Friday, February 24, 2006

"And That's the Way It Is . . ."

If you're like me, each day you find several solicitations in your email box from charities, advocacy groups, political parties, and candidates for public office. (Sometimes I think I'm Ken Mehlman's favorite person -- it seems I get an email from him at least once a day, twice on days leading up to an election.)

And if you're like me, you probably look at the subject line and hit delete, or if you're feeling generous, you open it up to read the first paragraph. Seldom do you read beyond the first few lines, unless something really grabs your attention.

Well, something grabbed my attention today.

I opened up a solicitation email that turned out to be from the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite himself, telling me why he opposes the failed War on Drugs and supports the Drug Policy Alliance.

The letter, which also appears on the Drug Policy Alliance's web site, begins:

As anchorman of the CBS Evening News, I signed off my nightly broadcasts for nearly two decades with a simple statement: "And that's the way it is."

To me, that encapsulates the newsman's highest ideal: to report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.

Sadly, that is not an ethic to which all politicians aspire - least of all in a time of war.

I remember. I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost - and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.

Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.

I am speaking of the war on drugs.

And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure.

Most of the victims of the War on Drugs are too young to remember Walter Cronkite as a fixture in American homes. Before there were 24-hour news channels, before there was talk radio, before there was an Internet, Walter Cronkite was the voice that brought the news to us as we ate dinner. He landed with the troops at Normandy on D-Day. He broke into "As the World Turns" to tell America that John F. Kennedy was dead. He covered the first manned space flights and the moon landings. And when he (and another trusted voice, Paul Harvey) decided that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable mistake, American public opinion followed.

So to a certain generation of Americans, Walter Cronkite's opinion carries a lot of weight.

In his letter on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance, Cronkite tells stories of real people whose lives have been adversely affected by the misguided and expensive Drug War:

Nicole Richardson was 18-years-old when her boyfriend, Jeff, sold nine grams of LSD to undercover federal agents. She had nothing to do with the sale. There was no reason to believe she was involved in drug dealing in any way.

But then an agent posing as another dealer called and asked to speak with Jeff. Nicole replied that he wasn't home, but gave the man a number where she thought Jeff could be reached.

An innocent gesture? It sounds that way to me. But to federal prosecutors, simply giving out a phone number made Nicole Richardson part of a drug dealing conspiracy. Under draconian mandatory minimum sentences, she was sent to federal prison for ten years without possibility of parole.

To pile irony on top of injustice, her boyfriend - who actually knew something about dealing drugs - was able to trade information for a reduced sentence of five years. Precisely because she knew nothing, Nicole had nothing with which to barter.

Then there was Jan Warren, a single mother who lived in New Jersey with her teenage daughter. Pregnant, poor and desperate, Jan agreed to transport eight ounces of cocaine to a cousin in upstate New York. Police officers were waiting at the drop-off point, and Jan - five months pregnant and feeling ill - was cuffed and taken in.

Did she commit a crime? Sure. But what awaited Jan Warren defies common sense and compassion alike. Under New York's infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, Jan - who miscarried soon after the arrest - was sentenced to 15 years to life. Her teenage daughter was sent away, and Jan was sent to an eight-by-eight cell.

In Tulia, Texas, an investigator fabricated evidence that sent more than one out of every ten of the town's African American residents to jail on trumped-up drug charges in one of the most despicable travesties of justice this reporter has ever seen.

The federal government has fought terminally ill patients whose doctors say medical marijuana could provide a modicum of relief from their suffering - as though a cancer patient who uses marijuana to relieve the wrenching nausea caused by chemotherapy is somehow a criminal who threatens the public.

The effects don't stop with these individual victims, however. We all suffer because the War on Drugs erodes our civil liberties and takes money from our paychecks. Cronkite continues:

And what is the impact of this policy?

It surely hasn't made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people...disproportionately people of color...who have caused little or no harm to others - wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effort - with no one held accountable for its failure.

Amid the clich├ęs of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we've become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane.

But nothing will change until someone has the courage to stand up and say what so many politicians privately know: The war on drugs has failed.

Emphasizing his point, "the most trusted man in America" concludes:

Americans are paying too high a price in lives and liberty for a failing war on drugs about which our leaders have lost all sense of proportion. The Drug Policy Alliance is the one organization telling the truth. They need you with them every step of the way.

And that's the way it is.


1 comment:

Lori Heine said...

During our adult education forum after church this morning, we had a speaker from Charles Colson's prison ministry. He said that we have far more people incarcerated than does any other nation in the industrialized world.

I wish I had taken one of the flyers he handed out. It had exact numbers. I'm just winging it from memory, but I recall that we "lead" in this statistic by a significant number.