Jay Z and Molly Crabapple have just released a new video, “From Prohibition to Gold Rush,” that addresses everything from mass incarceration and criminalization, to the emerging above-ground marijuana market, to the need to repair the harms the drug war visits upon communities of color.
Watching this video made me look back on my decade of working in drug policy reform. There was a time when I was blind to the injustices highlighted in the video and that were going on around me because I carried my own stigma around drug use and drug sellers.
I remember getting involved in this work and thinking, “Am I being a responsible parent?”
“Was I working to change laws to make drug use acceptable?”
“What kind of messages was I sending my son?”
The more I learned about drug policy and the enforcement of drug laws, the more I realized that the war on drugs is really an unconscionable system designed to oppress people of color – people like me.
People like my son.
As a Black man, it became clearer to me the dangerous path I’d been walking. I grew up believing that drugs were bad and were destroying our neighborhoods. I thought that if you carried yourself a certain way, you wouldn’t be harassed by cops looking for drug sellers and users. In a white dominant culture where conformity is survival, I survived.
As my son was coming of age, he wanted the freedom to express himself in ways that I didn't understand. I wanted my son to be free to express himself. He would try out different hairstyles that I thought were ridiculous. I would clown him about his fashion sense and give him lectures about how he needed to conform so he wouldn't be targeted. I often found myself badgering him about acting certain way to avoid being labeled as “one of those kids.”
I felt he was naive in his wanting to express himself however he wanted and enjoy life the way he saw it. In actuality, he woke me up to why I do this work in drug policy reform. Why should he have to conform or worry about someone’s opinion of him if he's comfortable in his own skin? His push for self-expression is the core of drug policy reform. This video reminded me of that revelation.
As a drug policy reformer I am also a harm reductionist. I believe that every life has value. And when I talk with my son about harm reduction it has a layered meaning. We discussed the tremendous harm that can come to him in other ways that is tied to drugs but not necessarily drug use. We talked about a system that made it okay for authorities, law enforcement and school officials to target him, even though his white peers use drugs at the same rate.
For some kids, trying out drugs and experimenting is a rite of passage. Yet for my son, that decision could put him on a path to a caste system and a lifetime of obstacles. We live in a system that uses the drug war to target a young man who has aspirations to be a music artist, who graduated high school with honors, who was vice president of his student body, is attending college, and works part time simply because he fits a profile that is used to fill prisons.
Unfortunately for my son, his rite of passage includes being subjected to illegal searches and possible violence by the hands of the police. And that is just plain wrong—just as it is wrong for me, a father, to have to fear for his life every morning when I give him a hug and tell him to be safe.
I won't keep him from living his life on his own terms. And I will support anything that will make his existence on this earth a little safer.
Each drug law we dismantle is a weapon that can't be used against my son or other sons in our community.
Like Jay says in the video, “it’s time to rethink our policies and laws. The War on Drugs is an epic fail.”
Judh Grandchamps, Jr. is the manager of development operations at the Drug Policy Alliance.