The War on Drugs Has Failed -- the World Agrees on It


 Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report stating publicly what many people privately believe: THE WAR ON DRUGS HAS FAILED.

The high-level commission which includes three former heads of state – from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil,  former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Reagan cabinet official George P. Schultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker and Virgin mogul Richard Branson calls on governments to end the criminalization of cannabis and other currently illicit substances. In a clear and forthright statement the report says:

Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.

An earlier post on Jack & Jill Politics by Keith Owens did a great job of laying out the reasons why the “war on drugs” is in his words “a joke”. I agree it is a joke in that after more than 40 years of relentless law enforcement and more than $4.5 trillion in expenditures (just in the U.S. alone) illicit drugs are as available as ever, substance abuse continues unabated and drug-related crime and violence has increased. However, if the “war on drugs” is a joke, it’s a joke on black people since we’re the ones who’ve been the principal focus of drug law enforcement resulting in devastating impact to our most vulnerable individuals, families and communities. Black people don’t use or sell drugs at higher rates than whites or any other racial or ethnic group but we are grossly over-represented among the population of people arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug offenses.

More than 40 years of punitive drug policies directed at poor black and brown communities has resulted in the alarming fact that in many of our cities more than a third of all black men are under some form of criminal justice supervision. Over the past few decades there has been an 800% increase in incarceration of women (especially black women) – driven by the “war on drugs” and mandatory minimum sentencing which impose long prison terms for relatively minor offenses regardless of individual culpability or personal circumstances.  In addition to mandatory sentencing we’ve enacted a slew of punitive post-conviction sanctions that deny those convicted of drug offenses of their right to public housing; financial aid for education; public assistance; and in many states – the right to vote. A drug conviction is a substantial barrier to employment for a population that far too often suffers from inadequate education and job training. In the words of Michelle Alexander, “the war on drugs functions like the new Jim Crow trapping an increasing population of black people in a permanent under caste.” The so-called “war on drugs” is in fact a misnomer – it’s really a war on people, people involved with the drugs we’ve deemed ‘illicit’, though as was true with alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition is not directed at all those involved with such substances – no – drug prohibition is almost solely enforced against the poor, the marginalized and the powerless. Those with money, status and power are able to buy and use illicit drugs without fear, secure in the knowledge the police are too busy chasing poor black and brown addicts on street corners and in housing projects to go after the rich addicts in fancy offices and country clubs.

The public policy response to crack cocaine is just one salient example of racialization of the “war on drugs” here in the U.S.  Though the use of crack cocaine at its height never exceeded the use of powder cocaine in the U.S., it was hyped as an epidemic by the media and became the focus of a host of new punitive laws, the most notorious of which imposed a 100:1 federal sentencing disparity for crack cocaine vs powder cocaine offenses. The law required a mandatory five-year federal prison sentence for anyone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine – possession of more than 500 grams of powder cocaine was needed to receive the same sentence. Because of the harsh mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses – law enforcement and prosecution was so racially skewed that for more than a decade blacks accounted for more than 80% of federal crack cocaine convictions! In 1995 the Commission concluded that the violence associated with crack cocaine is primarily related to the drug trade and not to the effects of the drug itself. The racial disparity in prosecutions for crack cocaine offenses was so bad for so long the U.S. Sentencing Commission practically begged Congress to change it, warning in one of its many reports recommending reform:

Nevertheless, the Commission finds even the perception of racial disparity to be problematic. Perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system among those very groups that Congress intended would benefit from the heightened penalties for crack cocaine.

It took more than a decade of continual advocacy by civil rights, racial justice and human rights organizations (among others) before Congress heeded the call to reform the crack cocaine sentencing disparity, but instead of equalizing sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses (as urged by reform advocates) it reduced the disparity from 100:1 to 12:1. Now Congress is considering whether apply the sentencing reform retroactively – which if passed could provide relief to more than 13,000 people imprisoned in the federal system for crack cocaine offenses.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have supported reforming federal cocaine sentencing policy in part to address its clear racial bias, but have been significantly less outspoken in addressing the harms caused by disproportionate arrests of black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. In New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta (just to name a few) marijuana possession arrests have risen dramatically, accounting for the majority of drug-related arrests involving youth of color.  Most of the arrests do not result in prison sentences but they all result in the young person being booked, fingerprinted and entered into the local criminal justice database. A few years ago my organization published a report about the NYPD practice of tricking youth into revealing small amounts of marijuana that may have on their person and then charging them with possessing it in “public view” – an arrestable misdemeanor offense.  One would think police departments in these densely populated  - often high crime – communities would have more important things to do than arresting young people for possessing small amounts of marijuana – but so it goes for minority youth who literally see their futures going up in smoke for conduct white youth engage in with impunity .

