Making War on the War on Drugs

Deborah Small is director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation's leading organization working to broaden the public debate on drug policy by promoting realistic alternatives to the war on drugs.

Small is organizing the upcoming conference, "Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" to be held in late September in Los Angeles. The conference is expected to bring together hundreds of community organizers, religious leaders, youth and elected officials to address the destructive impact of the drug war on communities of color.

Small talked with AlterNet about the drug war as one of the leading sources of racial inequities in America and what Americans can do to address the problem.

ALTERNET: Why is there so little awareness of the connection between race and the war on drugs?

DEBORAH SMALL: Because very few people talk about it. The targets of drug law enforcement; the resources available to assist those with substance abuse problems; the sanctions applied to people convicted of drug crimes; the demonization of drugs and drug users are all issues that have racial and class overtones that are rarely acknowledged, much less discussed. Additionally, those individuals and communities that have been most affected by the war on drugs have been reluctant to talk about problems related to the war on drugs, in part because of the stigma and shame attached to any involvement in drug activity.

As a nation we need to come to grips with the fact that there are two criminal justice systems in America: one for white Americans and one for everyone else. Our nation's drug policies are a leading source of racial inequities in our country and we need to start addressing this problem.

Is it also because the problem of drugs is defined mainly as a white issue in mainstream media -- i.e. the danger of nice white suburban kids getting hooked?

It depends what the purpose of the media message is. If the goal is to justify government anti-drug propaganda - for example, the ads which aired during Super bowl Sunday that attempted to link drug users to the war on terrorism -- or to support mandatory drug testing in schools, then the reason given is the need to protect kids from drugs. However, if the goal of the media message is to justify increased police presence in communities of color, or policies that impose severe penalties for minor drug offenses, then the reason given is that drug users and sellers are a scourge on such communities and need to be punished.

What biases about drugs, people of color etc are in operation here?

Generally, the bias is class-based with racial overtones. Poor people with drug problems are presumed to be criminals and are treated harshly by the criminal justice system. Affluent people with drug problems are deemed in need of help and are expected to seek treatment with the goal of getting well. Additionally, there is a presumption that drug use is endemic in poor communities of color -- therefore not an anomaly and not an issue demanding serious attention.

The war on drugs has filled our jails and prisons with the poor and the young -- who are disproportionately African-American, Latino, and Native American. In some states like New York and California, more African-American and Latino men are sent to prison each year than graduate from the state's colleges and universities. That's a sad commentary about our societal priorities.

So what are the main areas within this encompassing challenge that need to be urgently addressed?

Police use of racial profiling is now well documented. Blacks and Latinos are far more likely than other Americans to be stopped and searched by police on streets and highways throughout the United States. The same is true of Native Americans in many parts of the country. Prosecutorial decisions are also racially skewed.

So are sentencing practices, with blacks and Latinos often sentenced to longer prison terms and afforded fewer alternatives to incarceration. In New York, conviction for the sale of two ounces or more of a narcotic drug or cocaine requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life. As a result of this draconian law, New York has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of persons serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Not surprisingly, more than 94 percent of state inmates serving time for drug offenses are African-American or Latino. Under federal mandatory minimum laws, the harshest criminal penalties are applied to drugs such as "crack" cocaine (a drug used predominantly by poor persons of color), where the overwhelming majority of people arrested and convicted are black.

As a result, African-Americans and Latinos are losing their right to vote. So many people are disenfranchised that it has affected the outcome of national elections. This has an impact on entire communities and dilutes their ability to have adequate political representation and participate in government. It also makes a mockery of our claim of promoting democracy abroad when we deny basic political rights to so many citizens.

We also deny public assistance to former drug offenders, which not only prevents them from becoming productive members of society, but also threatens the well being of innocent children. Denying public housing to former drug offenders leaves them in the same social and economic circumstances that may have led them to commit drug offenses in the first place. We need to make sure that all Americans that need access to treatment receive it. An estimated four million children have at least one parent who needs treatment for substance abuse.

What needs to be done? What policy changes are you most optimistic about? Which are less likely and why?

We need to eliminate the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity (the staggering difference in penalties imposed for powder versus. crack cocaine offenses). We must eliminate mandatory minimums, which grant disproportionate power to prosecutors to extract pleas from defendants, and encourage cooperation by "snitching." We must stop arresting and prosecuting people for minor cannabis offenses. We need to restore voting rights to all persons upon the completion of their criminal sentence. We should provide access to drug treatment on request to those who need it. And we need to make clean syringes available to injection drug users to help limit the transmission of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. And that's just for starters. I think all these are minimally required changes.

I'm optimistic about the possibility of achieving modest success in reforming some mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws and promoting more alternatives to incarceration for low-level drug offenders. But I'm less optimistic about getting federal funding for needle exchange programs and the removal of post-conviction sanctions - such as loss of voting rights, loss of eligibility for public assistance, student aid, and public housing.

Has the drug arrests scandal that broke in Tulia, Texas helped create greater awareness of these connections between race and the drug war?

The media attention has increased public awareness of some of the excesses of the drug war and has provided a clear example of the way people of color (particularly African-Americans and Latinos) are targeted for drug offenses. More than 10 percent of African-Americans in Tulia, Texas were arrested on drug charges on the word of an unreliable undercover police official without any corroborating evidence.

The only people arrested were African-American or whites in romantic relationships with African-Americans. It does not take a leap of logic to understand the racial implications of this action. The sentences imposed on the early defendants (the first defendant, a 66-year-old hog farmer was sentenced to 99 years in prison) were designed to send a message to the others about what would happen if they did not agree to make a deal with prosecutors.

The clear injustice of the cases and the impact they have had on the entire African-American community in Tulia has shocked the conscience of many Americans and made them aware that racism is still alive and well, and finding its expression through our prosecution of the "war on drugs."

What are some goals you hope to achieve through the conference? And how much can one conference do?

We have three major goals we hope to achieve through this conference, which are:

-- to "connect-the-dots" for conference participants about the various ways that the drug war disproportionately impacts communities of color and relates to issues that many may already be focused on (e.g. racial profiling; sentencing reform; prison moratorium; HIV/AIDS prevention; restoration of voting rights; drug treatment services, etc.).

-- to provide an opportunity for participants to share their personal experiences and perspectives about the impact of the war on drugs on communities of color, and to create relationships between people of various communities facing similar issues.

-- to introduce participants to effective alternatives to punitive drug sentences. And to highlight successful drug reform campaigns to provide examples of projects that participants can initiate or support in their local communities.

In order to achieve these goals the conference has been designed to be informative without being overly academic; energetic in the sense of using mixed media and a variety of formats; interactive by providing maximum opportunity for participant interaction with each other and the program speakers; emotional as we want to touch people's hearts, as well as their minds; motivational since we want people to leave with a commitment to return to their communities.

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