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The war on drugs, which began in 1971 with the Nixon administration, may not just be putting criminals behind bars. Gabriel sayegh, the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says its creating a system of mass incarceration, which he says is having extremely negative consequences on society.

“Wars are not fought against imaginary objects, they are fought against people,” said sayegh, who chooses not to capitalize his first or last name.

Sayegh said that the war on drugs started to pick up steam in New York in 1973 when then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller said that he believed that a treatment approach to drug addiction did not work, and that it was time to start prosecuting and incarcerating drug users. Over 40 years ago, the Rockefeller Drug Laws became the strictest and most stringent in the country, according to sayegh. These laws mandated jail time for even first time offenders, with a sentencing of 15 years to life in prison for possession of four ounces of narcotics. Other states began to follow suit, and in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan relaunched the war on drugs, he was able to spend money hiring police and building more prisons and courts.

“When Reagan relaunched the war on drugs, he had something that Nixon didn’t. He had a national infrastructure at the state based level ready to move that war forward,” sayegh said.

“After 40 years, $1 trillion and 45 million arrests, we have built a system of mass incarceration.”

Currently in the United States, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons and 7.5 million under correctional control, meaning they are incarcerated, on parole or on probation, according to sayegh. These numbers have risen 800 percent since the war on drugs began. The U.S. is now the number one jailer in the world, incarcerating more people for drug crimes than the European Union jails for all crimes combined, despite having 100 billion more people than the U.S.

The largest drug treatment provider in the state of New York is the prison system, and one of the largest mental health providers in the country is Cook County Jail.

“I think that we can all agree that with the many things that prisons and jails are, what they are not are treatment facilities and mental health care facilities,” sayegh said.

Though people are being incarcerated in large numbers, sayegh said that drug laws are not being applied evenly.

“The racial disparities associated with these practices are egregious, they are ugly, they are indefensible and they are inhumane,” sayegh said. “They distort our democracy.”

He pointed to marijuana, the most highly used illicit substance in the country, as a case study for racial discrimination in the application of drug policy. The use of marijuana across racial groups is relatively the same, according to sayegh. However, the arrest rates for marijuana possession in every major city in the U.S. are highly skewed, and in New York City roughly 85 percent of the people arrested for possesion are black and Latino. Sayegh compared it to Apartheid policies in South Africa.

“This is a huge problem,” sayegh said. “This has created a scenario where laws are being applied differently to different people based upon the color of their skin.”

According to sayegh, the tragic part of employing a system of mass incarceration is that people are dissuaded from seeking medical attention and help for overdoses for fear of facing legal repercussions. Overdoses have now surpassed car accidents as the number one cause of accidental deaths, according to sayegh.

“They are afraid of getting a ride in a cop car instead of an ambulance if they call 911. That is a reasonable fear in a country that has spent the last 40 years locking people up for drug offenses,” sayegh said.

His approach to solving these problems was three-fold. First, he advocated for a health-based approach, noting that the strategy of criminalization was producing sub-optimal outcomes, given that rates of addiction have remained constant as rates of incarceration have risen. The way to accomplish this would be to pursue policies of decriminalizing all drugs, which he said would de-stigmatize the struggles that addicts face and provide more opportunities for them to get help.

He also advocated for the formation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to deal with the legacy of mass incarceration, especially on black communities.

“We cannot just go ahead and start reforming laws and not account for the fact that for 40 years we’ve been doing something that has lead to disproportionate outcomes and we didn’t do anything about it,” sayegh said.

Lastly, he noted that informing people about drug use, even how to use drugs safely, will greatly decrease accidental overdoses and keep people safe.

“We need to understand that people are going to use drugs whether we like it or not,” sayegh said. “But we need to create policies that help us establish a baseline of treating people like human beings and not monsters.”

Sayegh first began researching drugs and drug policy after overcoming his own problem with methamphetamine, which he developed as a high school student in northern California.


