Drug War Outrage Fuels New Website

America's most recent kind of civil war--the so-called

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Last year alone, roughly $40 billion in taxpayer money was spent fighting our elusive war on drugs, while mandatory minimum sentencing laws--instituted in 1986 by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act--have helped to fuel the largest public and private prison construction and operations boom in American history, a phenomenon which has fairly been described as the evolution of the prison-industrial complex.

No less than 500,000 of the two million human bodies locked away behind concrete walls and steel bars in America are there because of drug-related crimes. By comparison, in 1980, the number of drug offenders doing time from coast to coast was just 50,000. According to the Bureau of Justice, if recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.

The launch of a new web site on Monday, StopTheWar.com, aims to channel some of the outrage about the drug war being generated by Steven Sondenbergh's widely acclaimed drama, Traffic.

Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, the hit movie has generated heated discussion about the complexity and the ultimate futility of the U.S. government's current seek-out-and-destroy approach to stemming the drug supply that flows across our borders with impunity. With a dazzling screenplay written by Stephen Gaghan--who recently admitted to his own, personal struggles with regular hard drug use in an interview with the New York Times--the film offers a compelling, if sometimes cliched, look at the degradation of drug addiction and the ultimate incomprehensibility of addressing recreational and abusive use of drugs with military might and lengthy prison sentences. (California's Proposition 36, which will go into effect on July 1, will finally sentence many first- and second-time drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.)The new, flashy site, created by the New York-based non-profit drug policy institute, The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, welcomes visitors with images from the film and with the greeting: 'You saw it in Traffic. 30 years of war. 500,000 Americans behind bars. And illegal drugs are cheaper, purer and easier to get than ever. The government hasn't solved our drug problem. Can you?'

According to Lindesmith-DPF, the producers of Traffic were 'very generous' and allowed the organization to use the images from the film for the site.

Visitors to StopTheWar.com are invited to play a game in which they try to 'win' the war on drugs by picking one of three primary methods currently employed by the government to combat the seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S.: lock up all drug users and dealers; send money and guns to Mexico and Columbia to cut off the drug supply; or promote the 'Just Say No' drug-abstinence-approach to American teens.

'Been there. Done that. Didn't work,' is the resulting message to any of the three 'solutions,' and it's one that Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Lindesmith-DPF hopes that visitors to the site will begin to consider seriously.

'The movie got people stirred up and got them thinking,' says Nadelmann. 'We hope to inspire them to get involved ... Traffic could be the Dead Man Walking of drug policy reform.'

Other sections of the site offer links to groups working on issues pertaining to drug policy reform, including the sponsoring organization's research on addiction, needle exchange, the legalization of marijuana, drug treatment and the impact of incarceration on individuals, families and communities.

'We hope this campaign will take the dialogue one step further by letting people know there are alternatives that rely more on common sense, science, public health and human rights,' adds Nadelmann.

If there's a dimension of the American drug-and-prison scene that cries out for more deeper examination on all levels--and one that remained largely unexamined in Traffic-- it's what amounts to the brutally racist dimensions of the nation's war on drugs.Last year, the leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch released Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, with the first-ever state-by-state analysis of the role of ethnicity and drugs in prison admissions.

'Punishment and Prejudice' revealed that African American men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men and that, overall, African Americans comprise 62.7 percent of drug offenders admitted to state prisons across the country, although there are five times more white drug users than black drug users.

Currently, African Americans represent only 13 percent of the national population, yet in seven states including Illinois, they constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges.

Statistics like these, urges Deborah Small, Director of Policy for Lindesmith-DPF, should provoke more Americans to consider the true impact of the drug war.

And if it takes a major Hollywood hit to make mainstream America sit up and take notice of how $40 billion of our tax dollars are being spent each year, Small admits she's happy something is having an effect.

'Perhaps Traffic [will] lead more Americans to 'just say no' to the war on drugs. It's time we break our national addiction to the quick fix of using incarceration to address public health problems like mental illness and substance abuse.'By Silja J.A. Talvi (sisu@well.com) is a Seattle-based journalist who has covered criminal justice-related issues for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor to In These Times.