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The War Against Battered and Confused Addicts

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Rodney King's best statement isn't what he's famous for. Twenty years ago, the African-American suffered a sadistic beating at the hands of white Los Angeles police, an event caught on tape. When the officers were acquitted of brutality charges, rioting convulsed largely black South Central Los Angeles. The pandemonium cost 53 lives and destroyed 600 buildings. In the middle of it all, King, who died this month at 47, remarked with immortal simplicity: "Can we all get along?"

In his book, "The Riot Within," King wrote (perhaps with input from his co-author), "I no longer blame them (lawyers and politicians) for taking a battered and confused addict and trying to make him into a symbol for civil rights." King knew exactly what was up. He was a drugged or drunk black ex-con tortured by racist police officers whom he had just led on a high-speed hour-long chase.

Recipe for pain. But to what extent did the war on drugs accelerate the downward spiral of King and others like him? Suppose drugs were legal. King could have been open about his addiction. Perhaps he could have gotten treatment for it. If the ban on drugs hadn't driven the price of narcotics so high, perhaps his jobs could have covered his "needs."    
Your writer was once mugged at knifepoint by a glassy-eyed addict desperate for a drug that, had it been legal, could have been bought for the price of celery. Instead, he traumatized me for $35 and probably cost the city of New York over $1,000 pursuing a case that was never closed, like many thousands of others. King reminded me of him.
King had possibilities. He held jobs. He married the mothers of his children. He tried to kick his habits. He was not particularly violent, even during the grocery store robbery that put him in jail. And he was basically humane, delivering the "Can we all get along?" comment with genuine distress. In the book, he expresses agony at seeing a tape of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, dragged out of his vehicle during the riots and beaten mercilessly by a mob -- and his pride at the heroism of Bobby Green Jr., an African-American who rescued Denny and drove him to the hospital.
The intention isn't to nominate King for sainthood, but to note that he was a forgiving man with good qualities and fine perception. His life could have gone differently, especially if being an addict weren't itself criminal.
Other victims of the prohibition against drugs are the estimated 50,000 Mexicans murdered at the hands of the cartels. New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe recently described the drug gangs' sophistication in transporting their wares to the streets of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. They use fishing boats, 747s and submarines. They've catapulted bales of marijuana over high-tech fences in Arizona and have constructed more than 100 tunnels under the border. To avoid smuggling costs, they've taken over public land in the U.S. to grow marijuana. Mexican farmers with AK-47s were found guarding their crops in the North Woods of Wisconsin.
If the war on drugs were over, the murderous drug business would be over. Americans would save about $50 billion a year prosecuting a war in which every dealer's arrest means more profits for a competitor. Addicts could find treatment without admitting criminality. Or they could get their fix without hitting strangers over the head or ripping copper pipes out of old buildings. High-schoolers caught smoking pot wouldn't have their lives ruined by a criminal record. And a "battered and confused addict" might have some chance at a decent life.



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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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