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I prosecuted drug offenders in the ’80s. It was a disaster. Why is Sessions taking us back?

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“Drugs are bad. People who sell or use drugs are bad people,” I thought. “Prosecute them.”

It was the mid-1980s, I was only a few years out of law school, and the war on drugs was in full swing. I took a job as assistant state’s attorney and was assigned to handle drug cases in Chicago. I was drawn to the prosecutor’s office thinking I could use my legal training to help my community by getting justice for victims and locking up those that preyed on them. My attitude toward drug users was that it was their fault and they deserved to be punished.

Nearly four decades later, my views have changed completely. I see the war on drugs for what it is — a total failure. I’m on the board of directors for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of current and former police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals devoted to ending the war on drugs. We want to legalize all drugs — in order to manage and regulate them.

People have often asked me if there was one dramatic incident that turned me from a drug prosecutor to an opponent of the war on drugs. The short answer is no. But there are three major turning points that changed my mind. Taken together, they paint a damning picture of policies that favor harsh penalties for even minor drug use.

I’m telling my story now because I’m alarmed to see Donald Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, taking steps to ramp up the war on drugs. The last thing I want is for the harsh “law and order” policies of the 1980s to come back. That would mean a return to racially biased arrests, more incarceration, more broken homes, more drug-related violence, more overdoses, and decisions about drug sales left in the hands of criminal gangs and international cartels.

As a prosecutor, I couldn’t ignore the racist impacts of drug policy

I first started to question the war on drugs a few months into my time as an assistant state’s attorney in Chicago.

Working nights and weekends in the bond courts, I saw a steady stream of drug defendants being taken from the holding cell for their 15-second “hearing” before the judge, who would set bond and assign a court date.

Almost all those defendants were black — which was not consistent with the diverse mix of races I saw on the streets of Chicago. Years later, I would see the statistics showing that drug use is fairly similar across racial and ethnic groups, but black people are disproportionately arrested compared to white people. Later I also learned it was President Richard Nixon who put marijuana on Schedule I, overruling the advice of his own advisers. Top Nixon aide Dan Ehrlichman would later reveal that Nixon designed the policy to advance a war against black people.

But even without knowing these statistics or the historic roots of American drug policy, the racial homogeneity of the defendants I saw didn’t seem right. Was there some reason white people weren’t being arrested? Were young black men being targeted?

When I was in law school from 1976 to 1979, criminal law was simply discussed as a set of universally applicable principles: criminal intent, evidence, right against self-incrimination, and so on. And in those days, the war on drugs had not yet expanded to be a topic in the law school curriculum. The possibility that laws — race-neutral on their face — might be enforced in racially discriminatory ways never came up, so my experience in a Chicago court room was an eye-opener for me.

I began to be suspicious of the police reports. Many reports used the same phrase: “Defendant dropped a baggie containing marijuana on the ground as I approached him.” “Really?” I thought. Reports would later reveal multiple cases of police writing false or exaggerated reports and statements.

I also began to think about the sheer waste and futility of drug prosecution. I looked at hundreds of rap sheets, people with dozens of minor drug arrests and convictions. With such a record, defendants stood no chance of any job in the legitimate economy. We were just cycling them back into the drug economy and could expect to see them again in another week or month. Public safety suffered as a result.

Defendants came in and defendants went out. We were not providing feasible alternatives for work or survival after release, and drug cases on a rap sheet would make legitimate employment just about impossible. Defendants didn’t change because their circumstances didn’t change. The justice system didn’t change its methods. We were locked in a dance with no end in sight, with taxpayers funding all the machinery of police, prosecutors, judges, courts, and jail, while money for drug treatment was nearly nonexistent.

I worked in the bond courts for about a year while working days on appeals to the Illinois Appellate and Supreme court. I had more and more questions about what we were doing, but my main focus was on getting through the court call of a hundred or more cases. A judge once yelled at me, “Ms. State’s Attorney, you don’t have time to think. Make a decision.”

I then moved on to other prosecutorial assignments — auto theft, domestic violence (mostly alcohol-driven), murders, and then running the appeals division. I wasn’t professionally involved with drug cases anymore, and drugs didn’t affect my safe, middle-class, and mostly white community — until they did.

I saw how the “war on drugs” affected lives outside of the Chicago court systems

My son went to a public high school in Chicago in the late 1990s. By this time, I was no longer a prosecutor and was doing management consulting with state and local governments. One of my son’s classmates — white, in the academic track — died of a heroin overdose. Other kids had known about his drug addiction but did not tell their parents. Teenagers may not understand addiction, the finality of death, or how death affects a family. But they sure knew you’re not supposed to rat on a friend to your parents, who might take it to the Chicago police.