If you believe as I do that the “war on drugs” has less to do with combatting drug use than it does with maintaining the ability to subjugate and marginalize black people, then the drug war has actually been one of the U.S. government’s most successful wars to date. It’s been successful in restoring a significant percentage of the black population to a condition of penal servitude; it’s been successful in increasing the rate of black on black violence (particularly among young men); it’s been successful in destroying countless families ravaged by addiction, incarceration, child welfare policies and homelessness; it’s been successful in maintaining high risk for drug-related HIV infection in black and Latino communities; it’s been successful in reducing the political power of black communities by disenfranchising millions of potential voters for felony drug convictions but most significantly it’s been successful in creating a wedge between the black middle class and the black poor.

For the most part, the black middle class has found it convenient to ignore the impact of punitive drug policies on poor black communities, preferring instead to embrace the gospel of ‘personal responsibility’ which places the blame on drug users and their suppliers with little regard for the role of institutional racism in drug law enforcement. In response to complaints about the impact and severity of mandatory minimum drug sentencing and other punitive policies on poor black families one hears the refrain, “if you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime”,  ignoring the widespread prevalence of drug law offending within every socio-economic group.  I often wonder if society decided to criminalize and punish illicit sexual activity (e.g. fornication, adultery and prostitution) with the same zeal and vigor we punish drug offenses and the majority of those prosecuted were poor black and brown people would we so readily accept the justification that it’s because they were the ones committing the offense, or would we demand equal application of the law knowing that poor people of color don’t have a monopoly on illicit sex?

Why have we been so willing to accept specious justifications for racially disparate drug law enforcement? I believe the answer lies in part in our continuing acceptance of the punishment paradigm – the belief that punishment is an effective form of behavior modification – a firmly entrenched and residual legacy of our racial history in this country.  Punishment was the principal method utilized by slave masters to control black people, after emancipation fear and punishment continued to serve as tools for intimidation and subjugation – not just by former masters and employers – but by any white person seeking to assert his/her power over black lives. Over centuries of interactions with whites in the U.S., we learned that punishment is often swift, harsh and arbitrary.  Until very recently, due ‘process of law’ did not protect us from unjust punishment; we’ve always been subjected to the harshest penalties – whether long prison sentences or the death penalty; the spate of recent exonerations for wrongful convictions of black people around the country demonstrates the extent to which the criminal justice system can be arbitrary – an innocent man can spend years behind bars with little hope of relief.

Years of being on the receiving end of punishment has resulted in a collective internalization of the experience. We need to be willing to examine the extent to which our attachment to punishment as a means of behavior modification works against our collective interests. We need to see clearly that we’ve allowed the criminal justice system to impose punishment on poor black communities that is not imposed on other similarly situated communities and when it comes to drug crimes we need to face the fact that for all practical purposes drug use is effectively decriminalized for whites – the police are too busy scooping up black and brown people to go after the millions of white drug users in this country. The vast majority of drug consumption occurs outside of poor black, brown or white communities, it’s the affluent drug user that provides the foundation for the multibillion dollar drug economy.  The U.S. “war on drugs” is really one more elaborate mechanism for sustaining white privilege – the privilege to engage in illicit drug use of all forms with minimal fear of legal consequences while at the same time maintaining the fiction of fighting drugs in order to protect children. By acquiescing to this national farce black people have sacrificed multiple generations of our youth to enable the majority community to pretend they’re protecting their youth. In reality none are protected – drugs are plentiful and easily available everywhere.

The official response of the U.S. government to the Global Drug Commission Report was to dismiss it as “misguided”. If there’s anything that’s misguided, it’s our continued adherence to a policy that has clearly failed to meet its stated goals. Recently, President Obama responded to a question about alternatives to the war on drugs by saying he does not believe in legalizing drugs but he does think it is a “legitimate topic for debate”.  I believe it’s time to begin the debate about whether to repeal drug prohibition and replace it with a real system of drug regulation and control, what do you think? If you agree we need to have a national conversation about the future of U.S. drug policy, please sign the petition urging President Obama to initiate it.  The goal is to collect as many signatures as there are people incarcerated for drug offenses and that’s almost 1/4 of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. aka PRISON NATION!!!

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