RIP Walter Cronkite! In the summer 1992, I was told by an assistant that I had a phone call, and that “unless the person on the phone was kidding, that it was someone claiming to be Walter Cronkite.”
I took the call and it was in fact Mr. Cronkite, who wanted to talk about his concerns regarding America’s so-called ‘war on drugs’. We talked for about half an hour and he asked me to fax him some data and/or reports to support some of the information I’d related to him regarding arrest rates, racial disparity and I think the efficacy of medical cannabis. As he related his fax number to me I recognized the exchange as coming from Dukes County, MA (which is principally Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands). I told Mr. Cronkite that I had grown up in close proximity to his locale, across Nantucket Sound in the Cape Cod town of Chatham. That sparked an additional half hour conversation about striped bass, giant Atlantic bluefin tuna and the importance of knowing where you derive pleasure.
All in all, a most pleasant conversation with a journalist I’d grown up watching and had always generally respected.
I was heartened some years later when Walter Cronkite started speaking out strongly against the war on some drugs, including doing fundraising letters and videos for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Drug war is a war on families
By Walter Cronkite
Article Published: Sunday, August 08, 2004
In the midst of the soaring rhetoric of the recent Democratic National Convention, more than one speaker quoted Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, invoking “the better angels of our nature.” Well, there is an especially appropriate task awaiting those heavenly creatures – a long-overdue reform of our disastrous war on drugs. We should begin by recognizing its costly and inhumane dimensions.
Much of the nation, in one way or another, is victimized by this failure – including, most notably, the innocents, whose exposure to drugs is greater than ever.
This despite the fact that there are, housed in federal and state prisons and local jails on drug offenses, more than 500,000 persons – half a million people! Clearly, no punishment could be too severe for that portion of them who were kingpins of the drug trade and who ruined so many lives. But by far, the majority of these prisoners are guilty of only minor offenses, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana. That includes people who used it only for medicinal purposes.
The cost to maintain this great horde of prisoners is more than $10 billion annually. And that’s just part of the cost of this war on drugs: The federal, state and local drug-control budgets last year added up to almost $40 billion.
These figures were amassed by the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the foremost national organizations seeking to bring reason to the war on drugs and reduce substantially those caught in the terrible web of addiction.
There are awful tales of tragedy and shocking injustice hidden in those figures – the product of an almost mindlessly draconian system called “mandatory sentencing,” in which even small offenses can draw years in prison.
Thousands of women, many of them mothers of young children, are included among those minor offenders. Those children left without motherly care are the most innocent victims of the drug war and the reason some call it a “war on families.”
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, with almost 80 percent of them incarcerated for drug offenses. The deep perversity of the system lies in the fact that women with the least culpability often get the harshest sentences.
Unlike the guilty drug dealer, they often have no information to trade for a better deal from prosecutors, and might end up with a harsher sentence than the dealer gets.
Then there are women like Kimba Smith, in California, who probably knew a few things but was so terrified of her abusive boyfriend that she refused to testify against him. (Those who agree to testify, by the way, frequently are murdered before they have a chance to do so.) Smith paid for her terrified silence with a 24-year sentence. Nonviolent first offenders, male and female, caught with only small amounts of a controlled substance frequently are given prison sentences of five to 10 years or more. As a result, the number of nonviolent offenders in the nation’s prisons is filling them to overflowing, literally. The resulting overcrowding is forcing violent felons onto the streets with early releases.
The Drug Policy Alliance also points out other important areas of injustice in the present enforcement system. For instance, people of color – African-Americans and Latinos – are far more likely to be jailed for drug offenses than others. And college students caught in possession of very small amounts of illegal substances are denied student loans and even food stamps.
The Alliance and other organizations are working to reform and reframe the war on drugs. And they are finding many judges on their side, who are rebelling against this cruel system. We can expect no federal action during the congressional hiatus in activity ahead of the November elections, but it would be of considerable help if, across the country, campaigning politicians put this high on their promises of legislative action, much sooner than later.
Walter Cronkite has been a journalist for more than 60 years, including 19 as anchor of the CBS Evening News.