Our Education: Up in Smoke!

Few American endeavors of the past two decades have been as rife with cronyism, corruption, and moral hypocrisy as our failed and futile War on Drugs.

One can't just view it as a single issue. Directly or not, it affects every area of American life.

Take the Higher Education Act's 1998 drug provision, which potentially denies federal student financial aid to students convicted of drug offenses. Depending on their prior drug convictions and whether they've completed a lengthy drug rehab program by the aid application due date (for many, this is a logistic impossibility), students can lose their aid for up to two years after their last offense. Known alternatively as the Souder Amendment, after Mark Souder, its white, Bible thumping primary sponsor, the legislation stripped federal aid from more than 40,000 students last year -- aid that's often the make-or-break for economically disadvantaged students seeking a college education. And indications are that it'll get worse. Previously, applicants for aid could leave questions about drug use blank. Now, under the Bush-Cheney regime, all blank answers are the equivalent of answering "Yes," and all applications with them aren't even processed.

Bloomberg: You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.

Who wins? Certainly not students of color or of disadvantaged backgrounds (or both). As with most War on Drug legislation, the overwhelming number of the incarcerated are of ethnic backgrounds (in New York, 95% -- do they honestly expect us to believe that only 5% of drug users in New York are white?) and are economically disadvantaged, even though the majority of drug users are white (thuggish narco cops tend not to break down the doors of middle-class suburban homes or coke-stained corporate boardrooms). Those convicted but privileged enough to afford slick attorneys -- and whose parents can finance expensive college educations anyway -- rarely need worry about the loss of federal student aid.

As is the case with most War on Drug Warriors, Souder's background is about as far removed from that of his legislation's primary victims. A former Young American for Freedom (their web site at www.yaf.com contains biographies of YAF National Board members who trumpet, among others, Barry Goldwater, Jefferson Davis, and Joseph McCarthy as heroes), Souder, prior to his career as a mediocre congressmen, owed his livelihood to familial nepotism; he headed the Indiana chain Historic Souder's of Grabill, founded in 1907, and handed down over generations to him on a silver platter served by Papa Souder.

Keeping step with a time when American politics and big business are ever more intertwined and inseparable, the HEA provision applies only to drug offenses -- not those related to tobacco or alcohol, two multi-billion dollar industries that donate hundreds of thousands to Drug Warriors' political campaigns each year. The War on Drugs, you see, is a gross misnomer that ought read the War on Some Drugs (namely, those ones that don't have Budweiser, Miller, Marlboro, Camel on their labeling or Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Merck etched on their surfaces). The late, great stand-up comedian Bill Hicks perhaps put it best when he said: "Alcohol's legal. They push alcohol 24 hours a day on TV. They push it down your throat -- drink beer, drink beer, drink beer. Why? Well, cause it makes you stupid, slow, and docile, and that's the way we like you to be... I've actually seen beer commercials during War Against Drugs specials. Cigarettes, legal. Alcohol, legal. Kill more people than all other illegal drugs combined times one thousand. They are illegal. Marijuana, a drug that kills... no one... and let's put it in a time frame... ever... marijuana's against the law."

Indeed, more than 17,000 people died from alcohol-related auto accidents last year, and yet a drunk driving conviction won't lose you your Higher Education Act money or land you a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison for possession of narcotics under such statutes as New York's Rockefeller laws -- even though, as Hicks notes, it's far more prevalent. Recent studies have also centered upon psychotropics, often fast-tracked and rushed through the corporate-dominated FDA approval process, and their less than desirable side effects, the gravest of which is their tendency to cause suicidal feelings. But when 25% of big-time campaign contributor Eli Lilly's revenue comes from the flagship drug Prozac, its unlikely that its side effects -- many more serious than what happens to one who smokes on bits of a leaf -- will see the appropriate scrutiny.

What's a War on Drugs mandatory minimum? They're statutes that flood existing prisons, result in fatty contracts with private prison contractors to build new ones, and waste the lives of those convicted of minor, non-violent drug offenses. New York's notorious Rockefeller laws epitomize their irrationality. Under them, anyone convicted of merely possessing four ounces of narcotics (two for selling) automatically receives a 15-year prison sentence. To give this obscene lopsidedness some perspective, recall that convicted rapist Mike Tyson served only three years of prison time. Charles Keating, the corrupt financier whose exploits in the Lincoln Savings & Loan bust cost taxpayers $3.4 dollars, served only five years of a 12.5-year sentence. In Massachusetts, those with FIVE or more drunk driving convictions serve a mandatory minimum of only two years and a maximum of five (that alcohol double standard, once again, at work). All of the convictions above are for crimes that harm others directly -- and yet they net lesser sentences than ones given for the non-violent sale of drugs between consenting parties.

Meanwhile, the New York state prison budget continues to balloon to nearly $2 billion a year while billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this year, slashed budgets for public libraries, public parks, and recycling programs. Treatment programs, which even the certifiably conservative RAND think tank has said will reduce serious crimes 15 more than mandatory minimums, make up only 15% of the federal drug control budget. Besides representing a more compassionate and effective solution, drug treatment programs are also cost-effective. The annual cost of outpatient drug treatment per patient is a few thousand dollars. For residency, it's between $17,000-$21,000. New York prisons, by contrast, require $32,000 per prisoner, 44% of whom are there for nonviolent drug offenses. Prisons, besides being prone to drug smuggling that continues rather than deters further use, also serve as frequent classrooms where seasoned criminals teach young convicts "tricks of the trade," later used upon release that help account for prison return rates.

