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In a recent online town hall meeting at the White House, President Obama was asked by the online audience whether he thought legalizing marijuana would create jobs and help the economy. It was the most popular question asked at the meeting. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama remarked, then adding, “No, I don’t think this would be a good strategy.” He seemed to give a little chuckle, as did the extras who were cast as audience members in the background behind the president.

But this is no laughing matter, and America’s failed war on drugs is serious business. Dead serious, in a literal sense. The United States has a voracious appetite for drugs, this is without question. Over the years – in a move tinged partly with greed, partly with boneheadedness and shortsightedness, and partly with racism – the nation has treated drugs as an issue of morality and criminal justice. As a result of this war on drugs, poor communities and communities of color have been decimated. Rather than target the places where most of the drugs are consumed – in the White suburbs, middle-class areas and wealthy enclaves – law enforcement targets the areas where drug sales and drug use are most conspicuous: the inner city. As a result, 1 in 99 adults is behind bars, including 1 in 36 Latino adults, 1 in 15 Black adults, and 1 in 9 African Americans between the ages of 20 and 34. Yes, I said 1 in 9. Generations are spending their most formidable years in prison over drugs, sometimes most of their lives, when they should be raising their families, contributing to society, getting an education, what have you. Like the effects of the Vietnam War, the damage visited upon these communities by the drug war is irreparable. America has become the most incarcerated nation, with a rate of imprisonment five times higher than the rest of the world.

The effects of these harsh punitive policies, and the criminalization of drugs, have implications beyond the borders of this country. Mexican drug cartels, meeting America’s drug demand, are wreaking havoc on Mexico. That country is in trouble, big trouble. Over 1,100 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico so far this year (6,200 in 2008), due in no small measure to the use of American firearms. Decapitations, kidnappings, torture, the use of hand grenades, and murders with military-style assault weapons are standard fare. And this crisis is spilling over into the United States.

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BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service, among others. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson. His blog is davidalove.com.

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