On his way to outer space, Sir Richard Branson is taking a detour.
The magnetic billionaire with the electric smile rerouted from his mission to put people in orbit for a trip to San Francisco last week. On a stage shared with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and District Attorney George Gascon — but unmistakably commanded by the blond Brit — Branson entertained his side venture: pushing a future America where we can buy heroin at the corner store, and the citizens aren't all Klansmen in disguise.
You see, from where Branson sits in Britain, America's drug war looks just like a race war. Arrest statistics, prison populations, death statistics — it's unmistakable that America's most-shameful legacy is still with us, he said. "You have to ask yourself: Is this another form of modern-day slavery?" he asked. The mainstream California politicians sitting nearby nodded with approval.
Legalization talk usually ends abruptly at the notion, always farcical and always used rhetorically, of a future where heroin and crack can be bought at a 7-Eleven. Behold the slippery slope.
Yet that's where Branson's at. Portugal, he pointed out, decriminalized all drugs.
"Yes, a country can benefit from decriminalizing heroin as well," he said. The audience ate it up. More applause, more nods. He was killing it. (Branson, by the way, could front the money to legalize marijuana in California tomorrow. He was asked to do just that, and politely demurred.)
This is the major change in drug policy in recent years. You can say these things — that America engages in widespread and blatant racism and that buying heroin at the corner store might not be so bad — and maintain your credibility and your hold on a (mostly white) audience.
It helps to be rich. And it helps to be white.
Dorsey Nunn was also on stage that night. He had a tough time controlling himself.
Nunn is 64 and has spent 30 years running nonprofits and winning awards. That's not how he was introduced. That night he was the victim, the black man unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment for a drug-related crime (he was paroled in 1984). There was the smell of tokenism, but he has bigger worries.
Nunn is from East Palo Alto. Not long ago, Facebook moved in nearby. Opportunity is here — for some people. Rents are way up, but the struggling schools are the same. Reducing penalties for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor like Gascon wants to do is nice — but it's not the help EPA needs. Other people, like him, who are lucky enough to get out of prison with working years left, have a low-wage grind to look forward to, he says. "At the ass-end of the day, we're still being treated like slaves," he said, "working until you are dead." Fewer claps.
Over the phone the next day, Nunn was calm and kind but he was neither apologetic nor circumspect. Hearing people like Branson and Newsom say these things was unthinkable even seven years ago. There's been remarkable progress — but again, for some people.
"Drugs are already decriminalized — for rich white people," he says. "Where do you think [pill-popping] Rush [Limbaugh] got his shit from?"
He asked me what I thought would have happened if he or his sister or brother — who did two-and-a-half years in Soledad for a joint, he notes — would have been busted for a pill addiction like Limbaugh was. He answers for me. "We wouldn't have gotten rehab," he says. "We'd have been in the pen."
That's the problem, he says, continuous separate and unequal treatment under the law — and the uncomfortable truth that Branson, me, and every other white person gets to partake in a luxury that Nunn does not, each and every day. We think about the drug war because we want to. Nunn thinks about it because he's in it.
Hearing Newsom and Branson and Gascon brand American drug policy a "New Jim Crow," just like the best-selling book, is progress. "When they say it, people hear it," Nunn says. But it's not their lives on the line.
"At the end of the day, [they don't] have the same level of skin in the game," he says.
Earlier in the night, Nunn was asked to play tour guide of sorts. He was asked to say what it was really like — if The Wire or other shows white folk might have seen "get it right," if they show the realities of the drug war. He took a few seconds to answer.
"No," he said.
In other words, welcome to the war. You're about 40 years late.