There was a quake last week, but you likely didn’t feel it.
See, this particular quake was not of the Earth, involved no shifting of the planetary crust. No, what shifted was a paradigm, and the implications are hopeful and profound.
On Tuesday, you see, the NAACP passed a resolution calling for an end to the War on Drugs.
Said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous in a written statement, “These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African-American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidence-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America.”
Here’s why this matters. Or, more to the point, why it matters more than if such a statement came from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. The NAACP is not just the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. It is also its most conservative.
That word is used here not in the modern sense of tea party antics or Fox “News” rantings but, rather, in the original sense, denoting a propensity toward caution and a distrust of the bold, the risky, the new. And that’s the NAACP all over.
Let the Universal Negro Improvement Association go back to Africa. Let the Nation of Islam preach black supremacy. Let the Congress of Racial Equality launch Freedom Rides.
The NAACP went to court.
Yes, the comparison is simplistic, but it’s essentially apt. Nor is the point of it to disparage — after all, going to court produced a landmark ruling in 1954. No, it’s only to say there has always been something determinedly middle class and cautious about the NAACP. This is the group whose then-leader, Roy Wilkins, famously detested Martin Luther King for his street theatrics.
For that group, then, to demand an end to the Drug War represents a monumental sea change.
Interestingly, a number of other conservative — again, in the old, intelligent sense of the word — observers have also questioned U.S. drug policy. That includes George Schultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and the late William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review.
And why not? By now, two things should be neon obvious where the drug war is concerned.
The first is that it failed. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group, reports that after 40 million arrests and a trillion dollars spent to fight drug use, the number of those who have used drugs is up 2,800 percent since 1970.
The second is that it has come down like a hammer on the African-American community while leaving the white community, which does most of the buying, selling and using of drugs in this country, unscathed. The Sentencing Project, another advocacy group, reports that while two-thirds of regular crack users are white or Latino, better than 80 percent of those sentenced in federal court for crack-related crimes are black. That is absurd, obscene and unjust.
It is time to concede what has long been apparent: you cannot jail people out of wanting what they want. But, you just might be able to treat and educate them to that purpose. Granted, that will require a paradigm shift some of us will find difficult to get our heads around.
But if the NAACP can do it, you and I have no excuse.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.