization, they discussed potential merits with this course of action. In Portugal, for instance, legalization has actually decreased drug use and the dangers thereof, as the products are regulated and distributed by governmental agencies. There have been massive declines in crime, HIV, overdoses, and overall use of heroin, and a larger percentage of U.S. kids smoke pot than in countries where marijuana is legal. It has been argued that legalization will increase general use, but evidence says otherwise, and as Kazan queried, “Are you going to try meth if I tell you it’s legal?”

Kazan spoke on behalf of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group which consists mainly of police officers, judges, and district attorneys who have retired and advocate the legalization of illicit substances. Kazan, an ex-cop, said that legalization is the most reasonable course of action, despite his personal dislike of drugs. Kazan said that the War on Drugs, a phrase coined in the Nixon Era, simply does not work, and that it is “insane to do the same thing continually and expect different results.”

He traced the history of drug legality from 1914 — when even heroin could be bought at the market — to today, and showed that despite the degree of permissibility, roughly 1.3 percent of the population will fall prey to addiction. He lamented the billions of dollars consumed by the War on Drugs, the billions poured into prisons, and the trillion thrifted away in the name of prosecution — all to no effect, save the rocketing prison populations, much of which consists of nonviolent drug offenders. Meanwhile, the black market thrives while the rest of the economy is in tatters. The purity of drugs, he said, has increased since the seventies, while the cost has dropped, and in Los Angeles, there are more marijuana dispensaries than there are Starbucks, though marijuana use is ostensibly illegal.

Damien Schnyder, an urban anthropologist, discussed the War on Drugs in terms of racial conflict. He argued that it was an effort to control people of color who threaten the established system because they are traditionally less included, and thus invest less of themselves into it. He said that this freedom is countered with various prejudicial handicaps. He gave examples of black men sent to prison for possessing a modicum of marijuana, or another illicit substance, and pointed out that profiling is encouraged in police work, which puts people of color at an automatic disadvantage. In fact, he was pulled over by a police officer right before he arrived at the forum, he said.

Suzanne Riordan, a Santa Barbara mother who lost her son to drugs, criticized the quality of the current, punishment-based approach, and instead urged for one based on understanding. She said that most users suffer from emotional imbalances, insecurities, and are generally fragile — so they gravitate towards drugs — and while they need help, they are instead jailed. Furthermore, because of a lack of adequate treatment options, jail is often the best choice. “Unless we get to the causes of these problems, we’re never going to solve anything,” she said.

Each speaker conceded that drug use is not the most effective way to deal with anything — but they argued that the way in which policy deals with drugs is even more detrimental. It’s clear that a change must come about.


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