From “Reefer Madness” to “Crack Is Wack”. From the crazy hippie who thought he could fly after taking one hit of LSD, to the white trash speed freak who blew up the trailer park cooking meth in his kitchen. “Just Say No” and “This is your brain on drugs”. From the wolves of Wall St. snorting lines of cocaine in the 1980’s, to the teenagers of Main St. snorting their crushed up Adderall prescriptions in the 2000’s. Len Bias and River Phoenix. From backyard keggers fueled by Quaaludes in the 1970’s, to all-night raves fueled by Ecstasy in the 1990’s. Slogans and catchphrases. Boogeymen and cautionary tales. Empty promises and political opportunism. Since President Nixon declared America’s “War On Drugs” in 1971, the entire misbegotten enterprise has known no shortage of archetypes, cause célèbres, and ready-made villains. In that very same year, one sees the resurgence of urban legend hysteria with the “Hippie cooks baby in microwave while high on LSD” story making the rounds of sheltered suburban knitting circles and John Birch Society luncheons, providing all the justification necessary for legions of shock troops to wade into every peaceful protest and counterculture enclave in search of the latest insidious poison responsible for turning nice white teens into bug-eyed monsters hell-bent on destroying decent society. The proverbial barbarians at the gate. Us versus Them, the “others”.
French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the impetus within societies toward assigning the status of “otherness”, a practice seemingly as old as civilization itself wherein the primacy of those who fall within the bounds of accepted societal norms (the “Us”) is reinforced by the assignation of “other” status upon those who fall beyond the norms (“Them”). The cultural groupthink of this tendency was explored initially in Foucault’s first major work, Madness and Civilization, while what could be seen as the logical outgrowth or structural manifestation of this line of thinking—essentially the question of what does one do after condemning whole sections of the populace as “others”—would be examined more fully in his later and most well-known work Discipline and Punish. Dying roughly around the same time that Nancy Reagan was imploring a generation to “Just Say No”—while her husband sent an entire generation to prison for noncompliance with her simplistic dictum—Foucault based most of his insights into the penal system upon examinations of developments in French society. It is tempting to wonder at what he would have made of America’s recent past, where we have seen the supposed apotheosis of western civilization’s ideals of freedom and liberty subverted to the point where the United States now incarcerates more of its citizenry than Stalin’s gulags.
And who do we have to thank for this ignoble distinction? The War on Drugs. Which has turned out to be itself a misnomer, Marc Mauer got it right, it became the race to incarcerate. But this go round Nascar Moms and Hockey Dads are in America’s grandstands—courtrooms instead of courtside–completely oblivious to the history that brought the Len Bias laws to bear upon the sons and daughters of corporate America, subsequently labelling them as murderers. So, when Dylan uses his source to obtain heroin for Nicky, who gives it to her roommate’s friends at UW-Stevens Point and when Nicky’s friends meet at Jesse’s house before Summerfest and one of those friends doesn’t wake up in the morning, Wisconsin’s prosecutors are sending Dylan, Nicky, Jesse and their friends to prison for murder. They have hit the wall and have become victims of the new affirmative action strategy to de-segregate Wisconsin’s prisons with low-level heroin dealers who deal to support their habits.
There are some truths that are hard to swallow, smoke or inject. No one has ever died from smoking marijuana. Heroin addicts don’t inject heroin to get high. People don’t smoke cigarettes or Vape because they get laid at the bars of West Hollywood. As Pink Floyd said–just another brick in the wall. A wall that separates family members for decades. On this one, even Joseph Stalin may have accidentally got it right, as wives and mother’s moved to Russia’s Gulags so as to help their imprisoned loved ones. Lonely families beating out a hardscrabble existence upon the frozen taiga of places like Kolyma. A different time and place, certainly, yet a feeling of isolation, coldness, and hopeful despair familiar to millions of families spread out amongst the prison archipelago of America’s criminal justice system.
In the courtrooms where millennials are awaiting sentence, no one has answered the fundamental question that underlies everything I do every day. Does punishment require separating sons from fathers, daughters from mothers? Is there another way to punish? Punishment is a sentencing factor that every judge in every state and federal court must consider. But only once have I ever heard a judge ask does punishment require that we separate the criminal from his family? Every single parent on the eve of a sentencing of their adult children has asked, in some way or another—why can’t I go with him? If families had a choice of moving to prison complexes with their sons and daughters—a surprising number of lawyers, doctors, architects and scientists would gladly abandon the comfy mansions of suburban America for the abandoned industrial zones of Rust Belt cities and low-rent motels off the lonely stretches of interstate where one tends to find our sprawling prison complexes. Would our prisons look different? Would they have more libraries? Better schools? Could they produce a Nobel laureate? Maybe. Not unless we try something different. Is the next brick in the wall just going to be a brick of heroin?