There’s an exchange in Saga, the sci-fi comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (you should read it!), where two characters debate the role of drugs and the merits of their art. Alana is a new actress in the Circuit, an underground theater troupe whose performances are broadcast to the universe, and Yuma is the set designer and a veteran of the troupe. The soap opera plots of the Circuit performances are hokey, but Alana has always wanted to be a star in the Circuit. Yuma is more cynical about their role in the universe, a universe where most inhabited planets are stuck in a protracted war with one another.
Yuma: It’s true, the Circuit has only ever existed to pacify an angry and hopeless population.
Alana: Maybe shitty shows like ours, but what about actual good ones? I got into “Filament City” when I was young, changed the way I think about poverty.
Yuma: And what did you do? Join a nonprofit organization? Volunteer at a soup kitchen? Or did you lock yourself in a tiny room, shut the blinds and mainline every transmission like a junkie? Some art might have the power to change people, but the Circuit can only ever change the way we feel, and never for very long.
Alana: Yuma, if you really think this business is just narcotizing our audience, why are you still working here?
Yuma: Because I adore drugs.
Science fiction, though set in a galaxy far, far away in some distant age in the future or past, often functions as a critique of the here and now. These words by the two women seem pointed to our own TV entertainments. I know I’ve binge-watched shows on DVD or Netflix “like a junkie.” But it’s the comment about the show “Filament City” that really gets me. HBO’s The Wire seems analogous with the fictional “Filament City.” However, The Wire is actually good (as opposed to the Circuit productions) and socially conscious. And it helped me change my mind on how I think about poverty and especially the Drug War, as I’m sure it has for many other viewers.
I’ve never used illegal drugs. It’s not that I have incredible self control and just say no; I’ve never even been offered drugs. I’ve never sought them out, either, though. So I don’t have a lot of experience with drug users. But I suppose I thought, when I thought about it at all, that drug users deserved their jail time because they knowingly broke the law. I tend to be a rule follower, so it was easy to sit in judgment over those who have broken the rules. I didn’t really think about the fact that drug users need help with their addictions. It’s not something that a person can usually do by themselves.
So The Wire helped me change my mind on drugs by showing me lives ruined by drugs and the drug trade, from users to dealers to cops to innocent bystanders. Yuma, in the quote above, seems to think that any sort of change, if it’s real change, would require getting involved in some way, either by volunteering to help drug addicts or becoming an activist. And sure, those would be great things to do, but they are not things I can undertake at this time. Does that mean that my mind hasn’t really changed if I don’t become an activist? I don’t think so. I think there are other ways to express my change of thinking. For me, watching The Wire is a catalyst, leading me to want to know more about the criminal justice system (I’m really interested in reading The New Jim Crow) and the lives of those in poverty affected by drugs (I’m also eager to read Random Family). Now I want to support political candidates who are for changing sentencing guidelines for drug offenders or other prison reforms. Educating myself and voting behavior are not meaningless changes.
One question that bothers me is why do we lock up drug offenders instead of offering them treatment? Why is drug addiction considered a criminal matter rather than a health issue? I recently finished a delightful non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Watson helps Holmes kick his cocaine habit. Sherlock’s cocaine use was mentioned in the original stories, but in this tale, his addiction has gotten out of control. He is delusional, and the drug is killing him. As his best friend, Watson naturally cares for him and wants him to be free of the drug. He hatches a plan to help Sherlock break his addiction. Throughout the story we empathize with Sherlock, wanting to understand his addiction and eager to see him helped. But this is not how we treat most drug users in America.
In America, we lock them up. Nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons are there on drug charges (48.7%, or 97,252 as of Nov. 29, 2014). Many of the state and local inmates are also there for drug charges. I could not find exact figures for non-federal inmates, so I looked up the stats for South Dakota, the state where I live. Twenty three percent of inmates in SD are there on drug charges, and more than half of that 23% were guilty of possession (pdf). Possession charges make no distinction between personal use and intent to distribute or sell the drug; it merely means the person has illegal drugs. The total prison population (federal, state, and local) is over 2 million inmates, but it hasn’t always been so large. Starting in the mid-1970s the prison population has grown more than four-fold. It used to be less than 500,000 before the Drug War started.
And what has the Drug War accomplished besides filling our prisons to capacity? The price of drugs has gone down, not up, over time. The purity of the drugs has also increased over time. These are evidences that drugs are more available than ever, despite the efforts of the War on Drugs. There is also the human toll. The Drug War disproportionately targets black people more than white people. Whites use drugs at least as much as if not more than blacks over the course of their lifetime, but blacks make up a larger percentage of prison inmates on drug charges. Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, though their rate of marijuana usage is practically the same as for white people.
I don’t claim to know what to do for those who use drugs. But incarcerating them for the last 40 years doesn’t seem like the solution. The War on Drugs is a war on people who need help. And it’s a war that isn’t working. Some of you already know this, but it took the art of The Wire and a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes to help me see it, too.