It’s Time to Fight Not a War on Drugs but a War on Drug Addiction

by: Kamala D. Harris Special to the AFRO
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So I’ve decided this morning, with everything going on, that I would talk a little bit about what’s going on in terms of our criminal justice system. And specifically because of this – our system of justice I think was shaken last Tuesday when the President, being aided and abetted by Jeff Sessions, fired FBI Director Jim Comey.

Sen. Kamala Harris recently hired a Black legislative director. (Courtesy Photo)

What got less attention, guys, and also threatens our system of justice, was a memo that the Attorney General issued the following day to federal prosecutors across the country.

The United States Department Of Justice memo was entitled “Department Charging and Sentencing Policy,” a subject line that seems pretty tame. However, what it effectively did was to declare the reviving of the War on Drugs. The failed War on Drugs.

As a young prosecutor right out of law school at the Alameda County DA’s office that Earl Warren once led, I started my work. And I saw the War on Drugs up close. And let me tell you—the War on Drugs was an abject failure.

It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment. It was bad for public safety. It was bad for budgets and our economy.

And it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet.

During that time, and still, instead of focusing on prevention, we spent $80 billion a year in reaction. Locking people up. That’s money that obvioulsly could have gone to schools, to roads, or healthcare.

Instead of treating everyone the same, we created a system where Latinos are 2 times more likely than White men to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Where African Americans are 12% of the population, but about 60% of the drug offenders who are in our state prisons. Where when inmates get out, their criminal record makes it almost impossible for them to get a job, which of course traps them and their families in never-ending cycles of poverty.

As San Francisco DA and then Attorney General of California, I was proud to be a part of a different approach. It’s what we called the Smart on Crime approach.

And the Obama administration similarly adopted and championed reforms at the federal level.

Which included directing prosecutors to avoid harsh sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders. Which included reducing the disparity in penalties for possession of crack versus powder cocaine.  Which included creating a task force that they called a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The emphasis being on 21st century.

But now this administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the Dark Ages.

Sessions has threatened that the United States Department Of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use, even in states like California where it is legal.

Well, let me tell you, what California needs, Jeff Sessions, we need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking. Not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.

That is not justice. That is not smart on crime. And I believe we have to stop this. Because drug addiction, by the way, is color blind. It doesn’t see red or blue.

So here’s what I’m talking about. I started my career as a prosecutor in the 1990s, at the height of the crack epidemic. And I’m now starting my career as a United States Senator at the height of an opioid crisis. And folks, let me tell you: these crises have so much more in common than what separates them.

And to fight Jeff Sessions and his old-fashioned, discredited, and dangerous approach to drugs, I believe we must embrace what all regions have in common and build coalitions.

And I believe we have opportunities in front of us. We need a national drug policy that finally treats substance abuse not as a crime to be punished, but as a disease to be treated. We need to build on reforms, instead of reviving mandatory minimums or boosting bottom lines for private prisons. We need to build on the reforms. And we need to fund, not defund, the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

And we need this administration to understand that if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America, as they say they do, they have also got to care about the drug-addicted young man in Chicago or East LA.

And while I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs, as a career prosecutor I just don’t but I will tell you this, we need to do the smart thing and the right thing and finally decriminalize marijuana.

And finally, I believe we need to look locally and elect progressive prosecutors. Because the vast majority of prosecutions occur at the state and local level.

I believe this is the time that we look in mirror and ask who we are as a country on this issue of drug addiction. And the time is now to fight for the values we believe in.

U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris represents California.

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