TEDx talk examines the War on Drugs
April 3, 2014Tweet
Admitted methamphetamine abuser-turned-director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office gabriel sayegh spoke at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity on March 30, about the urgency of not only drug policy reform, but a nation-wide attitude adjustment.
“We are at a moment that presents a unique opportunity to change the way we’ve done things, and move into a future where we can do things very differently,” said sayegh, who does not capitalize his name. “‘What are we going to do?’ is an important question, because our current society is built off of what we have done.”
Sayegh grew up in a rural area of northern California where drug abuse was nothing out of the ordinary. He turned to alcohol at a young age, and was eventually sent to “the school where the ‘throw-away kids’ were sent,” and graduated from being an alcoholic to a meth user.
Eventually, sayegh realized that meth had become the center of his universe, but wasn’t giving him what he needed.
“I didn’t enjoy [using] anymore. The euphoria was long gone, and the pain kept knocking at the door, and I couldn’t get far enough away. I thought that if I kept using, I could get away from it, but that wasn’t working. What was I going to do? I didn’t know.”
Sayegh thought about treatment, but was only aware of 30-day celebrity rehab centers. He thought of seeing a doctor, but didn’t have insurance. He was connected with a network of meth users who were enrolled in rehabilitation programs, but they were mandated to be there after getting arrested.
“I knew I had to get out of the place I was in. I tried community college hundreds of miles away. I was terrible at going to school at first, but I was able to find my footing and identify my North Star,” sayegh said.
With a shaken addiction and newfound clarity, sayegh reflected on his experience, and in doing so raised some key questions that would dictate his future.
“Why was it that I couldn’t find anything in my hometown to help me? Why was it that I felt so shameful talking about my experiences using methamphetamine with the people in my life? Why did I feel like I had made a mistake that I couldn’t figure out? Had I missed something? What about my community? My family? These questions are what have driven me for the last 20 years,” sayegh said. “I started asking questions about drugs in this country, and when you start asking questions about drugs, you start asking about drug policy. When you start asking about drug policy, you start asking about the War on Drugs.”
Sayegh delved into a history of the War on Drugs in America, beginning with the genesis of the movement in 1971, when Richard Nixon made it clear that drugs were to be regarded as public enemy No. 1. Sayegh countered: “Wars are not fought against inanimate objects, they are fought against people.”
Harsh, unyielding punishments for drug possession, mixed with an increase in prisons and police force, were the recipe for a country built on mass incarceration, according to sayegh.
“(More than) 2 million people are incarcerated; 7.5 million people are under correctional control,” sayegh said. “We have become the world’s number one jailer. After 40 years, $1 trillion, 45 million arrests, we have built a system where it’s easier for people to find the services that they need through the criminalization system, rather than through regular social services. The largest drug treatment provider in the state of New York is the state prison system. One of the largest mental health treatment facilities in the country is Cook County Jail.”
Sayegh attributed this conundrum to the foundational message of the War on Drugs, repeating, “We weren’t trying to deal with addiction. We launched a War on Drugs, which is a war on people.”
This ties in with the fact that accidental drug overdose has recently overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, he said.
“We are now in a situation where people understand that if they call for help, they can get into a lot of trouble. They’re afraid of getting a ride in a cop car instead of getting a ride in an ambulance,” sayegh said.
Additionally, the racial disparities in drug arrests are translating into a new form of Jim Crow laws, sayegh said.
“This has created a scenario where you have laws that are applied to different people based on the color of their skin,” he said.
Sayegh offered several solutions to the rampant problems that have resulted from the War on Drugs, the first being to take a health-based approach to addiction. He also recommended putting together a truth and reconciliation commission “to deal with the legacy of mass incarceration.”
“We can’t go ahead and start reforming laws without accounting for the fact that for 40 years we have been doing something that has led to [racially] disproportionate outcomes,” sayegh said.
Finally, sayegh recommended, “Instead of telling people to ‘just say no,’ we must tell them to ‘just say know’ about drugs,” stressing the importance of utilizing the vast amount of data when forming drug policies, and focusing on a system built on prevention rather than punishment.
“If we can figure out the pain that drives the addiction in so many of our communities, we can figure our way out of this mess, and create a future where everyone has equal access to the things that bring them some dignity, respect,” he said. “If they fall into a situation where they face an addiction problem, that we don’t treat them like another, we don’t treat them like a monster, but instead we ask ‘Why the pain?’ and figure out how to get them back up on their feet.”
Sayegh remains optimistic about the future of drug policy.
“In this new moment, as laws are changing across the country and the world, we have an opportunity to stray the course,” he said.