Other parents and I talked about how sad it was, and what a waste, but none of us connected the death with the fact that heroin was illegal. Blaming the user or involving the police were just inevitable consequences of heroin use. But for the first time, I saw that drug problems were not limited to “other people.” This hit too close to home.

Drug prohibition has created a stigma that blocks public health solutions, and fosters an intense distrust for police and the criminal justice system. One of the most significant ways we can improve police-community relations is to end the war on drugs. “Officer Friendly,” the kind of police that the community trusts, is another casualty of this war.

I am convinced that this young man was a victim of the war on drugs. Heroin would not have killed him had he been able to ask for or receive help.

Working in Afghanistan helped me realize just how far the US war on drugs had gone

The final straw in my disillusionment with the war on drugs came in the mid-2000s, when I was living in Afghanistan, working at various times for USAID, the UN, and with the US Army and Marine Corps. Because Afghanistan’s main export crop, opium poppy, was declared illegal by the US government, we have turned the country into a narco state.

Police and governmental corruption runs rampant — officials either participate in the drug trade or are bribed to look the other way. US forces would try to encourage impoverished Afghan farmers to grow other crops, but there are only so many crops that grow well in their soil and climate, and nothing comes close to the profit margin of poppies.

When I was working with the Marine Corps in 2012, we mapped “insurgent” networks in Southern Afghanistan, which turned out to be mostly tribes protecting a few square miles of drug turf. I let out an uncomfortable laugh when I saw the diagrams. They reminded me so much of Chicago neighborhoods where gangs fought to the death to protect a few square blocks. It’s the same around the world. Everybody wants to protect turf and profits.

I came home from Afghanistan and immediately joined LEAP, the pro-drug legalization group I’m still part of today. I had officially switched sides in the war on drugs. We speak to community and college groups, conduct radio interviews, testify on legislation, and write op-ed columns — always explaining how illegality leads to violence, overdose deaths, and corruption.

Many members of LEAP once prosecuted drug cases. What had changed their minds —and mine — was the gradual accumulation of evidence from so many different directions: unemployable men and fathers, racial disparities in prosecution and sentencing, broken families, wasted public resources, corruption of police around the world, deaths of innocent bystanders, and those who got sucked into heroin addiction. My experience was like a leaky pipe. Drip. Drip. Drip. Keep it up long enough and you get the Grand Canyon.

Sessions wants to take us back to the bad old days

Last week, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to crack down on drug cases and charge defendants as harshly as the law allows. He also ordered prosecutors to argue for mandatory minimum sentences. This means a set prison term required by statute, even if the prosecutor thinks probation or a shorter term would better fit the circumstances, such as for a first-time offender. I believe this policy leaves no room for prosecutorial discretion and undermines public safety.

This order reverses a 2013 Obama administration order, which did not change the drug laws, but directed federal prosecutors to try to avoid severe mandatory minimums. That policy was starting to reduce our incarceration rate, which is higher than in any country on the planet, including Russia or China.

I feel like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, but instead of waking up to a cute weather-themed holiday, I wake up to our new administration returning to a failed and disastrous crusade.

We still don’t know whether Sessions will continue the Obama policy of not enforcing federal law in states that have legalized marijuana, but we should be forewarned. The vulnerability is there.

Sessions is taking us in precisely the wrong direction. We need to be considering radical change to reverse the war on drugs. It is time to repeal federal laws that prosecute drug users and dealers. Only legalization allows us to control drugs, reduce youth access, and call a halt to organized crime’s monopoly of the industry. We have to view drugs from a public health perspective because our criminal justice strategy has failed.

Put the cartels that terrorize Mexico out of business. End the incentive for street gangs to fight over drug territories. Expunge drug convictions and support real jobs in inner cities. Fund drug treatment on-demand for those who want it. Allow research into the medicinal properties of marijuana and get legislators out of the business of deciding which conditions can be treated with cannabis.

We cannot settle for illusory solutions such as not enforcing bad laws. Let’s address the fundamental problem — repeal the drug laws and replace them with a sensible system of regulations.

Even Bill Murray eventually escaped Groundhog Day. We can too.

Inge Fryklund is a former Chicago prosecutor and City of Chicago department head. She taught public sector management at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, and has spent five years in Afghanistan working with local governments and the judiciary and advising the US Army and Marine Corps. At the request of the US Army War College, she wrote Our Disastrous Afghan Drug War. When not kayaking, she works with Law Enforcement Action Partnership to end the war on drugs.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at [email protected].

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