News & Politics

BETWEEN THE LINES: ACLU Battles Racial Bias in Drug War

"While the ratio of drug use by whites and blacks is relatively the same, the war on drugs has exacerbated racial disparities in incarceration. In some southern states, more than a third of African American males have lost their right to vote and their access to federal funds for a college education."
Last month, the U.S. prison population exceeded a record two million inmates. The large increase in the number of those incarcerated has been fueled by the War on Drugs. Critics charge that U.S. drug laws have violated the civil rights of many citizens both in and out of prison.In 1998, the Washington, D.C-based American Civil Liberties Union set up its Drug Policy Litigation Project. The Project's staff attorney, Graham Boyd says the ACLU has long been concerned about civil rights violations stemming from the drug war. Since its founding, the group has advocated changes in state and federal drug laws as the primary way to improve the situation. But the project has recently adopted a legal strategy confronting the most egregious abuses through court action.Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with staff attorney Graham Boyd about his group's work and the racial disparities he sees as inherent in the drug war.Graham Boyd: Most people agree that drug abuse is a bad thing, it's a dangerous thing, there's no doubt about that. At the same time, though, the policies that we've developed to deal with drugs have ended up being, in many cases, as harmful, maybe even more harmful than the drugs themselves. We're incarcerating a record number of people and we've focused primarily on people of color. We take away the right to vote, people's ability to get school loans, children, housing, an extraordinary number of things all in the name of trying to stop drugs and it does no good. Drug use continues to go up, the drug prices continue to go down. And it's really a time to ask if there isn't a better way of getting at the problems we say we're trying to solve.Between The Lines: Can you speak a little more about the racial disparities related to the War on Drugs?Graham Boyd: Fifteen years ago, the number of people in prison had been relatively steady for quite a long time. And it was about that time that the War on Drugs really started heating up. Since then, the overall prison population has doubled, and then doubled again and again to the point that as of this month, we actually have two million people behind bars in the U.S. and the increase has been almost entirely due to drug arrests. The number of people arrested for murder, for violent crimes, all that stays relatively the same. But the drug arrests have just gone through the roof. The people who are arrested for drug crimes are vastly disproportionately African American. The level of drug use among white people as compared to black people is about the same. But the level of arrests is between 8 and 20 times higher depending on the age group and gender.Especially in southern states, there are laws that take away the right to vote forever if you're convicted of a felony. The result of that is that in some states like Florida and Alabama, one-third of adult African American men cannot vote. And that's a stunning number. Fully one-third of that population is forever deprived of the right to vote.Another example is the ability to get an education. I think that most of us really believe in the idea of rehabilitation and a second chance. But if you are arrested for even a minor drug offense, a mistake you may make as a kid, as an 18-year-old, you can lose all of your federal financial aid that would allow you to go to college or to seek a higher education because of that mistake. It's really a way of saying that if you get involved with drugs, one strike and you're out.Between The Lines: Does your work involve both taking individual cases and class action suits regarding these issues?Graham Boyd: It's really more of the latter. Let me give some examples. Last year, the District of Columbia held an election to allow the medical use of marijuana so that terminally ill, cancer and AIDS patients could use marijuana to alleviate their suffering. The vote was held but Congress passed a law confiscating the ballot, literally preventing the voters from learning what the result of that election was. And only because it was about drugs. Bob Barr, a Republican congressman from Georgia, worked to pass that law. I went to court and got an injunction that reversed that law so that voters could find out how they had voted.Drug testing is another issue that we look at a lot. Drug testing is on the rise in the workplace. It's also spreading in some parts of the country, to public schools, such that 12-year-old students have to take a urine drug test to prove that they're not using drugs. And I'm working on cases that involve that sort of thing.Between The Lines: So what do you think is the connection between the kind of litigation work you're doing and altering public perceptions and opinions enough to put pressure on legislators to change these draconian drug laws?Graham Boyd: One of my criteria in evaluating a potential case is just how outrageous is the government action that is taking place here. Because I think it's important in terms of educating the public; I think it's important that, in bringing a case to court, you're also bringing it to the public's attention.(There was the example) of Congress canceling an election because of the hysteria over drugs. I think most people think that's outrageous. But another example of that comes out of California. California did pass a medical marijuana law to allow patients to use marijuana when a doctor recommends it. Federal officials from the drug czar's office and the DEA threatened California doctors with arrest if they even talked about marijuana with patients there. Obviously, it violates the First Amendment. This action obviously interferes with a doctor's own judgment about his/her medical practice. It's Big Brother coming in telling them what to do, and people are outraged by that.To find out how you can act locally on this issue, contact the ACLU by calling (202) 544-1681 or visit their Web site at http://www.aclu.org.
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