Column: Decriminalize Poverty, End the War on Drugs

Conspiracy theories are easy to make up. They all follow the same formula: An omnipotent force wills it, everybody is in on it, it takes place perfectly and no one else will tell you this. Throw in some cherry-picked numerical clues based on arbitrary weights and measurements, and there it is: fodder for the conspiracy grinder. Dead celebrities are still alive, random horrible events were planned meticulously and the government is hypercompetent and malicious.

Spend one afternoon on any community planning committee and see how easy it is to get people to work together to do anything—let alone something vast and secretive.  Organization is a hard trick to pull off. Just ask former Secret Service director Julia Pierson.

The only problem with the mythology of conspiracy theories and their popularity is they can often muddy and cloud actual conspiracies. The times coordination does work spectacularly well.

One recent example is the television doctor, Dr. Oz, hawking fake diet pills to hordes of loyal fans. The “studies” for the weight loss pills were fudged, the pills were manufactured and promises were made up. Then the product was advertised to desperate people using a trusted TV personality. It’s not an easy scam to pull off, but it actually happened. Hundreds of thousands bought snake oil from a dude whose name is the same as the phony wizard in the fictional Emerald City. What are the odds?

Consumer product fraud is not as insidious as the biggest conspiracy ever perpetrated against the underclass of poor people and minorities in this country: The War on Drugs.

If you added up all of the per-capita incarceration rates of every other English-speaking country, they’d still have a lower rate than the U.S. We lock up more than Russia. Way more than China. We lead the world in warehousing humans. “The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners,” writes Josh Holland at

There are currently 2.4 million people incarcerated in this country. That’s like four Wyomings just of inmates…or roughly one Nevada.

The poorest state in the nation, Louisiana, has the most prisoners per capita.

African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the country’s population according to the 2010 census, while they make up 39.4 percent of our prison population.

How does this conspiracy levied against the under-privileged and under-represented get pulled off? A lot easier than you’d think.

“Criminals are universally unpopular, and they can’t vote,” is an axiom for elected officials, explained former Mississippi state Supreme Court Justice James Robertson told the Clarion-Ledger. His state’s prison population has gone up 300 percent in the last three decades.

People who can’t afford to fight back are apparently easy targets.

Pleasure-seeking is criminalized. And some pleasure-supplying enterprises are criminalized. Hard work doesn’t get rewarded in a monetary way anymore. People can work hard and still not support their families; then seeking out the chemical escape or serving in its coinciding delivery business can land you in prison.

Wages have flattened in the last 30 years, the same period in which the prison population has skyrocketed. The poverty class in this country gets to choose between corporate indentured servitude, made up of low wages and debt, or being an inmate in a for-profit prison.

There’s a system that’s figured out how to make money off poor people and it’s not like we’re going to stop making any more of those any time soon.

It’s not a theory; it’s a conspiracy reality.

End the war on drugs.

Photo credit Tim Pierce