MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. — Angela Davis argues in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? that the need for prisons would be greatly decreased by simply ending the nation’s “so-called War on Drugs.”
“In both these cases [sex work and drugs], decriminalization would advance the abolitionist strategy of decarceration—that is, the consistent reduction in the numbers of people who are sent to prison—with the ultimate aim of dismantling the prison system as the dominant mode of punishment,” writes Davis.
According to the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) website, in 2019, only 6.3% of all its prisoners were incarcerated for drug crimes. However, even programs such as the state’s drug court—a sentencing alternative for crimes committed because of addiction—recognize that many non-drug crimes stem from drug-related issues.
Angel Rosso is 23 years old and Mexican American. He’s been incarcerated in Washington since 2018 for armed robbery. Having grown up in Oakland, he joined a street gang when he was 13 and that led him down the path to prison.
He says it’s largely the criminal underworld resulting from the War on Drugs that enables gang culture to thrive. “When you’re a poor minority, stuck in generations of poverty and repetitive shit, all there is to do is suffer, and with that comes drug use. Then, there’s always people trying to capitalize off that because they’re tired of being broke, so they turn to dealing. They need protection, and for that you need gangs. It turns into an endless cycle.”
Angel is married, with two children, and feels the system has done little to repair the damage to him and others caused by its drug war. Despite demonstrable efforts at reform—including working toward a degree in business management—he’s encountered mostly opposition from the DOC, even in pursuit of being released on time for good behavior.
Brooks Laughlin, an ex-drug cop turned social-justice activist, also argues that legalization of controlled substances would be a huge step in the direction toward safer streets.
“The War on Drugs,” he says, “has created a perfect storm to pervert police work away from the role of protector to one of combat against its citizens, particularly against the marginalized communities that are most often the targets of drug enforcement.”
Not many are as qualified to speak on the issue as Laughlin, who’s become intimately acquainted with both sides of the prison bars. After graduating from the police academy in 2006 with top honors, he became, at 21 years old, the Bellingham Police Department’s youngest hire in decades.
He spent the next thirteen years climbing the ranks of law enforcement, working as a drug detective, range master, member of the National Tactical Officers Association and undercover operative in federal organized crime investigations. As a member of the SWAT team, he planned and executed drug raids, and was in a shootout before his training was even complete.
In 2018, after the untimely passing of his mother, he suffered a mental breakdown that was likely exacerbated by PTSD stemming from trauma he’d endured in the War on Drugs. Before it was through, he had acquired a 96-month prison sentence for second-degree assault, and a new perspective on drug enforcement.
His good friend and weightlifting buddy, Rusty Mullikin, is 32 years old. After having served time in another state for property crimes committed to feed a heroin addiction, he received 67 months in Washington corrective institutions for a series of charges stemming from felony possession of a firearm.
Laughlin points out that without the War on Drugs, it never would have been illegal for Mullikin to possess a gun to begin with. “This is the same dynamic that I saw for years. Most get their first felony from a drug offense, or something deeply tied with that. The system pits them immediately with that, and it predetermines their destiny. This is mostly true for the average, low-income individual without mommy and daddy to bail them out or pay for a lawyer.”
Mullikin has studied physical fitness and pursued a college degree while incarcerated. He’ll be released in 2022, and plans to compete in bodybuilding shows.
Examples of living casualties of the War on Drugs are seemingly endless in the penal system. Just about every face tells the story of a life that went wrong because of the societal effects of drug laws. All prisoners were once children. Some grew up on the front lines of the nation’s drug war, while others were taken from their parents and thrust into an indifferent and often cruel foster system, which is little more than a pipeline to prison.
Laughlin tells of a culture within the police, which should be defined by the mantra “To serve and protect” yet is centered almost solely around drug busts, driving officers disproportionately into minority dense and impoverished neighborhoods, where substances are dealt out of desperation and hunger.
“Drug laws,” he explains, “are low-hanging fruit for police. They are easy to self-generate by officers shaking down people on the street, and easier to prosecute. Drug enforcement is also a huge money maker for agencies, due to our nation’s fast and loose asset forfeiture laws.”
Decriminalization, however, is difficult to imagine without alternatives. Understanding this, Angela Davis offers, “…proposals to decriminalize drug use should be linked to the development of a constellation of free, community-based programs accessible to all people who wish to tackle their drug problems.”
Laughlin agrees. “We need to transition the paradigm of heavy-handed enforcement and prosecution to one of treating drugs like a public-health crisis and taking law enforcement out of it.”
Laughlin will be released in a few months. He plans to use his unique perspective to consult with organizations fighting for reform in law enforcement.