Apr 20, 2013 - America’s Drug War is Not our Fight – Brandon Ecoffey

America’s Drug War is not our fight:

Reassessing where we stand on America’s drug policy

By Brandon Ecoffey ecoffeyb@gmail.com
-Managing Editor at Native Sun News

Oglala Lakota

No matter which side of the moral spectrum you feel illegal drugs fall on, it is impossible to deny that the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted Native communities.

For the last forty years, over 1 trillion dollars has been spent on the attempted eradication of illegal drugs in the United States. The result, use of illegal drugs has roughly maintained stable while incarceration rates have skyrocketed.

Today there are more people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes combined in 1970. Astonishingly, if we were to return to the incarceration rate that existed in 1970 we would have to release 80% of those currently serving time. Last year alone the number of Federal inmates increased by ten thousand. Over half of all inmates serving in Federal prison system now, are non-violent drug offenders.

In no way am I advocating one way or another for the use of drugs, I am simply asking people to allow themselves to consider the possibility that the drug laws in this country are not doing anything to advance Native communities. Sometimes people lie, but statistics don’t. Native people are not beneficiaries of the Drug War. We are victims of it.

In this country, Native Americans are the smallest segment of the population yet we account for the second highest rate of incarceration of any race in state prisons nationwide.  In a country that only has 5% of the total population but nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners and who is also the world’s leader in prisoners per capita, this is an extremely significant statistic.

In Montana, Native peoples are 6% of the state population yet they account for 16% of those incarcerated; in North Dakota, 5% of the population is Native yet 19% of the prison population identifies as Native American. Not surprisingly in my home state of South Dakota, the numbers are alarming to say the least. In South Dakota, Native people comprise just 8% of the state’s population overall, however we make up an astonishing 21% of the prison population. These numbers do not account for our brothers and sisters incarcerated in the Federal penal systemwhere mandatory minimum sentences are burdening low-level drug offenders with decades of incarceration.

I understand that there are citizens of our Indigenous nations who feel that illegal drugs are morally and ethically wrong. However, I am asking these very same people to recognize that the same level of ethical and moral corruption they feel is associated with illegal drugs also exists in the prosecution and commutation of sentences for non-violent drug offenders at both the state and federal levels.

Often there are well informed and compassionate prosecutors and judges out there; however,their hands are tied by the draconian laws that dictate the discretion they have in recommending and imposing sentences for non-violent drug offenders, especially at the federal level where most of our community members are prosecuted due to Federal jurisdiction over drug related crimeson reservations. The tragedy is that there are often ill-informed and racist prosecutors in states like South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana who hand out years like change at a gas station; a nickel here, a dime there, and off to church they go.

Consider this, by most estimates there are at least 4,000 separate Federal criminal laws and conservatively 10,000 to 300,000 regulations that could be enforced criminally.  The sheernumber of laws that exist in this country led civil libertarian author Harvey Silvergate to estimate that each one of us commit three felonies a day. Three felonies a day!

The notion that many advocates of harsh and long mandatory minimum sentences have, that they are somehow morally and ethically superior to those of us who have been caught up in America’s delusional drug, is fundamentally wrong and reeks of ignorance. Now not all these laws deal with drugs and lucky for them do not carry the harsh penalties that are leveled in narcotics cases but it is something to consider.

The argument in favor of extended prison sentences and mass incarceration usually revolves around the belief that if there were no drug dealers our people wouldn’t be hooked on drugs and many of the issues in our community including poverty and crime would disappear like the darkness when the sun rises over our beautiful horizons.

In a perfect world this is a wonderful hypothetical but it does not address the root of the problem,the fact that demand exists for these drugs on reservations as a byproduct of our rampant rates of addiction and our high rates of unemployment that makes selling drugs both necessary and appealing for some. Until our problems of mass addiction caused by underlying mental health issues and mass joblessness are addressed our own love affair with mass incarceration will never be proven wrong.

