Thanksgiving Reflections: Ending the War on Drugs

Thanksgiving Reflections: Ending the “War on Drugs”

By Naya Arbiter

This Thanksgiving might we reflect not only on what we are grateful for, but on personal responsibility. If we are in recovery; work in social justice; are processing the loss a loved one to death, addiction, or prison; let us remember the thousands without a chance.

Honest reflection is a prerequisite for keeping our holidays (holy days) vibrant and relevant. Ideally, we step into a sacred space to celebrate the best of our own and each other’s intentions. Can we bear witness, serve as activists, and collectively end the “War on Drugs?” This “war” has devastated and divided our nation; exported hopelessness, promoted violence, racism, and disease, and fostered organized criminality. We understand that those who journeyed from degradation to dignity must share hope with the suffering. Yet our collective story embodying the reality of thousands of lives has not informed policy. The policy-makers gather like the orchestra on the Titanic – playing yesterday’s music as the ship sinks – rather than binding together anything that floats to save lives. The collective story matters; truth repeatedly offered has a transformative effect.

“Because a story is a story; you may tell it as your imagination and your being and your environment dictate; and if your story grows wings and becomes the property of others, you may not hold it back. One day it will return to you, enriched by new details and with a new voice.” ~Nelson Mandela

Politicians care about the next election; statesmen and women care about the next generations. Politicians, not statesmen implemented the drug war. This was accomplished with such vehement rhetoric that it became politically incorrect to discuss the horrific direct and collateral damage caused.

This point is masterfully presented in the film, “Breaking the Taboo”, by Sam Branson of SunDog films, tracing the drug war from Nixon to the present day, interviewing presidents and prime ministers from different continents. Branson, like the best documentary filmmakers, fulfills the statesman’s role, presenting the story of our time, and challenging us to see rather than look, to widen our lens; to consider alternatives. The audience is not asked to judge the film; rather to abandon the role of spectator and participate in dialogue. (http://www.breakingthetaboo.inf)

Sir Richard Branson, Sam Branson’s father and CEO of the Virgin Group, is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. ( He has presented the film at a number of venues in America. Faculty from Amity Foundation, fortunate enough to attend and participate in post-screening discussion, have been inspired to increase efforts to “break the taboo”. Any organization in this work should watch this film.

Within the helping traditions lies a foundation for engaging in social activism. The Oxford Group embraced continuance, helping others as one had been helped; 12-Step seeks to “carry the message to others suffering without a thought of reward”; and therapeutic communities state that “inclusion and community building serve as antidotes to alienation, leaving people, places, and situations better than we found them.”

Social service addresses the needs of individuals; social activism creatively engages in the elimination of what caused those needs. In ensuring treatment to malaria victims, the social activist drains the swamp to rid the community of mosquitoes. In the DNA of all recovery and self-actualization is the categorical imperative of social activism. Today “carrying the message” necessitates increasing our efforts as social activists.

In 1962, Senator Thomas Dodd, Chairman, Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, declared on the Senate Floor: “Mr. President…addiction is one of the most baffling social and emotional diseases known to our society… A vicious affliction because it dehumanizes the individual… Increasingly stricter laws make the risks involved in dope pushing extremely high. However, even the death penalty for possession will not eliminate traffic as long as the demand is there… The higher the risk, the higher the price, the higher the profit…” Concerned for the next generation, he supported innovation and demanded reduction and treatment – as opposed to increased interdiction, punishment, and stricter laws.

The politicians chose stricter laws – and declared war.

To fight a war enemies are identified, rejected, objectified – called names presenting them as subhuman. Americans who haven’t had a war on our soil in generations use the word liberally. The waiting list for the wounded in this war is long – with confusion regarding who is wounded and who the enemy is.

“Fierce compassion is the transformation of anger into compassion…help can come from forgotten quarters; what has been cast out, lost, rejected, and marginalized…is what saves us and becomes the cornerstone for a new foundation.

The word “remembrance” comes from the Latin word “recordari”, which means to pass again through the heart. To “re-member” in one sense is to pass again through the heart…putting together the “dis” membered pieces.” ~China Galland

Who might we remember and be fiercely compassionate for this Thanksgiving?

