WAR ON DRUGS: We’ve all heard the quip, “It’s all in the timing,” but for Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender, his timing couldn’t have been worse. Early in his career, he was trying to perfect his blend, his melodic blend of rockabilly and Tejano, in the blues ballad “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Then, things turned on that proverbial dime as his life turned into a nightmare.
Fender and his bass player were arrested in Baton Rouge, La., and convicted of possession of two marijuana cigarettes. At age 23, he was sentenced to five years in the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, his fledgling career, and potential hit song dead.
Built on the former Angola plantation, the prison is nicknamed ‘The Alcatraz of the South.’ The largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., it houses 5,000 prisoners under the watchful eyes of 2,000 corrections officers. Eighty six percent of the inmates are violent criminals and fifty two percent are serving life sentences.
It has been called “the worst prison in America” by Collier’s Magazine. Shackled inmates toil long hours under a broiling southern sun on 18,000 acres of farmland. Brooke Shelby Biggs of Mother Jones reported that men who had lived in “Red Hat,” the most restrictive housing unit, “told of a dungeon crawling with rats, where dinner was served in stinking buckets splashed onto the floors.”
The War on Drugs: Circa 1971
Angola, and other prisons, played a role in the battle against American drug users. First Lady Nancy Reagan promoted the ‘Just Say No’ campaign, but the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ was actually begun by President Richard M. Nixon. On June 17, 1971, he announced $155 million in new funding for what he called “the war on drugs.” The program initially proposed a “balanced approach.” Two-thirds of the funds were to be earmarked for rehabilitation and treatment; a third would address drug traffickers.
But Nixon’s “balanced approach” was toppled when the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated tough federal prison sentences for everyone from large-volume dealers to low level couriers. These mandatory minimums left no leeway for judges to consider the circumstances of a crime before prescribing prison terms. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was aimed at the dramatic rise of crack and related street violence. Drug offenses involving crack, primarily used by blacks, were punished 100 times more severely than those involving powdered cocaine, used primarily by whites. Decades later, incarceration for drug offences continued to increase at the expense of treatment and rehabilitation.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy called the War on Drugs a costly failure “with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Initiated over forty years ago, the program has cost over one trillion dollars. One immediate result was the huge gap between crack and powder cocaine arrests leading to incarceration of African Americans at an alarming and disproportionate rate.
The failed War on Drugs has filled our prisons to capacity and the United States has a higher proportion of its population — 2.5 percent— labeled as felons and imprisoned than any other country. These include numerous marijuana users in the wrong place at the wrong time, usually minorities and those in poverty. Florida is a striking example as 10.4 percent of its population have been labeled as felons.
When the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was signed, it reduced the sentencing disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stated that the number of minorities arrested and incarcerated is “way out of proportion” with those who actually use drugs. Similarly, ACLU senior legislative counsel Jesselyn McCurdy stated, “the most important thing that we also know is that African-Americans are not the majority of users of crack cocaine.” He further elaborated, “Although they are the majority of people who are sentenced under the crack cocaine laws … European and Hispanics are the majority of users of crack cocaine.”
In 2011, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) addressed the war on drugs saying, “we need to do much different and much better than what we’ve done.” Christie panned typical drug enforcement tactics as ineffective and promoted often-controversial alternatives like treatment. “I don’t believe the only weapon we use against the drug problem is incarceration,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s worked. And I think we see it over and over again that there’s evidence that it hasn’t.”
Christie touted his state’s drug court program, which provided 1,400 nonviolent offenders with options for treatment and drug testing. He said that the court’s treatment program cost the state only $11,000 per person instead of the $39,000 required to jail each offender. Christie insisted that treatment attacks the root causes of drug related crime: “Our experience tells us that there’s a lot of folks who are non-violent drug offenders who are spending a lot of time in … prisons and not being treated for the underlying addiction that’s the problem that drives their continued involvement in crime.”
The New Jim Crow
Civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argued in her 2012 book, The New Jim Crow, that America’s War on Drugs disproportionately affected African-Americans, producing new discrimination comparable to that of the Jim Crow laws. She concluded that, by treating black criminals more harshly than white criminals, the criminal justice system functions as a modern-day system of racial control, relegating millions to a permanent second-class status and decimating communities of color.
Some of this is about to change. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has filed a rarely used legal petition intended to vacate 3,778 convictions for possession of marijuana, arguing that an extraordinary legal strategy is necessary to “right an extraordinary wrong.”
Historically, marijuana has been demonized (e.g. Reefer Madness) and effectively used as ammunition in the War on Drugs. Although listed in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule 1, along with bath salts, LSD, and heroin, many believe the scheduling is incorrect and advocate for marijuana’s decriminalization and legalization.
In a highly unusual “Maryland v Maryland” filing in state court, Mosby used a petition called “writ of error coram nobis” that allows a court to reopen cases when substantial error is found that wasn’t apparent in initial judgments. If granted, the petition could wipe out thousands of marijuana possession convictions.
Mosby’s arguments are based on what she views as an opportunity to achieve retroactive justice by acknowledging racial disparities in how marijuana possession cases over years were policed and prosecuted in Baltimore, a city under a federal oversight program due to discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.
“The sordid history of marijuana prohibition lies in ethnic and racial bigotry,” Mosby wrote in the filing, documenting that racial disparities in possession arrests continue to exist in majority-black Baltimore even after Maryland’s 2014 decriminalization of amounts less than 10 grams.
Still, Baltimore, Maryland is not as bad as Louisiana. The Bayou State is home to some of the harshest penalties for marijuana convictions in the country, including hard labor for certain convictions. In 2015, Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law two marijuana reform bills, including one aimed at reducing Louisiana’s draconian penalties for marijuana possession.
House Bill 149 reduced these penalties significantly by making the possession of less than 14 grams punishable by a maximum sentence of a $300 fine and 15 days in jail. Second offenses will be classified a misdemeanor, instead of the current felony, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Third offenses remain a felony, but the maximum penalty is reduced from 20 years in jail to only two and a fine of up to $2,500. Fourth and subsequent offenses remain felonies punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and eight years in prison, compared to current penalties of up to 20 years behind bars.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”
Freddy Fender became an unlucky victim of the War on Drugs. After serving nearly three years in Angola, he received an early release through the intervention of then-governor Jimmie Davis, also a songwriter (“You Are My Sunshine”) and fan of Fender’s music. He was paroled on the condition that upon his release, he stay away from the corruptive influences of the music scene. However, in a 1990 NPR interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Fender explained that the condition for parole was to stay away from places that served alcohol.
After his parole ended, Fender attempted to resurrect his career, but with the exception of a few scattered nightclub gigs in the New Orleans area, he found little success. Lady Luck finally knocked on his door when “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” became a major hit, and his career was rejuvenated. With the help of record producer Huey P. Meaux, Fender re-recorded “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” This time, the song became a major pop and country hit, topping the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in August 1975.
The song was certified gold (sales of 1 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America), just as his life was unraveling. Fender, addicted to alcohol and drugs, entered a rehab in 1985. Plagued by ongoing health problems, he struggled with diabetes and hepatitis C and received a kidney transplant and, two years later, a liver transplant. The Mex-Tex singer died of lung cancer in 2006 but will always be remembered for his musical contributions, and for the War on Drugs that sent him to the Angola prison.
Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health, and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com