Instead, I argue the inverse: if there were no addicts and more jobs, there would be far fewerdrug dealers and fewer social problems. Whether you get rid of the street level distributors or not, big pharmaceutical and Anheuser-Busch are going nowhere and as the debate over healthcare and White Clay has demonstrated, they have the means to satisfy the demand ten times over.

The result of extended prison sentences and mass incarceration has been that many of our most able and intelligent business minds have been removed from both our families and communities, leaving children without fathers and our business climate in disrepair. These policies have further resulted in our communities becoming a farm system for the prison industry and the development of a social cycle that continues to keep our Indigenous nations crime ridden and in poverty.

The reality of the situation is that drug policy in the United States has done nothing more than imprison huge segments of our Native populations, primarily our young male entrepreneurial class.

Often we have argued that our route to true Indigenous nationalism or sovereignty runs through our own self-determination. Self-determination does not begin with tribal governments, it originates at the personal and community level and it is time we start exercising our self-determination by approaching our issues with illegal drugs in our communities from a public health and socio-economic perspective.

Recently, I attended a town hall meeting in Rapid City, SD and US Attorney Brendan Johnson,who himself is an advocate for the strengthening of Tribal Sovereignty stated, “We cannot prosecute ourselves out of the problems on reservations,” which is something that those of us who have studied the war on drugs have known for years.

Interestingly however he felt the way in which Native nations could in fact loosen the noose that the Federal Government has had around our necks since Ex Parte Crow Dog is by strengthening Tribal Courts. He would go on to site the potential effectiveness of legislation like the Tribal Law and Order Act and the highly contested Violence Against Women Act that “gives” (which is an entire debate in itself but we will save that for another time) tribal courts more ability to prosecute crimes on our reservations and more leeway in determining appropriate sentencing guidelines.

It is important that tribes lobby for legislation like this in order to give our tribal courts more autonomy. However, it is but one strategy we must employ when approaching our high rates of incarceration and the drug war’s impact on our communities.

An additional way for tribes to address the impacts that America’s War on Drugs has had on our communities is to partner with organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and other like-minded organizationswho are lobbying for a move away from mass incarceration and towards more fair and appropriate sentencing mandates for non-violent drug offenders. This includes the use of therapeutic interventions as alternatives to incarceration. For Native peoples, alternative sentencing could include the use of traditional Native American spirituality and ceremonies to rid our people of the disease of addiction.

When roughly 80% of federal prisoners recidivate, it is obvious that just locking people up is not a viable or sustainable option. Realizing that our interests align with those of others and actingupon those interests is a way of increasing our ability to dictate the direction of legislation that impacts Indian Country.

The single most important step however that Native people can do to stop being the sludge flowing through the incarceration pipeline is to create sustainable economic development in our communities. We must create communities where our male entrepreneurs can thrive as legitimate businessman, where they can both create employment opportunities for other tribal members and provide a tax base that can be used to combat our rampant rates of addiction to drugs.

For the first time in history, many tribes have the opportunity right now to create a thriving self-sufficient economy based in the traditional entrepreneurial traditions that Native people have possessed for millennia. The release of the funds allocated through Cobell is and will continue tobring an unprecedented amount of money to tribes across the country. For example the Federalland buy-back program that was outlined in the Cobell settlement will bring an influx of $1.5 billion to our communities that will trickle down to the pockets of families and landowners who will be looking for ways to spend and invest it. This money is on top of the previously distributed Cobell dollars, the Salazar settlements that went directly to tribal governments, and the coming Ramah cash.

For the first time in modern history, many impoverished tribes will have the financial capital to develop sustainable economies that could potentially impact multiple facets of life in reservation communities. We cannot miss this once in many generations opportunity to create thrivingreservation economies that are driven by our own abilities and expertise.

Locking our people up for arbitrary drug offenses is not working. It is time for us to reassess where we stand on America’s Drug War and stop running blindly in to the battlefields.

Last Real Indians