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Would Drug Prisoners Vote Obama?

The War on Drugs imprisons millions of low-level offenders who (wrongly) believed the Obama Administration would help them. There's little reason for hope with a second term.


By Seth Ferranti


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Since President Richard Nixon first announced the War on Drugs forty years ago, the United States has maintained the highest incarceration rate in the world. Six million Americans are now locked up in the US—more than were in Josef Stalin’s gulags at the height of the Great Purge. Of those six million, more than 34% are low-level drug offenders. And the Bureau of Prisons, alone among federal entities, operates with almost no oversight. After all, as long as no one escapes, and as long as prisoners aren’t given any undue “country club” privileges, no politician is willing to pull back the veil on alleged abuses. Most Americans neither know nor care what life is like for incarcerated felons. They have no rights, they can't vote. Few citizens distinguish between prisoners, regardless of the severity of the crime. Is there any other way to explain the outrageous sentences thrown at drug addicts, casual users and small-time dealers?

When Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, the community of low-level drug offenders in federal prisons saw, for the first time in decades, a glimmer of hope that the draconian drug sentencing laws would be rolled back. Four years later and a $2 billion presidential election campaign later, do these prisoners have any reason to hope Obama will change things?

"I don't think it even matters that Obama won the election. Our government has created such an industry with this drug war, there is no way they are going to tear it all down to get a few votes."

"I've been in 10 years for a meth charge," says one prisoner. "I was a small-time cook and I got hammered with a 20 piece. I sold meth but I was addicted to it, too. I just cooked it to support my own habit and the feds made me out to be Walter White." This is a common story with federal drug charges. Every new case casts the accused as public enemy number one—regardless of the severity of the crime or, often, the simple facts. "I don't think it even matters that Obama won the election. Our government has created such an industry with this drug war, there is no way they are going to tear it all down to get a few votes."

It’s time to acknowledge the obvious: the United States cannot incarcerate its way out of the Drug War. Nor can we interdict the streets clean. In fact, instead of rising, prices paid for illicit drugs have consistently fallen each decade since the Nixon Administration. The Colombian drug lords became billionaires in the 1980s, and now the Mexican cartels are feeding at the conflict trough. Drug offenders now make up almost half of our federal prison population—and most were involved in crimes with no identifiable victims. By any reasonable standard, first-time nonviolent offenders should be sentenced to mandatory treatment and rehabilitation programs, not multi-year prison stretches.

But instead of addressing these issues, politicians are tight-lipped. Because the economy is the subject du jour, it trumped any mention in the presidential election of the Drug War, the dug population in prisons or mandatory minimums for drug offenders—even though the cost of each of these amounts to hundreds of billions annually. "To me, it seems like no one cares," says a federal prisoner. "The President doesn't care, Congress doesn't care, nobody cares. That is the problem. They have just buried us in here. No treatment, no rehabilitation. No programs to better ourselves—nothing. And I can get high all I want. So what's the point?"

If I were a cynic, I might answer that the point is money. Millions of Americans experiment with illegal drugs every year, stoking a $70 billion a year industry. While the Drug War has led to hideous acts of violence and venal political corruption, the real takeaway is this: it makes a small number of people very wealthy. For instance, the late Colombian Pablo Escobar and active Mexican drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman have each ranked on Forbes' World's Billionaires List. And while treatment costs less than incarceration, our government is more interested in warehousing addicts. In a climate where tightening economic reigns is the supreme political ideal, our drug laws make even less sense.

"I'm doing 22 years for crack," says Sam, a prisoner doing time at a federal lockup in Pennsylvania. "I had a life sentence, but when they changed the crack-to-powder-cocaine ratio from 100-to-1 to 180-to-1, I got some relief. I figured with President Obama—you know, a black man in the White House—I would be going home, but I'm still here. I knew if Romney got in, it would have gotten worse."

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