The Des Moines Register, Wednesday, February 4, 1998, Page 9A


Drug policy contradicts King's philosophy

"I choose to identify with the under-privileged.  I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry.  I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity.  I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign." - Martin Luther King Jr.

    According to a recent essay in The New York Times by Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman, "In 1970 there were 200,000 people in prison.   Today, 1.6 million people are.  In addition, 2.3 million are on probation and parole.  The attempt to prohibit drugs is by far the major source of the horrendous growth of the prison population."
    He quoted from a speech by the director of Connecticut's addiction services comparing prisons in America and South Africa in 1995: "In the land of the Bill of Rights, we jail over four times as many black men as the only country in the world that advertised a political policy of apartheid."
    Friedman asked, "How many of our citizens do we want to turn into criminals before we yell 'enough'?  Can any policy, however high-minded, be moral if it leads to widespread corruption, imprisons so many, has so racist an effect, destroys our inner cities, wreaks havoc on misguided and vulnerable individuals and brings death and destruction to foreign countries?"
    Young black men are being incarcerated at unprecedented rates to prison terms that echo King's words of a "long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.   These prison sentences linger on the brink of insanity.  For example, if an individual has a prior marijuana conviction that is a felony (one year or more in prison) and is later found to be in possession of five or more grams of crack cocaine, his or her sentence is 20 years to life, if convicted.  Crack cocaine is considered the drug of choice of young black drug users.
    The sentence is 100 times more severe for the person who has crack cocaine than for the individual, more than likely a white person, who has the same drug in powder form.  Scientists nearly unanimously agree that the drug is the same.
    In my opinion, King would review these frightening statistics, measure their impact on young black men - including the devastation in our inner cities - and be outraged.  He might use one of his first speeches before reaching national prominence, "This is not a war between the white and Negro but a conflict between justice and injustice. ..."
    He would perhaps address the Department of Justice, members of Congress and other elected officials who fear they commit political and personal suicide if they speak out about the insanity of our failed "War on Drugs."  He would insist upon the adoption of a fair drug policy recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.   The commission has in essence called racist the sentencing guidelines distinguishing crack cocaine from powder cocaine.  He might tell the politicians, "This is a great issue we are confronted with and the consequences for my personal life are not particularly important.  It is the triumph of cause that I am concerned about....  I think when a person lives with fear of the consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems we confront."
    By ignoring the startling statistics concerning the effects of racism in our sentencing practices in drug cases while hiding behind "crime rates," elected officials are adding to a moral crisis that has crippled one generation and is making inroads on another.  Continuing to lock up young black males at the highest rate in the history of civilization will haunt this country.
    America's drug policy discriminates in a manner that contradicts the spirit, ideas and philosophy of King.  The effect of our drug policy is to place voting black men in prison in an attempt to make them disappear.  However, as Ralph Ellison so eloquently stated in his opening passage to the "Invisible Man": "I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquid -- and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard distorted glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figment of their imagination -- indeed everything and anything except me."
    Some of our most respected and thoughtful state and federal officials are wrong on the present drug policy.  They must rethink a policy that makes so many of our young people (especially young black males) convicted criminals.  They have a duty to create a drug policy that educates, provides treatment and decriminalizes drug use.
    It is the only way to rescue a failed, disastrous, discriminatory drug policy and provide an exit sign at the end of what King describes as "a long and desolate corridor."

ALFREDO PARRISH is a Des Moines attorney.

The Des Moines Register
Wednesday, February 4, 1998, Page 9A