·         One in three Native American children go to bed hungry; New Mexico and Arizona rank first and third, respectively, in child hunger due to the large Native population (hunger is now euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity”). Border states have been trafficking routes for decades; traffickers typically drive through Indian country, seducing destitute families into the drug trade. Treatment centers adopt the language of Native Nations – “tribes,” “lodges,” “the medicine wheel,” “talking circles” – with little thought to the reality of life for Natives today.

·         Young men and women who received a third strike while behind bars in California for possessing marijuana and fighting.

·         Children molested by priests who were “profiled” for sexual abuse after disclosing in confession that they had an addicted parent – they were considered to be good secret-keepers (revealed in depositions).

·         The thousands who want help but are left behind, whether incarcerated, without funds, or frightened, they are without sanctuary.

·         The children devastated by policies that punish and persecute. By l99O, 200 men in California prison averaged 750 children; 200 women averaged 900. California’s 33 prisons house 140,000 Americans. MIT conducted a longitudinal study of foster care, demonstrating that children who could stay with a parent (even a marginal parent) did better than children placed in foster care.

·         Victims of racism subjected to the different disguise it wears in each generation. The politics of punishment, disproportionately incarcerating people of color (and the poor) is no exception. Two decades ago, this author gave presentations with three friends, a white man, a black woman, and young Mexican-American man. The white man was arrested with a kilo of cocaine and received probation; the black woman with a rock of crack was sentenced to five years; the young Mexican-American man, whose mother was addicted, stole a live pig to feed younger siblings; was sentenced to three years in prison – a scholarship to crime school.

·         The policy-makers who project their reality onto others, clinging to myths such as “nobody wants to go to prison.” By 1992, 50 percent of 200 Arizona troubled youth stated that their “happiest time was visiting a relative in prison” because “someone was happy to see me” – they wanted to go. The drug war has created a culture where prison is a rite of passage, within which degraded men and women feel empowered, respected, and connected – their violence and anger validated by the racist subcultures that prison has spawned.


“A mistaken reverence for our past acts confines us to be true to yesterday’s reality.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Dr. George DeLeon, a psychologist renown for research on the Therapeutic Community, has mused that more attention should be paid to collateral benefits.

What might policies that create collateral benefits look like?

·         Wardens rewarded for recidivism reduction that contribute to long-term public safety, promoting the justice of restoration rather than retribution.

·         Treatment on demand for any person who needs help, inclusive of families with minor children. (The U.S. can support a trillion-dollar war in Afghanistan, but can’t afford treatment on demand.)

·         Policies that truly support families.

·         Decriminalizing drugs; increasing unemployment for cartel members.

·         School systems that provide support, healthy food, and foster emotional and social intelligence.

We need policies that live up to the remarkable demonstrations of those who survived the drug war and grew larger than what wounded them. Policies informed by the work of Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, and Julie Stewart, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or those of us who have spent decades with thousands of drug war pilgrims, from all socio-economic backgrounds, and we know what works.

In 1960, during the Thanksgiving holiday, Edward R. Murrow, the statesman of American journalism, aired his documentary “Harvest of Shame.” He depicted the plight of migrant workers. As the camera rolled over the faces of African Americans being assigned to fieldwork he stated:

“This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town…this is Florida. These are citizens of the United States. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’

The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused, and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night and good luck.”

The children of the convicted do not have the strength to influence legislation; the addicted who want help and cannot find it do not; the incarcerated cannot, nor can the children of mothers murdered in Juarez, Mexico – but we can.

The time for conspiracies of goodness that create collateral benefits is long overdue. It is a challenge; it is possible; it is right and it is just.


An Amity Woman’s Thanksgiving Prayer


We celebrate the gifts of our survival:

The Respect gained from promises kept,

The Dignity of making restitution and amends.

The Friendship of those who stood by us,

The Appreciation of the possibility of life without bars,

gun towers, or shackles,

The Freedom to name our experiences out loud.

The Grace that taught our hearts to feel,

The Time to get the help we needed,

Instruction in helping others in need

Learning to live with HIV instead of dying with it.

We humbly celebrate our lives:

Reunion with our children,

Recovery from addiction,

Relief from battering, abuse, and violation.

Refuge from homelessness,

Release from the slavery of prostitution.

Our second chance: Renewal.

We celebrate these gifts, not only for ourselves,

But in the hope that those waiting

May someday receive them.

















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