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“Addicts Deserve Alternatives To Prison”: Misguided War On Drugs Has Left Many Victims With Scars

Earlier this month, five Republican presidential contenders addressed a New Hampshire forum concerned with a crisis swamping certain regions of the country, including New England: heroin addiction. The candidates spoke passionately, some sharing personal experiences, according to news reports.

Jeb Bush spoke of his family’s turmoil as his daughter Noelle, now 38 and in recovery, struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs and cocaine. “What I learned was that the pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and kind of spirals out of control is something that is shared with a whole lot of people,” he said.

Carly Fiorina also talked about her family’s struggles; her stepdaughter, Lori Ann, died at 34 after years of battling drug and alcohol abuse.

“… As Lori grew progressively sicker, the sparkle, the potential, the possibilities that had once filled her life — disappeared from behind her eyes,” she said.

This new frankness and sympathy concerning the physical, emotional and financial costs of drug addiction comes as white middle-class Americans have found their lives upended by the emergence of heroin as the drug of choice for their children and grandchildren. Nationwide, the number of deaths from heroin rocketed from fewer than 2,000 in 2001 to more than 10,000 in 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And experts say that nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

As a result of their experience, there has been a stark change in public perceptions of drug abuse. You see it not only in the more sympathetic rhetoric on the campaign trail, but also in the less aggressive methods of law enforcement and the softer penalties meted out by legislative bodies. Police chiefs now speak of addiction as a medical and psychological problem that deserves treatment, not incarceration. And parents insist that their children be treated as victims, not as perpetrators.

If this signals an end to the wretched, misguided and punitive war on drugs, I welcome it. Still, I find it heartbreaking that the nation didn’t have the clearheadedness, the courage and the compassion to see addiction as something other than a crime during the 1980s, when crack was the scourge of poor black neighborhoods.

Back then, lawmakers, especially conservatives, competed to see who could impose the harshest measures on poor drug addicts, and police officers routinely rounded up penny-ante dealers to bolster their arrest records. I can recall the wild accusations about crack users, the phony science, the harebrained predictions.

When Congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, it enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and enshrined into law harsher penalties for the use of crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine, which was more likely to be used by whites. Offering up invalid assertions not backed by any data, lawmakers insisted that crack was more dangerous — as were its users.

Remember the dire warnings about crack babies? According to some so-called experts, the nation would see a wave of children born to crackhead moms, babies whose intelligence would always be stunted and whose physical capacities would always be limited. In fact, those pseudo-facts turned out to be gross exaggerations. Some babies were, in fact, born addicted, but, given appropriate medical care, most have turned out to be no different than their non-addicted peers.

The crack epidemic finally died away, but the after-effects of the misguided war on drugs linger in the lives of countless black men and women. That so-called war has drained the national treasury of billions of dollars, torn apart countless black families and decimated entire black neighborhoods.

It has made permanent second-class citizens, forever marginalized, of tens of thousands of black men and women because felony records have rendered them virtually unemployable. In some states, those with felony convictions are not even permitted to vote.

Now that we seem to have finally figured out that addicts deserve alternatives to prison, perhaps we can find a way to help those who bear the scars of the war on drugs. They are victims, too.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, January 9, 2016

January 10, 2016 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Drug Addiction, War on Drugs | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“We’re All The Same Underneath”: When White People Take Drugs, It Stops Being A “War”

Chalk up another piece of evidence for the longstanding notion that the nation’s “War on Drugs” is simply another aspect of institutionalized racism: it seems that now that heroin addiction is raging through white middle-class families, the nation’s appetite for tough-on-crime tactics is waning.

When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the nation’s drug czar. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

Apologists can try to claim that the racial disparity in understanding and treatment of the problem is due to people with more power having the ability to change the conversation.

But given the history of the enforcement of the drug war in the United States–starkly and painfully exemplified in the hysteria over “crack cocaine”–it’s a difficult stance to take.

The evidence suggests, rather, that American public policy has been centered around harsh punishment of populations that were at first openly and then more quietly assumed to be naturally subhuman and more prone to violence than whites. Racism, in other words. The drug war is another reflection of that same mentality. A large number of Americans harboring racial prejudice have an image of minority communities seething with chaos just under the thin veneer of civilization, with barbarism ready to strike at any moment in a toxic stew of drugs, handouts violence and uncouth music. The response is a war on drugs, tough-on-crime laws, hatred of taxes, and arsenals of guns for “protection.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when white people do drugs it’s not seen as the same kind of threat–because in minds of far too many Americans it’s not really the drug that is the problem, but the ability of the drug to release the supposedly natural tendencies of certain types of people. The same is true of guns: when a white person carries a gun they’re a patriot; when a black person does it they’re a criminal thug. Because it’s not about the gun, it’s about the person carrying it.

