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Yes, a person with a drug conviction will have a tough time finding legitimate work. But a person with a drug addiction will have a tougher time getting and keeping a job. Or raising children. Or becoming politically active.
This isn't an argument in favor of the drug war. Substance abuse is an illness, which a felony record aggravates. The criminal law has worsened things especially for African-Americans, who are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes at much higher rates than whites.
But there's a more cynical problem than the war on drugs—a problem that's been overshadowed by the criticism of the drug war. That's the role drugs themselves play in preserving an economic system that nourishes poverty and segregation, the very elements that make substance abuse a rational choice for residents of broken neighborhoods.
Until poverty and segregation are confronted, "the painful symptoms of inner-city apartheid will continue to produce record numbers of substance abusers, violent criminals, and emotionally disabled and angry youths," anthropologist Philippe Bourgois observed in his 1995 book In Search of Respect, on crack dealing in East Harlem.
Poverty and segregation are still sailing merrily along 17 years later, thanks in part to those vast numbers of substance abusers. Addicts are hardly the most energetic opponents of the status quo.
Consider Kelvin "Shorty" Wallace, the 51-year-old recovering heroin addict I profiled in last week's Reader. Drugs "got in our neighborhood, and we never got rid of them," Shorty told me.
He grew up in Chicago's black west-side ghetto. His neighborhood, like most poor neighborhoods, was awash in drinking and drugging. Parental absence, abuse, and neglect are more common in poor families, often leading to anxiety and mood disorders in children, which in turn often leads to substance abuse. Drug-addicted kids frequently grow up to become drug-addicted parents, and the beat goes on.
There's also a simpler reason the poor turn to drugs. Poverty is miserable. A break from the misery is hard to pass up.
Shorty's mother was an alcoholic, as was his mostly absent father and his stepfather. The stepfather was a heroin addict too. When Shorty first gave heroin a snort in his early 20s, what he liked about it was how it numbed him: "It took away all the pain. You don't care about nothing." He never had to go far to find someone pitching bags of blow. Dealing's rampant in poor neighborhoods—to feed the craving, and because dealing is one job for which the poor don't need a resume. The ubiquity of drugs in ghettos makes quitting all the harder.
Shorty's smart, articulate, and personable. But heroin and the other drugs he's used have sapped his strength, cost him jobs, and, he thinks, made him a more distant parent than he might have been. Like a lot of his peers, he sometimes wonders whether drugs are part of a conspiracy to keep poor people down. "It's a way to let people kill themselves without you having to get your hands dirty," he told me.
Drugs have "functioned to pacify the poor and working classes," medical anthropologist Merill Singer wrote in 2008 in his book Drugging the Poor. It pacifies them "by diverting energies from collective action to individual palliative consumption," Singer wrote.
Which makes the poor easy to ignore. It's not a conspiracy that's making this happen. A conspiracy isn't necessary.