Racial bias is shockingly flagrant in federal War on Drugs legislation. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack -- both of the same base substance but in two different forms, one (powder cocaine) more prevalent in white-collar communities, the other (crack) in ethnic, economically disadvantaged ones. What's this mean? Writes radical Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn in his superb book Whiteout: "Under this provision possession of 5 grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence. The same mandatory minimum is not reached for any amount of powder cocaine under 500 grams." The institutional racism is blatant. More than 80% of those arrested for crack possession are black, whereas almost 60% of those arrested for powder cocaine are white and enjoy far more generous sentencing for powder cocaine, in spite of its same chemical makeup.

Corruption is ubiquitous. One can trace the mass influx of crack, after all, to drug kingpins ("Freeway" Ricky Ross the biggest) in Los Angeles and the Cold War-era exiled sympathizers of the Nicaraguan Contras who supplied them with Colombian cocaine, proceeds of which helped fund the Contras. Overseeing these sympathizers and helping supply them was Enrique Bermudez, a CIA-funded, US-trained Contra leader. (The CIA today acknowledges that drug money indeed helped fund the Contras but denies ever knowing so directly, Oliver North's numerous notebook scrawlings referring to "paste" notwithstanding). The moral hypocrisy is ironic and tragic; today, tens of thousands of predominantly ethnic prisoners rot away for possession of crack, tons of which foreign CIA assets helped introduce tons into urban cities during the 1980s.

Legal provisions designed to guard citizens from the threat of a police state continue to erode in the name of fighting drugs. Under Reagan-Bush, the Posse Comitatus Act, designed to prevent military involvement in domestic law enforcement (and military deployment on U.S. soil during peacetime), was amended and allowed the military to fund, provide training for, and assist with paramilitary armed reconnaissance missions. This is coupled with the rise of the no-knock, warrant-less drug raid -- several states now afford cops the right of "dynamic entry" (if ever there was a finer euphemism...) if there is "evidence" of drug dealing. Many have been injured as a result, a few even killed. SWAT teams embark on such cutely named projects as "Operation Redi-Rock," a crack raid of a black neighborhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that resulted in detainment and search of 100 people -- and not a single eventual indictment.

Amendments to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) allow the Department of Justice to seize property in drug-related cases purely on the basis of "probable cause." In 1991, half a billion dollars worth of property was seized, but only 20% of the owners were actually charged with crimes. These funds are often appropriated for SWAT raids and thus propel a vicious cycle.

Drug War militarization came to its farcical worst when pathological neo-liberal liar Bill Clinton approved Plan Colombia, which will funnel $1.7 billion to train and supply Colombian military units so they can ostensibly disrupt narcotics production in the world's #1 producer. Sadly, the defoliation spray used to fumigate coca crops has an equal effect on any farmland, including those that house essential food crops. Small farmers and indigents in Colombia are struggling to survive these chemical air raids. The Bush regime has recently proposed that some of the funds be diverted towards helping fund the suppression of left-wing guerilla groups long engaged in civil war to overthrow the corrupt, unresponsive Colombian government (in practice, this is what's gone on anyway). Specifically, Bush has requested $100 million for protecting an intrusive Colombian oil pipeline in which Occidental Petroleum has a large stake and that has served as target to repeated attacks by guerillas (their anger stems, in part, from the corrupt Arauca province's $1 billion in oil royalties that rarely seem to go into municipal, public works that remain in sorry, unmaintained shape).

And the Administration's anti-terrorism package -- euphemistically known as the USA Patriot Act and railroaded through Congress with hardly any trace of substantive debate and only one brave dissenting Senate vote -- will only continue militarized, violent drug policing. Its Section 1007 calls for a minimum of $5 million to the DEA (no cap specified) in 2002 "for regional antidrug training in the Republic of Turkey by the Drug Enforcement Administration for police, as well as increased precursor chemical control efforts in the South and Central Asia region."

Fortunately, more and more people are realizing that the War on Drugs is our domestic Vietnam. In the past few years, groups like DRCNet and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have initiated and mobilized campaigns to take down such destructive measures as the 1998 HEA drug provision. Last year, New York congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to undue Souder's legislative damage, and hundreds of student governments and national organizations support reform (the otherwise pathetic puppet organization known as the Columbia College Student Council passed such a resolution before it presumably returned to offering free potato chips during finals; next comes Bollinger). Figures across ideological lines, from Ralph Nader to William F. Buckley, have called for a serious re-examination of a national anti-drug effort that has drained so many funds from more worthwhile pursuits and ruined so many lives. Even Hollywood movies like Traffic, however oversimplified and whitewashed, have introduced reform discourse into the mainstream and encouraged consideration of more compassionate, less punitive approaches to addiction. States like California have relaxed punishments for first-time offenders, replacing jail time with treatment and rehab.

None of these encouraging trends occured without the grassroots effort that has broken the previous conspiracy of silence over drug issues. But with a hawkish Republican Administration of Drug Warriors in power, the fight must continue as vigilantly. For more information on Columbia SSDP and our current and upcoming campaigns, visit www.columbia.edu/cu/ssdp For Drug War updates, check www.drcnet.org and www.mapinc.org