Pipe Dream sat down with gabriel to discuss his work


Pipe Dream: You’ve spoken in the press about how the war on drugs has some racist implications and outcomes. Can you tell me about that?

gabriel sayegh: What’s very interesting about this is that while the rates of use are similar across racial categories, when you look at certain age groups, you do see variations. White men 18 to 25 years old, government data shows that they are much more likely to use marijuana than black or Latino men of the same age range, and yet the vast majority of the folks who are arrested in this state in that age category are black and Latino. Across the country we have institutionalized racial bias within the criminal justice system. It’s not a matter of an individual officer or an individual judge being racist, although I’m sure that occurs, it’s more about the institutional and systemic factors that shape their decision making and that allow for a set of policies to exist and continue that without question lead to biased outcomes. When you know that there’s biased outcomes and nothing is done to change it, it’s an expression of how entrenched that institutional bias is.

PD: What role do policies like “stop and frisk” in New York City play in this institutional bias?

GS: It’s a major factor. Hundreds of thousands of people are stopped every year in New York City, and the overwhelming majority of them are young black and Latino men. The vast majority were doing nothing at all to warrant even a ticket or the charge of a crime. Ninety percent of the people stopped are let go without being given a ticket or a summons. If they were stopping white people at the same rate that they were stopping black and Latino folks and searching them — often illegally, which they do with young people of color — they would find white people in possession of drugs or a range of other things that they probably shouldn’t have. They’re not doing that. They are stopping black and Latino young kids predominantly, and that leads to these young people being swept into the system. The number one arrest that results from these stops is marijuana possession, and so even though that we know that young white men are more likely to be using marijuana, it is young men of color that are the ones being targeted and swept into the system, often times beginning with a stop and a frisk that more often than not turns into an illegal search. Its almost like a “Head Start” program for the criminal justice system.

PD: Is this just a problem with marijuana, or do these policies have a similar effect across the board?

GS: Marijuana plays such a big factor because it is the most widely used illicit substance in America; 100 million people have tried it. Out of all drug arrests that happened in 2010 — there were about 1.6 million arrests for drugs — the majority of them were for possession, and roughly half of that 1.6 million drug arrests were for marijuana and the rest was for everything else combined. So when you deal with marijuana, you are dealing with a huge aspect of this problem. But with other drugs, you see bias as well. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws here in New York over the course of 40 years, you had 200,000 people incarcerated and the vast majority of those folks were black and Latino. Those folks were not being incarcerated for marijuana because marijuana occupies a different place in our criminal law, so when they were for drug offenses it was for cocaine and heroin even though the usage rates for those drugs is also roughly the same across racial categories. Wherever you look in our system you can see examples of racial bias, some more startling than others. The entire thing itself is not just alarming, but shameful.

PD: How would the legalization of marijuana or other drugs affect these outcomes?

GS: That’s a very good question. In Colorado and Washington where they have legalized marijuana already, you saw an immediate drop in the number of people being arrested for marijuana possession. In fact when the voters passed those legalization initiatives in 2012, the district attorneys in Washington and Colorado began to simply dismiss the cases that they had for marijuana possession. They said, ‘Well since it’s legal, we’re not going to proceed with these criminal charges.’ You’ve seen a huge drop in those arrests, and that’s a big deal because even an arrest can lead to long term consequences for people. It impacts your ability to get a job, it impacts your ability to get a home loan or a car loan. It’s essentially a permanent mark on your record that anyone can find on the internet for $12.95. So not having hundreds of thousands of people swept into the system with these marijuana charges would be a huge advantage, and it would be an opportunity to shrink the size and scope of the criminal justice system.

PD: Here in the City of Binghamton, our police commissioner recently declared that we have a heroine epidemic, and police officers are now being trained to use and carry Narcan spray. What can be done about a city like this one, which is under a lot of financial stress and is now facing a massive drug problem?