Racists don’t see this as a form of racism. They see it as a form of common sense. But it’s racism through and through. And unfortunately even for the racists, their public policy reactions in terms of gun proliferation, poor public safety nets and harsh criminal justice systems hurt not only minority communities but white ones as well.

America will make progress as a society only when we can move beyond these prejudices and realize that we’re all the same underneath, and we need policies of tolerance and understanding that reflect that fact.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, October 31, 2015

November 2, 2015 Posted by | Crime Rates, Drug Addiction, War on Drugs | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Emerging From The Ferment”: The Real Irony Of Scott Walker’s Messy Personal Finances

The finances of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got a rather stern once-over from National Journal on Monday.

“Walker has two credit-card debts of more than $10,000 apiece on separate cards and is paying an eye-popping 27.24 percent interest rate on one of them,” the Journal harrumphed, before quickly lasering in on the irony. “The Republican presidential candidate has cast himself as both a fiscal conservative leader and a penny-pinching everyman on the campaign trail, often touting his love of Kohl’s, the discount department store.”

Walker isn’t the first Republican presidential hopeful to get this treatment either. Back in June, The New York Times took Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to task for a “strikingly low savings rate” and some household purchases of questionable wisdom.

This is a deeply silly genre of journalism. It treats troubles the vast majority of Americans grapple with as vaguely scandalous. And it implicitly assumes the same rules of thumb that should guide household budgets should also guide the federal budget, which is catastrophically wrong.

More to the point, other details in the Journal piece offer a brief look at a presidential candidate of relatively modest means.

“Walker listed only six investments worth between $1,000 and $15,000, a whole life insurance plan worth between $15,000 and $50,000, and a deferred compensation plan from Milwaukee County worth between $15,000 and $50,000,” the Journal continued. Walker received a $45,000 advance for a book in the last year, and it looks like his annual salary since assuming the governorship in 2011 has been around $140,000. That’s certainly a lot of income compared to most Americans — it puts Walker just below the threshold for the top 10 percent — but it’s obviously nothing compared to the fortunes Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have amassed.

This gets at something poignant about Walker the politician, and by extension Walker the man. While most all presidential candidates and politicians have a significant amount of socioeconomic distance from the median American, Walker has less than most. Besides his income and wealth, Walker came from modest beginnings as a preacher’s kid in a small Wisconsin manufacturing town. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, but didn’t finish his degree — passing on one of the key status symbols that American elites use to separate themselves from the pack.

And yet few Republicans, and certainly no other Republican presidential candidate, has been so ferociously focused on grinding everyday workers into the ground.

Like any good conservative, Walker pushed massive tax cuts for the well-to-do through Wisconsin’s state budget, creating a hole he’s now trying to fill by slicing education spending. But he also drove a blistering and brutally successful push to crush Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, followed by “right to work” laws that will likely cripple the state’s private unions as well.

Nor does it look like Walker did this because Republican and business interests were demanding it — he did it because he wanted to, as a matter of ideology.

An explanation probably lies in the unique and poisonous way the history of race and class intersected in the Milwaukee political milieu Walker came from. In the early 20th century, large numbers of black Americans migrated from the South to northern urban centers. But no sooner had they put down roots than the mid-century collapse of manufacturing arrived, sucking away jobs and bringing poverty to the cities.

Black Americans had never been permitted to build up the wealth that white Americans had: Along with the aftereffects of slavery and the social consequences of segregation, they were initially excluded from policies like Social Security and the G.I. Bill, which helped build the white middle class. And racist policies like redlining and the construction of the highway system destroyed many of their neighborhoods and prevented them from accessing areas of economic vibrancy.

So when the white middle class fled to the suburbs, the poorer black populations could not follow. That set up Reaganite white suburbs, which surrounded and disdained the urban interiors of impoverished African-Americans, and all the vicious politics that followed. The funny thing, as Alec MacGillis laid out in a 2014 profile of Walker, was that this process came a few decades late to Milwaukee. The future governor cut his political teeth as a member of Milwaukee’s fleeing white upper-middle class, just as this conflict was reaching its apex.

So it should come as no surprise that those public-sector jobs Walker helped crush have also been one of the great economic havens where black Americans can actually earn a decent living.

For decades, American macroeconomic policy has done a terrible job providing enough work to keep everyone employed. That’s introduced a bottom-up desperation that’s trickled higher and higher over the years. On top of that, while America has a hidden welfare state for the rich and the upper-middle class, its explicit social safety net is skimpy and targeted at the poorest Americans. This creates a perverse circumstance in which many Americans in the middle of the pack feel left behind, while they see people with different skin colors and alien cultural habits — habits often shaped by poverty — receiving aid (however grossly inadequate).

