The Politics of Drugs: A Skills for Justice Interview

THE POLITICS OF DRUGS with Mutulu Shakur

Mutulu Shakur is a political prisoner and co-founder of The Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America. The interview was conducted by Skills for Justice, a group of anti-racist activists who deal with the issue of racial violence in the legal arena.

Skills for Justice: Dr. Shakur, I know you have a long history of doing work around the issue of drug abuse. Could you tell us something about it?

Mutulu Shakur: The Nation of Islam under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X first developed a program for dealing with drug addiction during the heroin plague of the sixties. The Nation of Islam would take an addicted person and separate him from the drug, provide social support, good diet and some kind of work outlet in order to move that person outside of the heroin world into feeling productive and giving them self-esteem. The example they put forward might have come out of the general extended family culture in the oppressed communities-in particular, the Black community. The Nation of Islam’s work around drugs helped make it very respectable in the Black community and provided an example which was taken up by other revolutionary formations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of the Baptist churches also used the method of isolating the drug victim from drugs, providing a person or two to do a 24-hour or 48-hour detoxification watch, providing food and general back-up.

This concept was the beginning of the theory of treatment through what we now call ”therapeutic communities”. These community-based programs dealt with questions of education, housing and welfare. They always took some responsibility for being a big brother or watchdog to a certain number of drug victims. They used other aspects of the community program as a way for the drug victim to find more self-esteem, become more valuable to themselves and their communities, and try to right some of the wrongs that they had been involved in.

During the sixties, the Lindsay era in New York, there were a number of community drug abuse programs under the Commission for Racial Justice. Out in Los Angeles, I remember an Asian community drug abuse program. And Dr. Matthews had a major drug program something like the Nation of Islam. He had an economic survival orientation where he would have drug victims make some kind of product, and when that product was sold, they would get the money. It was a vocational rehabilitation program.

During that period a lot of the work was done by the movement. We had a moral commitment to it; it was something we could squeeze out of whatever resources we could get through city tax dollars or through donations. We would all find some way to help somebody who was addicted to drugs.

Community-based Drug Treatment

What happened then was that the government began putting anti-poverty money into community-based programs in order to stem the tide of the resistance and the rebellion, to placate the communities that were so oppressed. I might add they used COINTELPRO against the movements. Since we were all so concerned with the downtrodden and the person without and the person who might possibly get on drugs, we never suspected some of them were being used as infiltrators into our community-based anti-poverty programs which were havens for Panthers and ex-Panthers. Lumumba Shakur, Abdul Majid and others in the Panther 21 Case all worked in the South Jamaica Community Corporation housing program at one time.

Fighting drugs was generally not isolated as a specific area for funding in the late sixties and early seventies. The community tried to include the fight against drugs and siphon off some of the money to do that kind of work. In Corona and other places, the Community Corporation outlets provided the type of services needed by victims of drugs who wanted to alter their behavior. And alot of the movement people were there. That’s where we found alot of the people who were going to find the moral convictions to fight drugs and to fight against all the ills of society-in some of those anti-poverty programs.

In the late sixties and early seventies, monies for drug abuse were handed over to ex-prisoners. A lot of the Muslim programs were run by ex-prisoners, ex-dope fiends or whatever you like to call them, coupled with people who were progressive or left in college, social workers of some sort. We had a lot of Peace Corps activists in the Bronx and in South Jamaica, a lot of Peace Corps activities going on in those communities under the guise of fighting drugs. Clearly, they were performing the same role that they performed in other countries. Some had legitimate moral commitment to the work, and the others were CIA operatives. So the ex-prisoners and the Peace Corp-type, those partners made for what then looked like a comprehensive package: someone who knew the street and someone who knew the bureaucracy and had the educational background to prepare the proposals in order to get what was now coming down the line for federal funds for drug addiction.

