Guest Article Written by Jacob Hornberger, Libertarian Candidate for President of the United States
Michael Holmes could be a poster child of everything that is wrong with the “war on drugs,” which ranks among the most immoral, failed, destructive, deadly, and racially bigoted programs of both the state and federal governments.
Today Holmes is in a penitentiary in the state of North Carolina. He has been in that jail for some 25 years. That’s because in 1993, when Holmes was only 22 years old, a state judge slammed him with a 200-year jail sentence.
His offense? Violating the state’s drug laws, specifically by distributing cocaine. For the full background on the Michael Holmes case, see my article “Campaigning in North Carolina, Part 4: Free Michael Holmes.” Also, see my video interview with Greg Fray, a reporter at The Carolinian in Raleigh, North Carolina, who wrote an article about Michael Holmes.
The judge didn’t have to slam Holmes with a 200-year sentence. He could have had several sentences run “concurrently”—that is, at the same time. Instead, he “stacked” the sentences by having them run “consecutively.”
That was vicious. By stacking those sentences, the judge knew that he was effectively giving Holmes a life sentence in the state penitentiary for violating the state’s drug laws.
No doubt the judge thought he was doing his part to help the state and the federal government “win” their decades-long war on drugs. He’s not the only one. Both state and federal judges have long meted out maximum possible jail sentences to drug-war violators, with the aim of helping state and federal officials finally “win” the war on drugs.
When I was a kid growing up in Laredo, Texas in the 1960s, which is located on the Texas-Mexico border, the city was a hub for the importation of drugs into the United States. There was a federal judge from Houston named Ben Connally who would come into Laredo to preside over drug cases. He was notorious for doling out maximum sentences in drug cases.
When I returned to Laredo to practice law in the 1970s, the situation had not changed. There was a federal judge from San Antonio named John Wood. He was known by the moniker “Maximum John” because of the maximum jail sentences he would mete out to drug-war violators.
My law partner and I represented a young Mexican-American guy in his early 20s who was convicted of conspiracy to possess heroin. He had never actually possessed the drug. He had only talked about possessing it and taken action to try to possess it. Maximum John gave him the maximum 15-year jail sentence in the federal pen.
What good did all those maximum drug-war sentences do? They did the same good that that 200-year jail sentence for Michael Holmes did, which is no good at all. Drugs are more plentiful than ever, but judges just keep mindlessly meting out maximum jail sentences, apparently believing that if they continue doing the same thing over and over again, year after year, decade after decade, the outcome will be different — i.e., that the drug war will finally — finally! — be “won.”
There is no doubt that the drug war has adversely impacted people of all races, colors, and creeds. But there is also no doubt that its adverse consequences have fallen disproportionately on African-Americans.
I recommend reading the “Race and the Drug War” section of the website of the Drug Policy Alliance. It states in part:
The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color.
Many different communities of color bear the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws. This impact may vary across cities and regions. Nationwide, some of the most egregious racial disparities can be seen in the case of African Americans and Latinos.
Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use, but rather of law enforcement’s focus on urban areas, lower income communities and communities of color.
Disparities in arrests and incarceration are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use may go to jail for decades. This unequal enforcement ignores the universality of drug dependency, as well as the universal appeal of drugs themselves.
We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African Americans, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s.
No one is saying that drug addiction, drug abuse, or even drug usage are good things. On the contrary, drugs have ravaged society, especially among people in the African-American community.
What we libertarians are simply saying is that drug addiction, drug abuse, and drug usage belong in the private sector, not the state’s criminal-justice sector. They belong in narcotics rehabilitation groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, therapy, counseling, families, treatment centers, and church groups. That’s the humane way to treat drug problems in American society.
The drug war has failed, just as alcohol Prohibition failed. Even worse, like with Prohibition, the drug war has brought into existence a rash of horrific collateral consequences, such as violence, official corruption, asset forfeiture, drug cartels, drug lords, and drug gangs. The Jim Crow war on drugs is also the the most racially bigoted government program since segregation. It needs to be ended today, not tomorrow. It has done enough damage to our society.
End the war on drugs. And in the process, free Michael Holmes and everyone else who is jailed for a non-violent drug offense.