It was more than a year ago when we told you the story of the real origins of the war on drugs. No, not the one instigated by Nixon or Reagan, or made worse by Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1994 crime bills, but the one the U.S. government has waged indefinitely since the 1930s.
Initiated by Harry Anslinger, the Depression-era war on drugs to some extent mirrors our contemporary crackdown. Those punished were disproportionately African American or Latino. Today, 57 percent of Americans locked away in state prisons on drug offenses are African American or Latino, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project.
Listen to our interview with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman
While allied social justice organizations, lawmakers and drug policy institutions have excoriated the drug war for decimating minority communities, one member of Congress is going a different route.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) last week authored a resolution that, among other things, calls on Congress to apologize to the public for this never-ending, $1-trillion-plus crackdown, and implores her colleagues to institute civil remedies and restorative justice for those punished by federal enforcement.
In her resolution, Watson Coleman slams the decades-long drug war as a failure to reduce drug use, and rightly points the finger for its origins at Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor to today’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In an exclusive interview with News Beat podcast, Watson Coleman said the drug war has created an “underclass” that has been stigmatized as a result of this failed policy, and “validates” anti-drug crusaders like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others who “don’t deserve that validation.”
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Unlike the previous administration, which instituted guidelines that gave states discretion to create their own marijuana policies, Sessions has rolled back such mandates, and is now demanding that federal prosecutors recommend maximum punishment for drug crimes. Of course, this should’ve all been expected once Sessions was nominated for attorney general. As a senator representing Alabama, he once declared “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
“It’s disrupted families for generations,” Watson Coleman told News Beat. “It has created an underclass, that it has been stigmatized by this. And while we may not be able to restore the losses that we’ve had in many instances of this, there are many things we can do. We can apologize for this failed policy. We can acknowledge that we need to be moving in a different direction as it relates to addiction and that the same people who are addicted to opioids today are no different than the people who were addicted to other drugs like heroin in the past.”
“Now we’re in the bad bad bad years with this administration," she continued. "And it just means we’ve left on the books opportunities for them to justify doing some of the heinous things that that do on many different levels, including this level.”
“Sessions needs to check his family out because I’m sure someone in that family has experienced marijuana minimally," she slammed. "I mean, it’s just too common. If anybody went to college they probably experienced it. That’s crap, and it’s just a reflection of just how evil he is and how evil-intended his policies are, and how racist he is.”
Watson Coleman also addressed the Trump administration’s policy to separate children and parents at the southern border amid reports of children locked up in cages and detention facilities.
“This is so un-American. This is mean and evil. It is child abuse. It is antithetical to who we say we’ve been,” Watson Coleman said. “We’ve been the refuge for people who’ve needed to flee their homelands and their countries for a variety of reasons. This is just evil personified. These are innocent children and these are children who have come here for safety and security, maybe some are unaccompanied.
“But many with their parents who opened their hands when they got to the border and said I’m seeking asylum, I’m seeking refuge, I need to be protected," she added. "And what are we doing? We are separating. We are ripping their children away from. We are putting them in group facilities. We are demeaning who we are as a democracy and who we are as a free country. It is just evilness. It is absolutely unwarranted and congress ought to be standing up against this. But this republican controlled, silent, impotent congress is letting this administration do whatever the heck it wants to do to people who don’t deserve to be treated this way.”
Also included in this special report are unpublished audio excerpts from our interview with New York Times bestselling author Johann Hari chronicling in disturbing detail Harry Anslinger and the U.S. government's crusade to destroy legendary Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Listen to New Beat's full episode "The True Origins of the War on Drugs" below to learn more about its racist intentions, Anslinger, and why Holiday was targeted.
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