In a new paper, Jim Keddy explores the intersections between two dynamics having an enormous impact on the country: cannabis legalization and the opioid epidemic. The paper reveals the intersections between these two dynamics and suggests that, through policy development and narrative change, we could seize this opportunity and change the direction of the country when it comes to drug policy and addiction. If we take what we have learned through decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis, and add to the analysis the tragic lessons from the opioid epidemic, we can begin to see a new consensus that prioritizes harm reduction and prevention over stigma and punishment.
In the 1980’s, the Partnership for a Drug Free America ran a commercial that showed a rat confined in a cage drinking from a cocaine-filled water bottle. In ominous tones the commercial told us that the rat would choose the cocaine water over regular water to the point where the rat starved to death. This commercial was based on actual research and was part of the larger effort in the 1980’s to raise concern, and hysteria, over drug use.
A researcher, Bruce Alexander, observed that the rat in the cage experiments were always conducted with one isolated rat. He wondered what would happen if the rats were given access to drugs in an enriched, social environment. He created Rat Park, a place in which rats were housed together and given access to great food, toys, and rat camaraderie. It was Rat Party. In this experiment, both the solo rat and those in Rat Park were given access to plain water and to morphine-laced water.
In the isolated cages, the solo rats turned to the morphine water bottle. In Rat Park, rats largely ignored the morphine-laced water. They had better options.[i]
This research raised the question if addiction and drug abuse has as much to do with environment and connection as it does with the nature of the drug itself. The reality is that large numbers of people regularly use a range of drugs (alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, cocaine…) recreationally and that most people don’t get addicted. Those who get in trouble and have their lives derailed by drug abuse are more likely to be disconnected and in an impoverished, stressful environment. They are also more likely to have experienced trauma and abuse as children. Frequent drug use becomes a way to cope with loneliness and reoccurring negative emotions and to get numb.
Our punitive response to addiction often makes things worse. We stigmatize drug users and lock them up; we put them in a cage and isolate them; we make it harder for them to get jobs. We create the conditions for ongoing drug dependence and crime.
I grew up in Rat Park. I went to school in pre-Prop 13 California, a time in which we had well-funded schools and recreational programs. I participated in science labs in elementary school and enjoyed frequent field trips. I learned to play the guitar in a free summer school program and played sports in free city-sponsored rec programs. I was fortunate to grow up in a caring family. While drugs and alcohol were around me, I viewed them as a distraction. In the jargon of youth development, I grew up with strong “protective factors.”
As more and more local governments and states permit legal marijuana businesses and collect revenues from those businesses, we have the opportunity to invest those revenues in young people and to increase the protective factors that surround them. We have the opportunity to build Rat Parks. In doing so we should take into account the history of the War on Drugs and prioritize investments in black and brown communities that were targeted by law enforcement and which experienced great trauma as a result. These communities typically experience the highest rates of poverty and have the greatest need.
In making these investments, we can create enriched environments and over time reduce substance abuse among young people and adults. Investments alone aren’t enough. We need to remove stigma and change policies that treat those struggling with substance abuse as criminals. Our actions to decriminalize marijuana are a great first step. It’s time to apply these lessons to opioids and other drugs as well.
[i] I first learned about the Rat Park study in Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I am aware that some have questioned the validity of the research. However, it's important to note that there is extensive, parallel research on the positive impact of enriched environments and relationships in the field of youth development. The Search Institute (www. search-institute.org), for example, has spent decades identifying critical assets in the lives of young people and how those assets protect young people from a range of risky, destructive behaviors, including substance abuse. As with Bruce Alexander’s research, the Search Institute stresses the need to create positive healthy environments and caring relationships for young people to thrive.
From what I’m seeing, at least in California, the answer to this question is yes.
Across California, numerous cities and counties already have marijuana taxes in place. Starting in 2018, when the commercial sale of recreational marijuana becomes legal, these local governments will start to rake in more revenues. The City of Los Angeles, for example, projects that it will collect $50 million in new revenues as a result of the tax passed by the voters in March of this year. And that’s just for year one of legal marijuana sales. Imagine how that will grow in the coming years as the marijuana industry expands.
And from what I’m seeing so far, these new tax revenues flow into the general funds of cities or counties. What makes up a big chunk of a general fund? Law enforcement. So as revenues go up, it is very likely that many of these new dollars will go toward expanding law enforcement.
Law enforcement is making the argument that legal marijuana will require additional enforcement and thus there is a need for more officers. The Los Angeles ballot measure approved by voters in March of this year promised voters that it would help police prevent crime. In Sacramento city officials plan to hire twelve new police officers to focus on cracking down on illegal marijuana grows.
If this pattern continues, it will maintain the premier role that marijuana policy has played as a driver of mass incarceration. For decades, huge numbers of black and brown people went to prison for doing what is now legal, and what is now enriching mostly white entrepreneurs and investors.
The alternative is the reparations approach. The right thing to do with marijuana is to use the tax revenues to repair the damage done to black and brown communities by the War on Drugs. Local government can use the tax dollars to support re-entry, job training and counseling supports for the formerly incarcerated. It can invest the dollars in prevention and youth services in neighborhoods that experienced the highest rates of marijuana arrests. It can support drug prevention and education in vulnerable populations. It can help people of color and women start businesses.
There’s a lot of amazing good that can come from a smart investment of marijuana tax revenues. It’s time we speak out on this issue and engage local government officials.
The Green Rush is upon us, and everyone wants a piece of the Green.
Across the country, racial justice organizers and advocates are turning the tide of the failed, racially biased War on Drugs by changing laws to reduce mass incarceration. This is a growing, vibrant movement, primarily led by people of color and by those who have experienced incarceration first hand.
It’s time for the vast array of children’s advocacy groups to join this movement in a more visible and assertive way. It’s time for those who advocate for preschool expansions, for children’s health insurance and for public education to get with it. It’s time.
Mass incarceration is a kids’ issue.
Mass incarceration has hurt kids in a profound way. It has been a major driver of generational family poverty; it has caused kids to grow up without a parent; it is a source of shame, humiliation and stigma. It is a source of lasting trauma.
According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated:
An Education Week article summarized the impact:
"Studies show that parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to student’s education, health and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves."[ii]
As with mass incarceration, the African American community is bearing the brunt of this trauma. Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was fourteen.
The War on Drugs has been a War on Black Children.
Latino families have also been disproportionately impacted and have experienced a collusion between the drug war and anti-immigrant deportation policies. Kids can be separated long term from a parent who is arrested on a minor drug charge and then deported.
In my experience, children’s advocacy groups are typically white-led, while the racial justice movement is led by people of color. This may explain why many children’s advocacy groups have yet to take a clear and consistent stand in support of ending mass incarceration. Those of us who are white, including myself, are distant from the problem.
It’s time for us to get behind and support those leading the way; it’s time to endorse the bills and the ballot measures and to put time and resources into educating the huge base of white children’s advocates about this issue.
One big step forward in the campaign to reduce mass incarceration is to decriminalize marijuana. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow notes that arrests for marijuana possession account for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990’s. [iii]
Thousands of kids have lost their parents to prison simply for marijuana possession. That has to stop.
A terrific documentary Invisible Bars has just been released that illustrates these issues. See the trailer here.
[ii] Sarah D. Sparks, “Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say,” Education Week (February 24, 2015).
[iii] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 60.