More and more, American society is becoming a brute contest, in which the groups of varying power must trample one another for the scraps that fall from the elite table. This sort of divide-and-conquer effect, in populations that should be uniting over common interests and common foes, has a long history in U.S. labor struggles.

When people find themselves outside the elite inner circle, and see themselves as in a zero-sum economic game with impoverished subcultures that look and act different from them, the likes of Scott Walker is often what emerges from the ferment.

 

By: Jeff Spross, The Week, August 5, 2015

August 7, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Primaries, Scott Walker | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Stuff Made Up About Obamacare”: A Nasty Ideological And Racial Undertone To Bobby Jindal’s Latest Campaign

It’s been obvious from the beginning that a big part of the GOP strategy for demonizing Obamacare has been to convince existing beneficiaries of federal health programs that ACA coverage would come out of their hides. Thus the constant efforts to convince Medicare enrollees that ACA was financed by “Medicare cuts” (not at all true with the exception of the reductions in super-subsidies offered to the Bush-era conservative pet rock of Medicare Advantage policies offered through private insurers). There’s also a nasty ideological and even racial undertone to this campaign aimed at white middle-class retirees who view their Medicare benefits as earned (via both payroll tax contributions and a lifetime of work), as opposed to the “welfare” being offered to those people supported by Medicaid or Obamacare.

But leave it to Bobby Jindal to come up with a line of attack that pits existing Medicaid beneficiaries against those who would qualify for coverage if, over his dead body, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion were to be enacted in Louisiana. TPM’s Dylan Scott has the story:

Engaged in all-out war with the liberal group MoveOn.org over a pro-Obamacare billboard, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has accused the organization — and liberals in general — of endorsing discrimination against the disabled through their support of the federal health care reform law and its Medicaid expansion.

“Liberal groups like MoveOn.org won’t say one word about caring for individuals with disabilities, or how Obamacare prioritizes coverage of childless adults ahead of the most vulnerable,” Jindal wrote in an op-ed in the Shreveport Times last Thursday. “They just want to intimidate states into accepting Obamacare’s massive new spending programs.”

What does Bobby mean by “prioritizing” coverage of childless adults? Simply that expanded coverage comes with a higher federal match rate than is available for traditional Medicaid (not high enough, of course, to convince ideologically motivated Republicans, especially in the South, to execute an expansion that in many cases would represent a fiscal windfall for state governments while significantly reducing the ranks of the uninsured).

How, exactly, does that hurt people with disabilities, or others currently qualifying for Medicaid? The short answer is that it doesn’t, as Scott explains with some help from experts:

[T]here are a few huge problems with Jindal’s rationale, which effectively undermine the whole line of attack. First, some disabled people could actually qualify for health coverage under the Medicaid expansion, according to MaryBeth Musumeci, associate director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.

“People with disabilities can be within the new expansion group,” she said. “The ACA provides the opportunity for some people with disabilities to qualify for Medicaid who never qualified before. Their incomes, while still low, could have been above the very, very low limits states had set or they may not have been eligible at all if they fell into the category of single, childless adults. So it creates an expanded opportunity for people with disabilities to gain coverage.”

Second, Obamacare should have no policy bearing on the traditional Medicaid program. Federal funding for the traditionally eligible population remains exactly the same, and the states retain the same flexibility to manage their programs as existed prior to the law. The ACA brings a new population into the program, but there is no policy reason that it would lead to “discrimination” — as Jindal calls it — or any other detrimental effects for disabled people enrolled in the traditional program.

“I think that’s right,” Musumeci said when asked by TPM if the Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion should have no effect on traditional Medicaid. “What the Medicaid expansion essentially does is it creates a new eligibility category. Like any other time Congress has expanded eligibility of the program, it is adding statutory authority to cover this new group of people.”

“But it’s built into the same underlying Medicaid program. States still have all of the flexibility that they previously had in terms of how they structure their care delivery system, their benefits packages, and all of those things.”

It would be interesting to know how well people with disabilities, and other current Medicaid beneficiaries, would fare in Louisiana if the national Republican “reform” of Medicaid, a block grant that reduced federal funding over time, were to be enacted. Let’s hope we don’t find out. But in the meantime, the “prioritization” argument against the Medicaid expansion is just another effort to frighten one group of safety net beneficiaries they have a stake in excluding others. It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from self-styled conservative Christian warriors like Bobby Jindal.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Politica Animal, March 20, 2014

March 22, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Bobby Jindal, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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