Bill is 42 years old now and has been completely sober for over ten years. But when he broke into that boiler room in Chicago, he was riding a wave of drug addiction that was to last for another 15 years. After all, it was the mid-70s and drugs were everywhere. For Bill, they were an escape, an antidote, and a release.
While hippies congregated in San Francisco and free love was all the rage, Bill was busy getting high or trying to score his next hit. "I started with alcohol at 8, was smoking weed at 10, and at 13 was breaking and entering, selling weed on the side. I was out of control. I got kicked out of six high schools." When I ask him the obvious question - why? - he mentions anger at the world, the need for acceptance, the need to escape, the need to fit in. "I was a very angry young man. When I was young, I was molested by a man, and I thought it was my fault. I blamed myself and the world. I blamed everyone for that. I couldn't figure anything out, I thought I was missing out. I knew drugs; that's all I knew."
The story Bill is telling me is not uncommon. It is the story of addicts everywhere, of people who discover drugs and cling to them to get through life. For some, drugs lead to death. More often, though, they break up homes, destroy lives and cause irreparable damage.
Fortunately, Bill was finally able to rise above his addiction. He remembers the moment something "clicked" for him. He was walking along a park, mumbling to himself, loaded on speed and alcohol, when all of a sudden, "I was stone cold sober, and I thought to myself, this isn't right, there has to be something different." That same day, he called his mom and told her he wanted to get cleaned up. He was 30 years old.
Over the next three years, Bill participated in a drug rehab program at a clinic called Walden House. He went through counseling, group sessions and therapy. He followed their rules, cleaned up his life, and reconnected with his family. He knows that, given the circumstances, he was very, very lucky.
This is America's War on Drugs.
The war on drugs being waged in the United States is considered by many to be discriminatory, racist and misguided. For starters, deaths from drugs have never been higher. In 1996, they numbered 14,843, more than double the drug-related deaths reported in 1979, the year of highest reported drug use. And although the rates of drug consumption are roughly equal among whites and blacks, blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses at 14 times the rate of whites. In other words, only 11 per cent of the nation's drug users are black, but they make up 37 per cent of those arrested for drug violations, 42 per cent of those in federal prison for drug violations, and 60 per cent of those in state prisons for the same reason.
Locking people up is an effective way for politicians to show that they are "tough on crime." And with mandatory minimum sentencing (MMS), which became popular in the '80s and '90s, that's become much easier to do. MMS means that the length of the sentence is determined solely by the amount and type of drug involved in the offense and the number of prior convictions of the defendant, and it must be served in its entirety. For example, if Bill had been caught trying to sell five grams or more of crack, he would've gotten five years, no questions asked. If he had been trying to sell 50 grams or more, he would've gotten ten years. The judge has no discretion to be flexible in sentencing. For example, a judge would not have been able to look at his history and decide whether rehab was more appropriate than jail. As one federal judge pointed out, MMS "make a judge a computer, automatically imposing sentences without regard to what is right and just."
MMS also fails to distinguish between major and minor players. As Carol Estes explains, "The worst offenders - those deeply involved in the drug business - have information to trade, and, as a result, can bargain down their sentences. The users and small-time dealers, their girlfriends and family have little information, so end up going to jail for longer terms than the 'kingpin'." And this is exactly what happened to John.
I've never met John, but I did spend a couple of hours talking on the phone with his mom, Dorothy. She is 81 years old and lives in Nebraska. For almost ten years, she has been speaking out against MMS. She has a personal score to settle - after all, her son's been locked-up since 1990 for possession, with intent to distribute, of ¼ gram of meth/amphetamine. He was originally charged with 19 years, but was able to reduce his sentence after winning on appeals. For Dorothy, it's still not good enough.
"I feel that my son has been wronged. I realize that he should be punished for what he did, but 19 years is a little too much. When I was walking into the courtroom the first day of hearings, I overheard the District Attorney speaking to someone else about my son. They didn't know who I was and he said, 'that SOB will not tell us anything, so we'll throw the book at him'."
In addition to being unjustly harsh, MMS is downright racist. As I previously mentioned, selling five or more grams of crack cocaine lands you five years in prison, while 50 grams or more locks you up for ten years. However, even though crack and powder are pharmacologically identical, one hundred times as much powder cocaine must be sold for someone to receive the same sentence as someone selling crack cocaine. Why is this racist? Because crack is marketed in less expensive quantities and is more often used in low-income and minority communities. In other words, blacks deal crack while whites deal powder.
Dorothy knows the statistics. She belongs to an organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which works to change the current laws. She first heard about them on TV right after John was sentenced. "I was real grateful to find FAMM because they helped me through some sad times. When you're all alone and the only living relative you have is in prison, it's kind of nice to have a shoulder to cry on."
She is optimistic that once more and more people start protesting MMS, the laws will change. In fact, last November Californians passed Proposition 36, which provides community-based substance abuse treatment programs (instead of prison) for non-violent defendants charged with simple drug possession or drug use offenses. If Proposition 36 were adopted by every state, Dorothy would be happy.
For his part, Bill is eternally grateful for his rehab. "If it weren't for Walden House," he said, "I'd be dead by now. Or in prison." He knows much of his life was wasted on drugs. By his own account, he experimented everything - cocaine, weed, crack, heroin, alcohol and speed. Everyday he gets through without drugs is a small victory. "I'm so afraid of going back to that life," he tells me. "I don't want to go back to that life."
And what's his advice to young people struggling with drug abuse? "You only get one life - stay engaged. If nothing else, get through school."
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