The War on Drugs Is An Inside JokeFiled under Funny Shit That's Happened to Me
It was midnight in America. Hundreds of New Yorkers, slicky sticky from the July humidity, flooded into a dank movie theater and claimed their seats. I settled into the fourth row with a few friends and a box of Buncha Crunch and surveyed the scene. It was a strange crowd, even by Union Square standards --- swarms of NYU students giggled clownishly, the Brooklyn Hipsters stared awkwardly at their Converses, and the ties of the bankers were as loose and crooked as their smiles. It dawned on me suddenly that every single person there was high. Really, really high. Like, 10th Grade “let’s order Dominos Cheesy Bread” high.
The lights snuffed out, the projector started rolling, and the crowd went wild with applause. The creators of The Simpsons had finally made a feature-length film, and it was about to premiere. Millions of fans had been waiting decades for this very moment --- it was a landmark cultural event, one that could only really be compared with the release of a new Star Wars. And it was seconds away.
But first --- a commercial!
“D’Oh!” someone yelled.
In the advertisement, a cute teenager grabs a Sprite from the fridge. A voice calls out her name and she turns around, startled. Her dog sits at the breakfast table, wagging its tail. “I wish you didn’t smoke weed,” says the scruffy mutt. “You’re not the same when you smoke. And I miss my friend.” The doggy pauses while the weight of his words sink in. “I’ll be outside.” The dog hops down from the chair and trots outside. The teenager hangs her head low. “How Would You Tell a Friend?” flutters across the screen, before directing viewers to abovetheinfluence.com, a website sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The crowd in the theater erupted into laughter --- ear-splitting, tear-jerking, rib-breaking laughter. Once The Simpsons Movie had ended, even after thousands of punch lines from the funniest writers in human history, it occurred to me that the audience never laughed harder than it did at the anti-drug commercial. The disappointed dog had upstaged Homer Simpson.
For me, that moment in the movie theater perfectly epitomizes how most of the 98 million marijuana smokers in America interpret the anti-drug crusade --- as a joke. It’s hilarious on a number of levels. Hilarious that the federal government gives a shit what we inhale into our lungs. Hilarious that it spends vast sums of money trying (and failing) to stop us from using a drug whose main side effect is empty bags of Goldfish, while in the meantime our infrastructure crumbles, our public schools churn out dum-dums, and our oceans boil over. Hilarious that it has to resort to juvenile propaganda that doesn’t even accurately describe the effects of pot (vivid hallucinations? To quote one of the YouTube comments: “Where can I find this weed?!?! This would literally be a dream come true”). And, perhaps most hilariously, that the prohibitionists in the government are so out of touch with reality that their media planners thought it was a good idea to air an anti-drug commercial with a talking dog at a midnight screening of The Simpsons Movie in Union Square.
It’s a joke, right? The government must be kidding.
It took me several years and a college thesis on modern-day prohibition to realize a much more disturbing truth: the War on Drugs is an inside joke. It’s only hilarious if you’re white. If you’re black or Hispanic, then the joke is on you.
You need only take a cursory glance at the history of the drug war to realize that it doubles as a history of racial oppression in this country, that it displaced Jim Crow as the most effective tactic for denying minorities economic opportunity. Even though blacks and whites use and deal drugs at nearly identical rates, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested on drug-related charges, and ten times more likely to be imprisoned.
If you’re white in New York City, puffing away on a joint and blowing smoke out the bathroom window in your apartment, the war on drugs is a comedy. You’ll never get caught. It’s just an inconvenience, an imaginary law preventing you from toking outside while you stroll to the Union Square movie theater. But if you’re one of the 50,000 New Yorkers arrested for Marijuana possession, 86% of whom are black or Hispanic, it’s a tragedy. If you’re getting stopped and frisked by the NYPD, then ushered into the civic abomination we call the judicial system, only to be released with a permanent record for a victimless “crime,” the war on drugs must not seem particularly funny.
Kind of ruins the joke, no?