“Do No Harm?” How the War on Drugs has become a War on Kids.

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first printed in Medical Marijuana 411, July 4, 2014.

Juvenile In Justice. This photo is part of a series from the book of the same name. (Photo credit: Richard Ross)

The war on drugs is, by now, easily America’s longest conflict. I have written extensively on the corruption surrounding the enforcement of our drug laws, but the criminal justice system is not our only public entity that is prone to its corrosive effect; our public health system is equally tainted by it. A recently published article by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) tells us:

“A Southern California physician pleaded guilty to falsely identifying teenagers as drug or alcohol addicts to justify millions in bills to the government’s rehabilitation program for the poor.”

I’m not here to generalize or to condemn the addiction and dependency industry as a whole but to point out that mental health and chemical dependency is a business estimated to be worth twelve billion a year and growing.  This industry is largely unregulated, with little grounding in evidenced-based practices, and services are frequently delivered by undertrained and unqualified counselors.  Such a system is ripe for corruption and abuse and often susceptible to long-held drug war stereotypes and bias about who uses drugs.

In this particular case, unscrupulous clinicians targeted not just kids, but at-risk kids based on race. I’m not sure which is more insidious: how they labeled the kids, that they stole money from an already strapped public health system for the impoverished, or that the label of “addict” will follow innocent children because  most of this “counseling” was done in collaboration with the public education system.

Having worked as a School Resource Officer (SRO) for the Redondo Beach Police Department, I can state that educational records are a permanent record that follows students, no different than a rap sheet or criminal history.  This record can and will be used to further stigmatize our children who are most at risk to draconian zero-tolerance drug policies in the public education system as well as in the criminal justice system.

Most disturbing to me was how they labeled these kids. Whites were labeled as alcohol abusers while Hispanics and African-Americans were labeled as having marijuana addictions.  These labels date back to the racist origins of the drug war that have largely been ignored by those who minimize the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline or the effect of enforcement on communities of color.

In addition to labeling these children based on race, they also labeled them as drug addicts based on lies in order to receive millions of dollars in fraudulent Medi-Cal payments. In large part, these kids only did what many kids have done throughout the years. They admitted to experimenting with drugs, alcohol and tobacco, which even legalization opponents admit is not harmful to most users.

One of the issues that struck me is how easy it was to use these self-admissions to scam a system that lumps all drug use as problematic behavior. I am not here to argue the harms of marijuana. I believe that all drugs can be harmful when abused, including caffeine, as evidenced by this recent death. Yet no one has called for criminalizing caffeine in order to “save the children.”

This case is about more than fraud, money and a few bad actors. It revolves around how our policymakers have managed (or should I say mismanaged) America’s drug problem. It demonstrates how pervasive corruption is in all aspects of the drug war, not just in law enforcement, and most notably it continues to expose the stigma and labeling associated with drug use, its underlying racism and stereotypes.

How many more millions do we need to waste, how many more lives do we need to ruin before we demand a policy that is not driven through the lens of punishment and politics, and can discern between problematic and non-problematic drug use?

About Diane Goldstein

Diane Goldstein is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement who retired as the first female lieutenant for the Redondo Beach Police Department, (CA). She is a speaker and Executive Board Member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a member of the Moms United To End The War on Drugs Steering Committee. She is a guest columnist for a variety of publications as well as appearing on television , and on radio as a political commentator.