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Literary Attack on Drug Prohibition, Principals behind HBO’s ‘The Wire’ Advocate Jury Nullification

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director March 7, 2008

    When trying to make fair assessments and analysis regarding where at any particular place in time the now almost 40-year old public advocacy campaign to repeal cannabis prohibition laws is, while data, scholarly reports and budget priorities are all helpful, so too are tea leaves. Cultural ‘tea leaves’.

    When reading the jaw-dropping column in Time this morning, penned by the award-winning team of writers from the provocative—and often spot on—‘The Wire’, broadcast on HBO, I had tears landing in my lap.

    “What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has.”

    Great quote, one for the books and columnists! This is one of the most powerful and descriptive sentences regarding the so-called drug war’s iatrogenic nature I’ve archived in the 17-years I’ve worked for cannabis law reform at NORML.

    David Simon and company’s well-worded and historical polemical, ‘The Wire’s War on the Drug War’ may just possibly represent an awakening in the minds (and hearts) of our fellow citizens nationwide who don’t understand the abject failure of cannabis (and drug) prohibition, or have chosen to ignore its societal costs and ill-effects because they don’t see it effect them on a personal, visceral level.

    Recent surveys indicate more than 80% of the American public readily acknowledge that the ‘war on drugs’ is a failure, and almost 70% oppose current drug laws, but, vexingly, fail to provide majority support or effectively identify any alternative policies to prohibition, However, the principals from ‘The Wire’ offer a simple, commonsense, historically significant, empowering and moral way to help de-escalate America’s participation in our country’s longest and most costly war, a 40-year war against inanimate objects and our fellow citizens who choose to market and consume them: Jury Nullification.

    Below are selected excerpts from a brilliant call-to-action, written not by policy makers, wonks or public advocates, but by some of the best in the creative arts community, who, like so many other transcendent communicators in the humanities, are nearly always on the vanguard of social change, where elected representatives, and their minions, fear to tread.

    By the way, such is not the first attempt by the creative arts community to call out the drug war’s failure as a result of their semi-fictional accounts and portrayals of the real life-and-death dramas caused nationwide by prohibition.

    After years of playing the hard-charging assistant district attorney on NBC’s franchise show ‘Law & Order’, Dartmouth-educated and Fulbright scholar, Michael Moriarty, along with the show’s famed producer Dick Wolf, met with then US Attorney General Janet Reno in Washington DC, November 1993 about violence in America, including prohibition-induced street violence. According to Moriarty, when asked whether or not Law & Order should take a more political stance and emphasized narrative to the network’s mass audience examining the ‘underside of drug prohibition–which may result in some in the public to re-think the costs and consequences of the drug war’–Ms. Reno became upset and ended the meeting.

    Fifteen years later, bittersweetly, let’s be thankful that the writers from The Wire are willing to speak out against the status quo of America’s drug policy both in supremely crafted storytelling and in the pages of Time Magazine.

    [Selected Excerpts]
    The Wire’s War on the Drug War
    By Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and David Simon

    We write a television show. Measured against more thoughtful and meaningful occupations, this is not the best seat from which to argue public policy or social justice. Still, those viewers who followed The Wire our HBO drama that tried to portray all sides of inner-city collapse, including the drug war…

    These viewers, admittedly a small shard of the TV universe, deluge us with one question: “What can we do?” If there are two Americas, separate and unequal, and if the drug war has helped produce a psychic chasm between them, how can well-meaning, well-intentioned people begin to bridge those worlds? And for five seasons, we answered lamely, offering arguments about economic priorities or drug policy, debating theoreticals within our tangled little drama. We were storytellers, not advocates; we ducked the question as best we could.

    Yet this war grinds on, flooding our prisons, devouring resources, turning city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. To what end? State and federal prisons are packed with victims of the drug conflict. A new report by the Pew Center shows that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. and 1 in 15 black men over 18 is currently incarcerated. That’s the world’s highest rate of imprisonment.

    What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has.

    And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago, we’ve been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.

    Our leaders? There aren’t any politicians–Democrat or Republican–willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America’s most profound and enduring policy failure.

    “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right,” wrote Thomas Paine when he called for civil disobedience against monarchy the flawed national policy of his day.

    In a similar spirit, we offer a small idea that is, perhaps, no small idea.

    It will not solve the drug problem [not heal all civic wounds; does not yet address questions of how the resources spent warring; resolve how money might be better spent on treatment or education or job training; It doesn’t resolve the myriad complexities that a retreat from war to sanity will require]

    If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged we will–to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun’s manifesto against the death penalty–no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war.

    No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

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