GS: I think one of the first things to do is to have really honest conversations about what’s going on and what the problems are. We’ve oftentimes been stuck in situations when we talk about drugs where there is a great deal of misinformation that is shaping policies and programs. I think that’s one of the first things, to use actual science and evidence to guide interventions; that’s number one. Number two, the Narcan program is good, but it shouldn’t just be police who have Narcan. The University here should have both Narcan and be trained to identify an overdose and learn how to reverse it. It should be more widespread and Narcan should be more available. Number three, we should be telling people how to stay alive if they are using heroine. We can tell people all we want that they shouldn’t be using heroine, but as you’re noting, people are using it anyway. There’s ways to keep people safer in that use. People should never use alone. They should never mix their heroin with other drugs; most of the overdoses that occur are because they are mixing it with other drugs. They are drinking or they are taking something else, and often that’s what’s leading to the overdose. Inasmuch as the police or others want to send a message, “Don’t do this stuff; stay away,” it needs to be coupled with a message of how people can stay alive if they do use it. It’s a harm reduction intervention. You accept the fact that some people are going to use, and you make sure they stay alive. The final thing, is to conduct an assessment here in Binghamton about what is available to people to get help if they want it. Do people have access to methadone? Do they have access to Buprenorphine? Do they have access to programs and services that help them get their lives back together if its are falling apart? The stigma associated with drug use and addiction is profound. Oftentimes that stigma, where we see someone who is using heroine and we say, “Oh that person is a junkie and an addict,” and we treat them like they are an other, that stigma has a significant impact on peoples’ lives and it really limits people from stepping forward and asking for help when they need it. What needs to be done in Binghamton is some self-reflection. Is the community open enough to people who are using, and are we treating them like human beings and as community members who may need assistance? Or are we treating them as criminals and as others, and addicts and junkies in a way that might stigmatize them to a point of staying on the margins.

PD: There is a lot of talk about how marijuana legalization is a big issue for the Millennial generation. Do you think that shifting demographics will have an impact on the potential for future legalization?

GS: There is no doubt that that shifting demographic is going to have an impact here. The polls are showing that quite clearly as reforms sweep across the country. I think the question for me, is what millennials are going to do in terms of leadership and addressing these problems. Without question there is more openness towards legalization of marijuana, but what about other drugs? Maybe we don’t get to a point of legalization, but what do we do? If we maintain the status quo, if we maintain the process of what we’ve done up until now, we’re likely to get many of the same outcomes. We’ve also got a problem where we have spent 40 years in this drug war, and people’s lives have been shattered; whole communities have been upended. You’ve got 2.3 million people in prison, and 65 million people in this country have a criminal record. That’s not all drugs of course, but it’s part of this system that has developed around the war on drugs. What do we do about all of these people who have a criminal record as a result of a drug offense? Going into the future, that’s going to be a very big question. Even if we say that we are going to end this war on drugs and we are going to move on, we’re going to legalize or do something else; you’ve got generations of people in the United States that have been the target of that war. They have permanent records, they have been incarcerated, they have lost family members, they have been shunned and kept out of mainstream society. We have to do something to rectify that, and I think that’s partly where millennials are going to come in, and my hope is that they’ll provide some leadership and bring us into a new era where we fix some of these harms.

PD: Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do and some of the projects you are working on?

GS: We do work on the marijuana arrest issue. We have a huge campaign we’re doing right now on overdose prevention. But a big thing that we’re doing right now, and Binghamton plays a role in this, is working on the medical marijuana law in Albany. There’s a proposal to make marijuana legal for people who have severe and debilitating conditions like cancer, MS and other things. That bill is stuck right now in the State Senate. Its been under consideration in Albany for 17 years, and there is a whole state-wide campaign of people across New York working to pass it: patients, doctors, family members and caretakers. Sen. Libous, who is the senator from Binghamton, is the number two person in the Senate, and has cancer. He has said that if his doctors recommended it, we would use marijuana, but he has done nothing to move this bill forward. So we’re trying to get people like Sen. Libous help get that bill to the floor of the Senate and deliver it to the governor for signatures so that sick people can get the relief that they need and deserve.

PD: Lastly, is there a reason that your name is always lowercase? Can you tell me about that?

GS: I will, but that is a conversation for a different time.