Simon: ‘The drug war is essential to why we can’t even police ourselves anymore’

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
David Simon, former crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” talks about the effect of the drug war on Baltimore and the United States Monday evening in the Amphitheater.

David Simon was never promoted throughout his entire 12-year career as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He shared his theory on career advancement with the Amphitheater crowd at his lecture Monday night: “Stay in one spot until you outlast everybody.”

But it was all that time spent as a crime reporter that would influence his later work, both his nonfiction books and his successful TV shows, such as HBO’s “The Wire.”

Simon described Baltimore as being “very typical of a post-industrial American city,” where those without a college education are hard-pressed to find an honest job that can support their families. The factories are closed. One-half of the African-American adults in Baltimore are unemployed. But despite all of this, there is one place that’s always hiring: the corner.

“It will take anyone,” Simon said. “If you’re completely dysfunctional in an educational sense, in a socialized sense — if you’re addicted, if you’re about to be addicted, if you’re violent — the corner has a place for you.”

Simon wanted to focus his lecture on what he considers to be one of the most ineffectual policy programs in America: the drug war.

“ ‘Just Say No’ was one of the most horrible things to ever come out of any American leader’s mouth,” he said — though he was quick to acknowledge that Nancy Reagan is probably a very nice lady.

Throughout his time covering crime, Simon said, the war on drugs never seemed to be working.

“The drug war is essential to why we can’t even police ourselves anymore,” he said. “It’s been sold to us as a mechanism for civic control, and for making our lives safer, and protecting our kids and protecting our communities.”

But the war on drugs is actually making Americans less safe, Simon argued — not just in Baltimore, but in cities throughout the country. Drugs are purer, prisons are for-profit and America locks up more prisoners than any other country in the world — including Red China.

And throwing more Americans behind bars does not mean more violent criminals are off the streets. When Simon began his career as a crime reporter in 1982, violent offenders comprised 34 percent of the federal prison population, he said. In the past 30 years, that number has decreased to 7 percent.

The drug war has also changed the nature of police work. Arresting drug users does not require much effort, Simon said.

“Anybody can … roll up on a corner with enough manpower, anywhere in Baltimore, put everyone up against the wall and go into their pockets,” he said.

Police work has become a thing of the past, he said. It’s now more about making a high number of arrests and filling a quota than it is about putting dangerous criminals behind bars.

To arrest a murderer, a burglar or a rapist, a police officer has to have certain skills. He or she has to be able to write a warrant, testify in court and talk to people on the street. But drug arrests, Simon said, take little to no skill.

“You don’t have to learn probable cause,” he said. “You don’t have to testify — it’s never going to court.”

Not only will many drug criminals never go to court, but they are also unlikely to see the inside of a prison cell — making these arrests completely meaningless, Simon said.

There may be 30,000 drug arrests each year, just in the city of Baltimore, but the entire state of Maryland has only 26,000 prison cells, he said — and that’s for all prisoners, not just drug-related crimes. Most criminals arrested for drug crimes end up right back on the street.

“Every 15-year-old kid, every 17-year-old kid [who is arrested] is now unemployable, because you’ve given them an arrest history,” he said. “You’ve done a lot of damage to their family, a lot of damage to the community, and you’ve achieved absolutely nothing in terms of crime.”

Simon believes the drug war targets those who are outside of society, those who are part of the “other America.” It’s a classic case of the “us versus them” mentality.

Proponents of the drug war may argue that they are not targeting blacks, but that they are targeting violence — and it happens to be blacks that are more often violent than whites. But Simon doesn’t believe this argument for a second.

“White drug use is the same per capita as black drug use,” he said. “But we all know the numbers for people of color locked up behind the war on drugs. Nobody’s chasing the white drug user with any degree of concern.”

Even federal sentencing guidelines seem to be cracking down harder on blacks than on whites. Under federal guidelines, the punishment for using crack cocaine used to be 100 times more severe than the punishment for using powder cocaine, Simon said. However, crack is no more dangerous than powder cocaine.

“But we know who uses crack cocaine,” he said. “It’s ‘them.’ ”

The federal government recently revised those guidelines, but the punishment for crack cocaine is still 16 times more severe than for powder cocaine.

Americans tolerated the war on drugs only as long as it affected the “other.” But all of that changed, Simon said, when drugs such as methamphetamine began to creep into white neighborhoods.

“And all of a sudden, all of these draconian measures — the federal sentencing guidelines, and the elimination of parole and ‘three strikes and you’re out’ — it started being used on white people,” he said. “And for the first time, you started hearing people question the drug war.”

“If these guys have made any mistake in prosecuting this nightmare on us,” he continued, “it’s that they finally started locking up some white people.”

Despite all of these negative effects of the war on drugs, Simon believes that the American public can work to reverse these policies through civil disobedience.

“If I’m ever on a jury, and they present to me a case in which somebody has committed a nonviolent drug offense,” he said, “… I don’t care if the guy’s got two pills of heroin, or three caps of cocaine, or if he’s got a trunkful. I’m not sending another American to jail.”

He believes the only way to end this war is to walk away from the government’s “game.” This is the same way, he said, that Americans finally ended Prohibition.

“It got very, very hard, all over America,” Simon said, “to find 12 Americans to put a 13th in jail for making bathtub gin, or drinking bathtub gin. … It got to the point where nobody believed in the ‘experiment’ anymore.”

Jury nullification is an American right, he said.

“You are under no obligation to enforce a law,” Simon said, “if you believe in your conscience that it’s being practiced to an immoral conclusion.”