As the sixties began to slow down, the drug struggle and the struggle against drugs became “profession-alized.” The psychiatrists and psychologists-people with credentials who had never been connected to drug rehabilitation and the drug war before-were suddenly interested. Part of this was sociological: it gave the middle class some finances. But isolating the movement from the process of curing drugs was also a strategy: separate the politics from it, take it from the Malcolm X example, the Nation of Islam example ,and put it into a more credentialized process. Separating the people from the process of curing drugs was the first stage of the contemporary period of chemical warfare against the oppressed community. The Nixon administration and its National Drug Abuse Council began to investigate another drug. They wanted something to introduce that as a cure-all for the street drugs that existed at the time. Methadone maintenance became the great cure-all for heroin addiction.

But if you were politically astute, you understood that any drug replacing another drug would only mean a further addiction. The only element missing would be the so-called criminal factor. The political movements were on this, more so than the Peace Corps-types.

This became the basis of The Lincoln Detox example. Our efforts came from the Young Lords Party, the Black Panther Party, and drug victims themselves who were educated through the prison programs, the anti-poverty programs.They began to realized that they needed to have more control over drug rehabilitation programs. Lincoln Detox wasn’t the only example in the country, but I dare say one of the most dynamic examples of fighting drugs in a political framework .

Lincoln Detox Alternative

Lincoln Detox was on of the programs that held on the longest under federal funding while being led by leaders in the struggle for the liberation of Puerto Rico, the liberation of New Africa, the black liberation struggle, as well as left, white anti-imperialist leaders. Whatever people think about their politics now, Jennifer Dohrn worked there, Franklin Michael Appel worked there, a number of progressive anti-imperialists participated in Lincoln Detox.

Lincoln Detox fought methadone from 1971, from the inception of the Rockefeller Program. We fought all the way through. The issue of drugs was a problem of the inner cities, but even though the Health and Hospital Corporation had about ten municipal hospitals under it, Lincoln Detox was the only example of a community-based detox program. Lincoln Detox was developed by revolutionary forces housed inside of Lincoln Hospital which received city funds and some federal matching in order to operate. Most other drug programs operate from funds from the federal government and funds for research, like the drug addiction programs given to Albert Einstein School of medicine, or Columbia, or the other universities. The Lincoln Hospital drug program was the only drug program not operated by an educationally-affiliated medical institution.

The attack on Lincoln Detox was an attack by the federal government and city governments, because that’s where the funds were coming from. Part of the contradiction was that there would be more money for the city if they kept people maintained on methadone as opposed to having a person detoxed off of that methadone. They received $250 a day per patient in beds maintained on methadone.

The other part of the contradiction was that the politically-motivated and organized drug programs created a pool of volunteer workers to oppose any candidate who did not have the best interests of the poor and oppressed in mind. For instance, Ramon Velez used to run the South Bronx. (I don’t know if I like him or dislike him; it has nothing to do with it.) He was an assemblyman. Like other people in political office, he would pander to drug programs because drug programs could get out people With flags and do the kind of campaigning they now call “high tech” campaigning. If a particular assemblyman or congressman supported A particular program, or came and spoke and made political overtures, That program would go out and do basic campaign organizing and recruitment for that politician.

At one time, 60% of people addicted to heroin could get black market methadone for a certain period of time. And we couldn’t blame that on the Turkish government, we couldn’t blame it on the Vietnamese, we couldn’t blame that on any other nation, on the economy of poppyseeds or anything.

At the time Koch was running, there was clear opposition to him from Lincoln Detox. So Lincoln Detox became a ” terrorist operation.” What was the evidence? We had drug victims trying to fight the ills in their community. People at Lincoln Detox helped bury Black Liberation Army soldiers who did not have money to be buried, went to trial with Dhoruba Moore and Assata Shakur and various other comrades, went to trials for Carlos Feliciano. We also went and picketed and did stuff around union rights. We went to fight for the gypsy cab drivers to get a fair shake, to be allowed to take fares below 110th Street. We also went into the welfare centers to enforce community complaints, making sure, for example, that welfare victims with debts were treated respectfully.

