Just how absurd is America's war on drugs? Consider the case of Barbara Hill, about whom the Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday. Hill, a 63-year old grandmother, has been living in Oakland public housing for the last thirty years. No one ever suggested that she uses drugs or condones the use of drugs. But in November 1997, Oakland Housing Authority officers caught her grandson in the parking lot of the apartment complex, standing next to someone who had a joint. When they questioned him, Hill's grandson admitted that he too had smoked marijuana. Although they never suggested that Hill had any knowledge of or involvement in any drug crime, and her grandson had never been arrested before, the OHA then evicted Barbara Hill from her apartment. This Kafkaesque series of events is repeated over and over in public housing facilities across America - law-abiding people tossed out of their homes because a relative or friend committed a minor drug violation of which the tenant had no knowledge. It would almost be laughable if we weren't talking about real people being victimized.
How can they do this? Department of Housing and Urban Development policy mandates that every resident of public housing sign a lease promising "To assure that tenant, any member of the household, a guest, or another person under the tenant's control, shall not engage in...Any drug-related criminal activity on or near the premises. Any criminal activity in violation of the preceding sentence shall be cause for termination of tenancy, and for eviction from the unit." Among other indignities, public housing residents are routinely submitted to warrantless searches after being told that if they don't allow housing authority officials to ransack their homes looking for drugs, they will be evicted.
But wait, you might say. Barbara Hill and other public housing residents are getting a government benefit, the opportunity to rent apartments at below-market rates with the government making up the difference. Isn't it reasonable that in exchange they be forced to strictly abide by the law and make sure their family members and guests do the same? And if they don't, shouldn't the government exercise its prerogative to no longer provide them with that benefit?
All right, sounds fair enough. In that case, we should certainly apply the law to everyone who gets their housing subsidized by the government. So if you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who owns a home, that means you, too.
According to the IRS, of the 127 million federal income tax returns filed in 2000, approximately 30 million claimed the mortgage interest deduction. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece of taxpayer largesse, in America if you own a home the federal government pays for a significant chuck of the interest on your mortgage, depending on the tax bracket you're in. The mortgage interest deduction is the largest middle-class entitlement in the federal budget, costing well over $60 billion a year. The average homeowner claims a deduction of more than $8,000 each year.
So if we're going to be consistent, we have to make sure that all recipients of government-subsidized housing, and their relatives and guests, strictly abide by drug prohibition laws. Therefore, I modestly propose a number of additions to federal drug laws:
* All recipients of the mortgage interest deduction will be
required to permanently waive their Fourth Amendment rights and allow local police to regularly search their homes for drugs.
* If a teenager is caught with marijuana or any other drug,
his or her parents will become permanently ineligible for the mortgage interest deduction.
* All of the nation's drug treatment facilities will be
visited by federal agents, who will question the patients to determine any and all locations in which they have used or carried drugs, including the homes of parents, friends, and parents of friends. The owners of all of these homes will become permanently ineligible for the mortgage interest deduction.
How do you think that'd go over with the American people?
The housing issue is just one of the many ways in which our war on drugs is in practice a war on poor people. Barbara Hill came home one day to find an eviction notice on her door because her grandson took a puff on a joint. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, was not kicked out of the governor's mansion - for which the citizens of Florida pay in its entirety - even though his daughter was arrested for trying to fraudulently obtain a prescription drug. Governor Bush made an eminently reasonable request, for "the public and media to respect our family's privacy during this difficult time so that we can help our daughter." If I am arrested tomorrow for a drug crime, the American taxpayer will continue to help me pay for my house. Do poor people who do drugs deserve the same privacy and help the Bush family does? According to the federal government - and probably the Supreme Court; reports indicate that Hill's attorney got little sympathy during yesterday's oral arguments - the answer is no.
Paul Waldman is publisher of the Waldman Political Report