Yesterday, I published an essay titled, “Why I Can’t Vote For John Bel Edwards (Unless He Changes His Position On The War On Drugs).” Representative Edwards, for those of you who may not know, is a two-term Democratic member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and, thus far, the only Democratic candidate in next year’s gubernatorial elections.
As I mentioned yesterday, I was troubled by a pre-filed piece of legislation that was co-authored by Representative Edwards, House Bill 103 (or HB 103). HB 103, which is also co-authored by Republican Representative Franklin Foil, as I explained in my previous post, purports to dramatically increase the mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving intent to distribute Schedule One opiates, particularly heroin, and opium derivatives, quadrupling the current minimums and mandating, instead, 20 year sentences, though it seems to reserve a probationary status after five years.
I want to make this abundantly clear: I am vehemently opposed to the continuation of one of the most expensive and most destructive wars in American history, the War on Drugs. Our laws are antiquated and broken, and because of our zeal in “fighting” this war- a war that targets, almost entirely, American citizens engaging in “consensual crimes,” we continue to exacerbate and perpetuate enforcement against primarily poor, minority Americans who simply do not have the prerequisite financial resources, the support network, or the education to seek specialized treatment. Instead, in our new age of privatized prisons, inmates are economic commodities: the more, the merrier.
Heroin is a particularly insidious and dangerous drug, and perhaps ironically, its danger is often a result of a complete lack of oversight, controls, and regulations. In other words, its illegality makes it exponentially more dangerous.
Opium, it’s worth noting, was the first drug to be banned as “illegal” in the United States, more than a century ago, primarily as a reaction against Chinese immigrants and their opium dens in California. And here we are, a century later, still attempting to eliminate a drug that will not relent. Something is not working.
Since the late 1970s and beginning, in full, during the 1980s, legislatures throughout the country began passing mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders. The worry, as I appreciate it, was the discretionary sentencing by judges didn’t send a strong enough message. Reformers wanted coherence and simplicity.
As we have learned during the last thirty plus years, these mandatory minimum sentences have done almost nothing to curb or prevent drug use or drug dealing. To be sure, however, there is data suggesting that draconian laws against one particular type of drug only resort in wide-scale substitution. When, in the early 1990s, we focused on prosecuting crack cocaine, the price of crack increased and the price of heroin dropped. Suddenly, heroin was, again, the drug du jour. Recently, as the price and penalties of marijuana have increased, many users began smoking chemical combinations, like K2, and even bath salts, over-the-counter mixtures that were far more harmful and entirely more deadly (no one has ever overdosed from marijuana).
I think it is critical that we finally begin to re-examine our pedagogical and ontological understanding of drug use, drug possession, and drug distribution: How do we educate society on the phenomena of drug dependency? What really motivates this almost basic and almost universal proclivity that we share toward addiction? How can we best address the spectrum of addiction, everything from coffee and cigarettes to alcohol and cocaine and heroin? What role does access to health care play in this discussion? Are people without health care more likely to become addicted to illegal, dangerous drugs? Are people with health care more likely to become dependent on dangerous pharmaceuticals? Qualitatively, what is the difference, if any, between a poor person on speed and a wealthier person on Adderral? Or a poor person on heroin and a wealthier person on valium or Oxycontin?
Yesterday, I spoke with Representative Edwards, and though we disagree with one another on the merits of his proposed legislation, I found him to be a profoundly genuine and earnestly receptive guy, a rarity in politics. He explained to me his concerns: Recently, the local Louisiana media has focused on a rash of heroin overdoses in Louisiana. (No, this has nothing to do with the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman; they pre-dated his high-profile death by months). The stories are both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
I cannot fault Representative Edwards for seeing this problem and feeling compelled to address it. As he pointed out to me, the vast and overwhelming majority of heroin dealers are not actually heroin addicts; for them, this is a business. And they are peddling toxic, highly-addictive illegal drugs and selling them indiscriminately.
I think we should fundamentally rethink the regime we have established with regard to illegal drugs and that there is a simple and obvious way to neuter these drug dealers without needing to pass ever-increasing Draconian laws about sentencing, laws that seem to only benefit the balance sheets of private prisons. I also expressed to Representative Edwards my concerns about the statutory construction of the term “possession with intent to distribute,” because I believe that it has less to do with “intent,” as we generally understand the word, and more to do with quantity. Because of this, we regularly charge and sentence people who struggle with drug addiction as if they are drug dealers, which seems antithetical to the widely-held belief that prison for addicts should be focused on rehabilitation, while prison for dealers should perhaps be more concerned with retributive justice. Representative Edwards assured me he would look into the possibility of strengthening the statutory definition of “possession with the intent to distribute,” and I appreciated his candor and his consideration; this would be huge. If a conviction on “intent to distribute” requires more than a measurement of quantity and also requires a showing of actual “intent” or mens rea, it would go a long way in ensuring that our laws are more fairly and equally applied.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting, to his credit, that Representative Edwards supports changing existing law in order to ensure that second and third offense possession of marijuana are treated as misdemeanors, not as felonies. This actually makes him one of the most progressive elected officials on this issue in the entire State, and it’s not a minor issue.
Again, we may disagree on the efficacy of mandatory minimums for heroin dealers; I still would prefer a different schematic. But I don’t fault his ultimate intention and his commitment, as expressed to me, to ensure that any law like this would target opportunistic black-market drug dealers who earn their living selling deadly drugs that, for the most part, are grown and sold in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan (Representative Edwards didn’t add that last detail; I did. But it’s true. 80% of heroin comes from Afghanistan).
I spoke too soon about Representative Edwards. He is a politician who listens, who engages, and who truly seems to appreciate a robust conversation on policy, without any sense of pretension or arrogance. That’s a breath of fresh air.
He earned back my vote through the sheer force of his decency and respect.