Opinion: The War on Drugs Got It Wrong
“No one is disposable,” writes David Johnson of Grassroots Leadership
When I was arrested for my first drug offense, I was 19 years old. The War on Drugs told elected officials that Black people like me were the villains of the story and needed to be locked away in the name of public safety. Along with millions across the country, I was deemed disposable. For the next 20 years, I couldn't find a job or find a place to live in, and I panicked every time I was pulled over for fear that once again that disposable label would be placed on my forehead.
Today I celebrate my life as a partner, parent, son, brother, colleague, and friend in successful recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness. I do not owe my recovery to the criminal justice system; locking me in a cage harmed me and drove me further away from wellness. My recovery was made possible thanks to an amazing support network of friends and family dedicated to my best interests. As a formerly incarcerated Black man with behavioral health diagnoses, my success is a statistical anomaly – but it doesn't have to be. When we stop investing in systems of policing and punishment, we make space to create alternatives that promote wellness and healing for everyone.
Earlier this month, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, and the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic released a preliminary key findings report. The report finds that – in a city that systematically pushes Black people out of Austin and dwindled the population to just over 9% – Black people constitute over a third of all drug arrests. Half of the arrests resulted from minor traffic stops like driving with an expired registration or failure to signal. Half of possession of controlled substance cases directly related to medical or mental health crises, resulting in jail time of up to two years, delaying or denying the immediate need to respond to medical and mental health needs.
The report found that minor traffic violations account for half of the arrests analyzed in the report. Digging deeper, we found that the areas containing the largest clusters of drug possession arrests are Rundberg, East Riverside, and East William Cannon – neighborhoods where Black and Latinx communities predominantly live.
The path to recovery is different for everyone, but we must ensure that resources and tools are in place so that wellness is equally available to anyone who chooses it. We need to build upon current efforts, such as the Sobering Center and the recent elimination of arrests for low-level cannabis possession, and expand our investment in person-centered, community-driven approaches to address the prevalence of behavioral health issues within Travis County and prevent harms like overdose and death. Instead of arrest and incarceration, which are costly and disruptive to our families and communities, local policymakers must provide avenues for care for those who need them and remove all barriers to housing and employment for justice-involved people.
If we want to live in a city that is healthy and thriving, we must provide resources and care to all of our communities. People shouldn't be punished for needing help – that's why we must enact a Good Samaritan policy so people who call 911 for an overdose are not arrested and punished; studies show states with Good Samaritan laws experienced a 15% decrease in overall opioid deaths. Similarly, we must adopt a hospital-based deflection program that eliminates the threat of arrest for people admitted due to overdose and instead connects them with support services. Most importantly, we must divorce ourselves from this racist drug war once and for all.
Every step forward on my path reaffirms that the way this system is currently built leaves no room for interest in my recovery and transformation. We must push ourselves to be creative and imagine a community that radically practices the act of compassion and care for everyone. It's time for us to do better. It is time for us to tell our elected officials that the War on Drugs got it wrong: No one is disposable.
David Johnson is a criminal justice organizer with Grassroots Leadership.
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