A lot of those activities came from the people working at Lincoln Detox who were listening to the victims coming in: someone trying to get a welfare check in Wilson Bergen Welfare Center. Or driving a cab: “I got my gypsy cab, I’m gonna go and get four or five tickets before the day is over. I end up with no money. What am I gonna do with $20? I’m gonna buy a bag of herb.” you see. And we listen to that and try to take it up, “Lets do something about that problem. “So when you really talk about fighting drugs, and you really talk about fighting crime, especially in the inner city, you have to look at the overall political ingredients.

Drugs in the ‘Eighties

SFG: Moving forward to today for a moment, how would you analyze this whole “crack” phenomenon? Do you see any big differences from the past?

Shakur: Different drugs definitely affect the community differently. Its odd to say but heroin was something that the community could handle. But the physical effects-the withdrawal and the maintenance-of people addicted to methadone was something that the community could not handle. The secondary symptoms caused by prolonged use of methadone were just something that a mother or brother or cousin or wife or lover could not handle.

Methadone, when it was only manufactured by Eli Lilly and only distributed through accredited clinics and hospitals, became second to heroin as the black market drug on the streets of New York city. At one time, 60% of people addicted to heroin could get black market methadone for a certain period of time. And we couldn’t blame that on the Turkish government, we couldn’t blame it on the Vietnamese, we couldn’t blame that on any other nation, on the economy of poppyseeds or anything. Methadone was clearly manufactured here in United States, distributed in its clinics, and it became the illegal drug on the streets.

The politics of methadone were so clear and glaring that they had to phase down the propaganda about it, although a number of methadone maintenance programs still exist today. What does that mean? It means that the United States government can participate in flooding a community with drugs whether they’re legal or illegal.

When we look at crack, (not crack, necessarily, but cocaine) flowing into this country to replace heroin and methadone, we have to put it in the context of United States geopolitical strategy. When we look at the struggle in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, and we look at the geopolitical strategy of the United States government, then we can see that within their framework and their strategy, cocaine becomes a significant issue, just like heroin became a significant issue on the streets of the United States when the United States was at war oppressing the Vietnamese people. The struggle to oppress the Latin American nations and control and support dictatorships means that illegal drugs are going to be flowing in from that region. The drugs you find in America are from wherever imperialism is being implemented.

SFJ: Well, what do you do? It seems almost insurmountable. People are organizing community patrols, but given the reality of the kind of oppressive conditions that exist in our community today, where do you begin to tackle it? What needs to be understood and done?

Shakur: Drug addiction and drug use, dippin’ and adabbin’; crosses a lot of lines politically and socially, but for different reasons now, it has become a genocidal tool as well as a subculture of American society. It has become that not only because of its availability but also because of the political motive on the part of a class of people in this country to sedate a certain element of the population.

And there is also the question of economics. The underprivileged and the deprived have to find some kind of black market or underground economy that can sustain the community where there’s no possibility, or limited possibility, of economic growth. That’s the political context.

But you also have to recognize that effort to fight drug addiction, whatever it is-crack, heroin, valium, alcohol-has to be a complete program. We were wrong to address it totally politically without having a medical capability. That’s one of the things that Lincoln Detox realized, that it could not only be a political formation, especially with the onslaught of methadone. We had to have some type of medical capability.

We have to realize what crack does to an individual. Crack-smoking is totally a brain addiction which is different from someone shooting up cocaine or heroin on the street or someone sniffing cocaine. Crack pushes the individual to identify with what this society projects as accomplishment.

Look at television nowadays. For example, the Colt 45 commercial with Billy Dee Williams. Now everywhere you go in America’s wasteland, you see men and women on the corners drinking Colt 45, one of the cheapest, nastiest-tasting beers there is. There is nothing in what that beer does to you and what this advertisement does to you that can compare. So the advertisement is not necessarily only for Colt 45, but for the complementary drug that will help the Colt 45 make you feel like the advertisement suggests.

