Venezuelan army helicopters fly over the Sierra de Perija national park, where poppy and marijuana plants are often discovered.
Harris: And that’s a good question because I know Josh wants to talk more about this war on drugs. It’s easier to set a policy to initiate the seizure of drugs than it is to initiate a policy that talks about rebuilding and the installment of social programs. Our government has proven, time after time again, that they’re not interested in that kind of policy, because that kind of policy is rebuilding—it makes sense. But clearly we don’t like that kind of policy. I’m doing a little bit of devil’s advocate here, but it’s easier to be the DEA than it is to be a friend of someone who is trying to save and rescue Latinos, blacks and suffering minorities.
Josh Scheer: I agree that maybe you can talk about not wanting to spend money, but this war on drugs has been going on, officially, since 1969. It’s gone through every president and it’s failed. And that’s something that everyone talks about, lots of people have died, millions of people in jail, and there are billions of dollars spent. At some point it’s a failed policy. We can talk about Iraq all day, but Iraq is—how many years now?—[only] four years; this war on drugs has been going on for over 30.
Duster: It’s a failed policy only in the sense if you have the big picture. If you’re a politician and you want to get reelected, it’s a great policy. I have a colleague who has written a wonderful piece it’s called “World Prohibition,” Harry Levine, and what he says, no matter what the government is, left, right or center, a theocratic or secular, it doesn’t matter. Every government in the world has an anti-drug policy, and he says the reason is that an anti-drug policy is good to get reelected. It’s good for policy, it’s good or whoever you are in power. You can claim you’re against this thing about mind-altering substances, but he says, you know, when the left, right and center agree on something, be careful. But I want to go back to this question of public policy, because in the short term, it does look like the drug war is a failure. But, however, take a look at what you described earlier. It’s easier to be a law enforcement person; it’s easier to get reelected. Now that’s taking the short term. Let’s take a look at infrastructure, something as vital as our sewage system. Here we have San Diego, Calif. In the last decade there has been about 30 or 40 serious warnings that the sewage system, now many decades old, is in danger of breaking. I mean, literally, unless we move to the infrastructure to change this kind of issue, we’re going to have sewage spilling out into the ocean and into the streets, and so on. Now at the point, politicians, like corporate executives who think only in the next quarter, are going to be called up into account and they’re going to say, “Well, why didn’t you do anything?” And the answer is that it’s just easier to have a drug enforcement policy. It’s easier to get 25 kids off the streets for a drug bust than to convince people that you have to invest in the infrastructure with public policy. And the reason why I bring this up is that there is a direct link. It’s not as though over here we have a drug war, and over here we have public policy on sewage or fast trains. The fact is that, as Sidney Willhelm said 35 years ago, if you have a policy of public sector employment, you’re not going to have kids in the drug war. The drug war is all about survival. I think people really need to understand that if you talk to a lot of these kids, they’re [dealing] drugs just to survive. They’re not getting rich, I mean, the images that they’re driving these fancy cars, they’ve got all this jewelry. That’s like the super stars of the drug war, that’s like those who make it into the headlines. Most people are just getting by. A lot of high school kids who do the drug sales a few times a month to help Mama with the groceries. Now that’s not part of the story, because that’s not headlines. Now when you get someone with lots of rings and lots of gold driving a fancy car, now that’s a headline. But what we don’t see is that a lot of these kids are just selling drugs to help Mama get the groceries.
Scheer: And it’s probably also a good job, it’s not like there are other options.
Duster: I wouldn’t say it’s a good job. It’s a dangerous job.
Scheer: In terms of other employment, there are other employment options. They just don’t pay as well.
Duster: Yeah, but I think here, and I’m going to sound more like Juan Williams and Bob Herbert and maybe Cosby, because at the individual level, what I would say is no. It’s possible, if you really wanted to go and do things like wash people’s windows. A lot of windows need washing, brother, you know, and you could at the individual level make. ... I don’t want to step into the notion that drugs are a good job for people, or rather it’s the best alternative on the streets. I don’t think it is. I think that the individual level you can still talk about people being responsible, and working hard, and washing windows. I mean, you can still do that. I think that what that does is allow us to step out of the larger picture of national and state policies, which I think really are the issue when it comes to the drug war.
Harris: How do you address these national policies? If you tell me that, if we can come up in this room today with the answer to how to get politicians on a larger scale to address the fact that the nation is falling apart. You gave the example of San Diego; we have the pretext of Katrina. They knew for years that the levees were going to break, but it always comes down to who’s behind those walls, who will suffer the dire consequences. It’s almost like we have to speculate, well, what would happen, and if those were black people, or if this was Beverly Hills, we heard that argument. But how do we get people. ...
Duster: We do have to speculate. Look at the Berkeley Hills fire. 1989, somewhere in there, and people said that was a class fire. ... Why, because the Berkeley Hills are peopled by those with resources, and within about two or three years, many of my colleagues found themselves in even larger houses. And the reason is because they come from a class position that had a lot of insurance, and the fire was devastating. Four thousand homes burned down, but within about three to five years ... extraordinary rebuilding. Now contrast that with Katrina. Now the answer for me to your question is that we are a nation that needs a huge crisis before we act, so we are going to have to have those. Not just the levees break with Katrina and the displacement, the diaspora of [hundreds of thousands] of people of color, that we can apparently tolerate without much reaction. But when you start getting the sewage system breaking, and it’s going to affect a huge part of the middle-class population, at that point there’s going to be hell to pay. So my view is that we’re not going to convince anybody. We’re so much completely immersed in this language of the market economy. I hate to use the term because it sounds so sociological, but there is a domination, there is hegemonic control, around market economies. And if you don’t believe, try to convince someone, in the public sphere, that market fundamentalism is a mistake. And the first thing they’ll tell you is the government is the problem as opposed to the solution. Well, the private sector isn’t going to help our sewage system, it’s not going to build the subway system, it’s not going to do all the things we could do. Only the public sector is going to do that. And when we have a crisis, we’ll finally get there.