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Drugs terrorism { August 8 2002 }

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Bush tars drug takers with aiding terrorists
Mandatory jail makes a drugs Gulag

Duncan Campbell

Thursday August 8, 2002

The US government is stepping up its attempt to link the war on drugs and the war on terrorism.

Its office of national drug control policy is running advertisements which tell Americans that by buying drugs they may be financing terrorists - "whether you're shooting heroin, snorting cocaine, taking Ecstasy or sharing a joint in your friend's back yard".

President Bush has declared: "If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America."

Campaigners for changes in the drug laws fear that it is the latest attempt to gather support for an increasingly unpopular war on drugs.

The ad campaign has highlighted the extraordinary number in jail for non-violent drug offences.

The number in jail for drug offences - about 500,000 - is greater than the entire jail population of western Europe. Of these, 320,000 are serving more than a year.

Just under 20% of those jailed for federal drug offences are serving time for marijuana offences.

Even minor marijuana offences carrying mandatory minimum sentences which some judges have apologised for having to apply.

Most are blacks or Latinos, and their imprisonment disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters whose absence from the polls was seen as one of the factors responsible for George Bush's election in 2000.

"We have denounced China as a Gulag state, but we have incarcerated many more," said Sanho Tree, director of the drug policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

"They want to hitch an increasingly unpopular drug war to a very popular war on terror."

It would be just as accurate, he said, to blame "soccer moms who drive SUVs" - four wheel drive "sports utility vehicles" - for supporting al-Qaida because of the extra petrol they use.

Many middle-class voters believe that the drug laws have eased when the reverse is true.

There were 734,498 marijuana-related arrests in 2000, 646,042 of them for simple possession, and 1,579,566 drugs arrests of all kind, the highest ever recorded by the FBI.

Last year the US spent $40bn fighting drugs, a 40-fold increase since 1980.

The effect on drug use and public opinion is minimal: 35% of Americans over the age of 11 have tried marijuana, and an estimated 11m say that they are current users.

Not all the voices raised against the drug laws are from expected quarters. Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico, has been an outspoken advocate of legalising drugs. Last week on an ABC television documentary the Detroit chief of police, Jerry Oliver, described the war as "insanity".

Linking drugs and terrorism shows that President Bush is still committed to a high level of imprisonment. His first budget measure on taking office last year was to give federal prisons $1bn more.

While states' spending on prisons has rised by 30% in the past 10 years, spending on higher education has fallen 18%.

Civil rights activists are concerned about the disparity in sentencing. Government figures show that black people make up 14% of the drug-taking population but 58% of those convicted of drug offences. Ninety-six percent of those prosecuted for possessing crack are black or Latino.

Drug offences are felonies and in many states disqualify voters from voting for the rest of their lives: 1.4 million African-American men are currently disqualified by felony convictions, including one in three of those in Florida and Alabama.

Nora Callahan, who co-founded the November Coalition in Seattle with another woman who, like her, had had a brother jailed for a long time on a drug offence, said: "This is a horrible inhumane war. Things are terrible and desperate for the prisoner in America... Millions of people have been stigmatised."

Mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in the late 80s.

Monica Pratt of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said: "There is a demonisation of drug offenders in the US, but it's not the kingpins doing the hard time, it's these low-level offences."

Julie Stewart, its president, said: "These are ordinary people given extraordinary sentences," she said. "I was naive enough to think that once legislators knew what was happening they would undo the laws. That didn't happen, but the tide is beginning to turn in Congress."

Mr Bush's drugs tsar, John Walters, said the widely held view that the criminal justice system was unjustly punishing young black men was among "the great urban myths of our time".

But a new poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that the drug policies no longer enjoy popular support, despite the heavy lobbying by the prison industry and the prison guards' union to maintain the sentences.

It shows that 61% of Americans oppose mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offences.

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