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Nation Topics - Drug War and Drug Policy

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Nation Topics - Drug War and Drug Policy

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Bill Bennett told a grateful nation,
"Be moral. Just resist temptation."
By windbag airing of this thesis,
Bill Bennett got as rich as Croesus.

Since the bottom line here is terrible physical pain, let's start with
someone who has spent most of her life in that condition. There are
millions like her. Patricia C.

Mattie White remembers July 23, 1999, as the day her life was turned upside down.

On January 20, 1995, Bruno Jordan is gunned down in a parking lot in El Paso, Texas, in what appears to be a botched carjacking.

"Tell me about the hash bars."
"OK, what do you want to know?"
"It's legal there, right?"
"It's legal, but it ain't 100 percent legal."

From Afghan farms into the Tajik mountains, the drug trade cuts a wide swath.

In my last column, I mentioned that most actual drug users are young white people, even though most of those "profiled" as drug users are people of color. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white.

But profiling is further vexed by the eternal question of how one determines who is white and who is not. In today's diasporic world, racial identity or "whiteness" is less determined by lines of "blood" or descent than it once was in certain Southern states. Today, whiteness is more dominantly a matter of appearance, based on malleable aesthetic trends.

This point--the malleability of how we assign "race" to people--is certainly illustrated by the example of Noelle Bush, to whom I referred as white. I received much mail insisting that she is not in fact white but Latina "because her mother is." It's an interesting question, this: the potential tension between "actual" and actuarial determinations of race. But first, let us agree that although there is no biological reality of race, the force of race is a powerful if constantly negotiated sociocultural construction, and has been since colonial times. Second, allow me to sidestep for now the complex anthropology of whether being Latina is determined matrilineally, thus canceling out her conspicuous Puritan patrimony. Third, let us also agree that recent migrations from Latin America have increasingly complicated national demographics as historically inflected by Jim Crow laws. And so, while "Latina" seems to be used as a racial category when it comes to most compilations of criminal justice statistics (meaning brown people from south of the border, of mixed Spanish, African and Native American descent), the reality is that not all Latinos are people of color. Indeed, "Latino" is perhaps more accurately understood as a broad linguistic, regional and cultural category rather than a racial one.

In any event, I called Ms. Bush white because, in photographs, that's what she looked like to me, admittedly through all the filters of my particular geographic and generational prism. At the same time, a number of letters pointed out that Noelle Bush and her brother are the grandchildren whom George Bush the Elder once described as "the little brown ones." This underscores the essential irrationality of profiling by appearance alone: If old George and I (just let your imagination wander here) were working as airport screeners, side by side and in accordance with the logic of most racially based profiling guidelines, he'd have stopped her, and I'd have waved her through. "But she's really..." has no fixed meaning in such profiling. This is not a new aspect of racial scrutiny; in generations past, perhaps, Noelle Bush's status might have been familiar as that of Tragic Mulatta. In today's more global context, I re-examine her picture and note how she resembles supermodel Christy Turlington--herself endlessly exploited for the vaguely "exotic" racial ambiguity that her mother's Ecuadorean "blood" supposedly lends her. But however one may or may not want to classify Ms. Bush, the existence of a confused limbo of those who can "pass" does not alter the fact that once classified as "suspect," as are too many of the unambiguously dark-skinned, the license of heightened investigation significantly colors the fundamental counterpresumption of innocent until proven guilty.

Let me shift topics here. One striking feature of virtually all the letters I received was the application of the word "smug" to my description of "Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle." This attribution was attended by detailed accusations, all starting with the word "impliedly." I impliedly took delight in the Bush family's suffering. I impliedly reveled in her getting what she deserved. I impliedly used the daughter to make fun of the father.

A little clarification is perhaps in order. When I said "poor Noelle," I meant it, with no irony attached. Whether fueled by biological predisposition or depression, substance abuse knows no political, class or ethnic boundary. Poor Prince Harry, poor Betty Ford, poor Robert Downey Jr., poor not-a-few Kennedys. I don't find a single bit of enjoyment in what is clearly a pervasive modern crisis. If one must project, let me provide some guidance. I see our crisis of drug dependency as a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal cause. This stance obviously places me at odds with the Prohibition-era policies of Jeb and both Georges. It doesn't mean I doubt that Governor Bush is less desperately concerned about the fate of his daughter than any other father. He believes the war on drugs is to the greater good; I think it woefully misguided. Asserting such disagreement about the efficacy of policy is democratic, not inherently disrespectful.

I also agree with those who counsel against publishing the unruly actions of children, whether their parents happen to be in the limelight or not. I believe minors, defendants or witnesses, deserve protection from the media. But Noelle Bush is well over 21, has had five traffic violations, seven speeding tickets and three car crashes and was convicted of impersonating a doctor in order to fraudulently obtain a prescription. The actions of adults who are brought before the criminal justice system are appropriately the subject of public record. Noelle Bush was given probation and referred to a drug treatment center. Who's to say if that's what she "deserved," but most likely it's what she, and so many others like her, needs. Where her example might be of continuing public interest is in contrasting her fate with that of poorer women, who, if convicted of drug offenses, are ineligible for welfare benefits for life. And in a case recently before the Supreme Court, an elderly woman whose retarded granddaughter smoked a joint three blocks away from her house was evicted from public housing based on her "relation" to drug use or sale. If such rules were applied across the socioeconomic spectrum, we'd have to ask Jeb Bush to give up the governor's mansion. It is, after all, public housing. I know--some of you will be affixing meanspirited, giggling gratuity to that image, but my point is rather the sad absurdity of it.

In all this, the bottom-line concern is whether fundamental fairness remains the measure of how we treat anyone--rich or poor, white or Latino, anonymous minor or poor Noelle.

Are we losing it? Have the recent acts of terrorism caused us to cut our moorings in a flood of outrage and frustration?

 'Following the Money' can prove devastating to critics of the illegal trade.

These days, the buzz on Capitol Hill seems loudest about Gary Condit.

Blogs

An examination into our broken cannabis policy is well overdue—and should be about more than just marijuana.

August 4, 2014

The ACLU finds that SWAT teams spend more time kicking down suspected drug offenders’ doors than rescuing hostages or stopping gunmen.

June 24, 2014

Some anti-abortion activists are agreeing with feminists: Tennessee’s new law criminalizing pregnant women is awful. So why did it pass?

April 30, 2014

Obama has so far granted fewer pardons than any modern US president.

April 21, 2014

What does a positive test mean when your economic fate hinges on the result? What kind of “discipline” is maintained by subjugating bodily privacy in the name of “public safety”?

April 18, 2014

The proposal would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug traffickers by about a year.

March 13, 2014

US officials claim the capture of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is a major drug war victory. They're wrong.

March 7, 2014

The unlikely allies are leading a push to reform sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders.

March 4, 2014

An internal review of the US Border Patrol raises serious questions about the agency’s use-of-force policy.

February 28, 2014

Currently commercial marijuana retailers have virtually no access to banks--but Attorney General Eric Holder says that might be about to change.

January 24, 2014