What you’re suppose to get in Colt 45 is the roaming and the wind and speed. You look at commercials and the car is speeding. You can hardly see one figure. Everything is fa-la-la-la-la. And if you sit down and talk to a patient of crack addiction, what you will find is snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap-it speeds them up, it spaces them out, it’s the get-down-now, it’s the Wall Street shifting and under-the-table bidding and making deals, hand-over-heels, it’s the picking up the phone and getting it done.

What you get with crack differs from what you get with heroin. Heroin is more like Williams Bendix on ‘The Life Riley,” where what was deemed to be success was to be able to come home and put out a hammock and lay back and relax. Today that’s not what America is projecting as what you should be into.

So you have a segment of the society without the economic capability, without the educational or cultural outlet, but with a whole lot of televisions available, trying to associate itself with a behavior pattern that’s just outside its realm. And the chemistry of crack is there in order to accomplish That goal.

SFJ: One of the things I wanted to talk about is the question of drugs and crime and racism. Its very convenient for white people to profess to be alienated from Black people or Latin people not because they are racist, but-at least that is what they would allege-because of the nature of crime and the nature of drugs that contribute to crime. Given your background as a fighter of drug abuse, how do you respond to that?

Shakur: I think that the United States government is clear to separate the addiction from East L.A. Chicanos and Arizona Chicanos, Blacks and Puerto Ricans. And how they separate it is that they magnify addiction in the Black and Puerto Rican community, and they don’t talk about it as it goes on in the white community.

So when white people talk about crime and drugs, it often becomes an excuse to maintain their racism without saying that you just prefer your own race.

Yes, we must deal with crime, but for God’s sake be cautious of the fascist developments that the government uses in the so-called fight against crime. The real danger is if middle America doesn’t wake up to the fact that they’re using crime in the Black and Third World communities to squeeze all our Constitutional rights to nothing.

Criminalizing people for their politics actually allows the real criminals to run the streets. To deal with crime and drugs in the community, you have to have people who are not intimidated by that, the people who came through there and are clear who the real enemy is and are not afraid. It takes all of their moral authority and political responsibility to confront those issues.

Take South Jamaica. If we accept that Fat Cat Nicholas is the one bringing drugs into South Jamaica community, then who can talk to Fat Cat Nicholas? Well Fat Cat Nicholas, who’s only twenty-six, used to live right around the Corner from Abdul Majid who has worked in housing and worked against drugs and all of these different things. Abdul could go and talk to Fat Cat Nicholas and I know that when Abdul Majid is in the community that’s what he does. He’s not intimidated by the so-called street club. But if someone with the moral authority of an Abdul Majid is labeled a criminal and taken off the street, then who can talk to Fat Cat Nicholas?

If you let this government separate and isolate these people, where are the communities going to get their direction from? You have to have leaders with moral authority in communities that clearly have no respect for the middle class and definitely have no respect for the politicians.

So crime, yes. There is crime. There’s the crime of black men killing old black women. We don’t tolerate that. There’s the crime of older men selling drugs to young children. I mean, draw a line. It is for the dollar only?

Where are the community centers where basketball is played? You talk all this basketball nonsense and sports nonsense, but that only happens in the colleges. In the community it is very seldom you have a parent who can send a child to a coach who is not only interested in winning but is also doing it because he can handle the tough kids, the kid that feels he has been abandoned by his father or whatever. We don’t have that any more. You don’t have any evening centers. You don’t have that any more in the community. And the Federal government can get that money out and put it into missiles and put it into exploiting and colonizing other nations. And so you talk about crime-that’s the crime.

Special thanks to Beth Lyons for arranging publication of this interview in Forward Motion. Beth Lyons is a progressive lawyer and long-time activist living in New Jersey.

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