Lessons from Dr. King

The social justice nexus between civil rights and drug policy reform

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up, it’s important to take note from the civil rights movement and the lessons of Dr. King.

Our fight for drug policy reform is in many ways very similar to the civil rights movement. There are of course key differences between the two, and I don’t mean to say that our strife is in some way equal to the strife of oppressed communities before the civil rights movement, but that’s not to say that the hardships caused by the drug war aren’t real; parents are taken from children, families are torn apart, lives are ruined or cut short, and all in the name of “protecting our children.”

And just like you don’t need to be African American to think its disgusting to not permit African Americans to attend a “white” school, and just like you don’t need to be gay to think it’s disgusting to refuse gay people equal treatment (in marriage law, workers’ rights, etc.), you don’t need to be a drug user or someone who is addicted to drugs to think it’s disgusting that we lock human beings in cages for nonviolent drug offenses. People who are addicted need treatment, not jail time and stigmatization.

People who use drugs and people who are addicted to drugs are an oppressed community, but it goes beyond that. There is collateral damage to the larger community, to children, families, and friends. To fight for the end of drug prohibition is not just to fight for your right to use marijuana in your own home; it’s fighting for your right to be part of a society where we refuse to lock nonviolent human beings in cages. It’s not just a civil rights issue for those of us who use drugs or those of us who happen to be addicted to drugs; it’s a civil rights issue for all of us; it’s an issue about how we as a society want to treat each other and what we deem as acceptable.

The New Jim Crow

Drug prohibition in the United States is institutional racism at its finest (worst?). The drug war has been called “The New Jim Crow” by many due to the fact that the people most affected are (disproportionately) African Americans, Latinos, and people in low income areas. They are more likely to be stopped by police, searched, arrested, and imprisoned. In fact, while just 13% of illegal drug users in the United States are African American, they make up 67% of those sent to prison for drug offenses.

And as if being incarcerated isn’t enough, once back in society, it can be extraordinarily difficult for to get a job, secure a loan or financial aid to go back to school, or even vote in some cases. Drug war policies destroy lives.

Michelle Alexander, civil rights litigator and legal scholar, wrote an excellent book on the subject, which we enthusiastically recommend, titled, The New Jim Crow. In the book, Alexander highlights the racism inherent to the drug war and draws parallels to the the systemically racist “Jim Crow” laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So what can you do? Here are 5 ways you can participate in and learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:

  1. Host a chapter event that includes a discussion of civil rights/nonviolent action as it relates to ending the drug war.
  2. Commit to attending a MLK Day event on your campus or in your community. Use the opportunity to discuss the drug war if the timing and atmosphere are appropriate.
  3. Commit to reading a book or article about the civil rights movement and thinking about how we can apply it to our movement today.
  4. Commit to talking to 5 friends and family members about the drug war and encouraging them to talk to 5 friends as well. We want to create a unified nationwide rallying cry for change.
  5. Make a donation to SSDP so that we can continue doing what we do best; bringing students into the movement and starting the drug policy discussion all across the US and the world.

 

For more facts and statistics about racism in the drug war, visit http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Race_and_Prison