Ahead of the United Nations Session on Drugs, Connecting the Dots on Race and the Drug War


On April 17th, the eve of the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), scholars and activists will participate in a one-day symposium and strategy session that highlights the connection between the global drug war and racial injustice.

Brought together by the Drug Policy Alliance, and Columbia University’s Center for Justice and Center on African American Politics and Society, we are inviting our local, national and international allies to join Dr. Carl Hart, Erica Garner, Mayor Svante Myrick, Deborah Small, Ethan Nadelmann and hundreds of the nation’s leading advocates from 10:00 AM -5:00PM for this unprecedented collaboration. It is free and open to the public. Those wishing to attend, can register here.

Nearly 20 years ago when the UN last met to discuss drug policy, it chose to follow the lead of the Reagan- and subsequent – administration(s) that promoted unrealistic drug-free policies that have had devastating consequences on many, especially Black people. The legal scholar Michelle Alexander has correctly remarked, in large part as a result of these laws, there are more Black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850.  Now, with literally hundreds of lives lost or irreparably harmed, we have an opportunity, with the world watching, to push forward policies that honor life and human dignity, and the voices of racial justice advocates must be at the center of that conversation.  Here’s why.

When I began working to end the drug war in 2005, I did so because I had dedicated all of my adult life to dismantling the culture of punishment that had incarcerated so many, including my stepson and husband. I watched communities I lived, loved and raised children in, utterly destroyed.  I regularly saw— and still see—young Black men who could be my sons—sleeping on benches along Eastern Parkway in my Brooklyn neighborhood.  In the prime of their lives, the young men are those who did not make it into the shelter just down the street where guys returning from prison often are sent.  Young men who are in the prime of their lives, not building careers or families, but sleeping, alone, on public benches, their presence so ubiquitous as to render them invisible.

These conditions that leave young Black and Brown men and increasingly women counted out of society are driven by drug war policies that determined who was expendable and who was not, who got incarcerated and who got treatment.  This is exactly what they were designed to do.  The criminalization of people who use drugs was created solely and specifically to control the movements and freedom of people of color.  White people used drugs and lived their lives and did fine for years without being criminalized.  It was only with the rise of new immigrants of color—and I include here newly freed Black men and women who were suddenly moving throughout the country—did drug use suddenly become illegal.  Making them illegal had absolutely nothing to do with health and well-being.  In fact, the opposite is true.  And while we in the Black community did not create these policies, we have often unwittingly helped maintain them by our repetition of myths, urban fictions and straight-up lies. 

Take, for example, the recent remarks of Calvin McKesson, father of racial justice activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray McKesson.  The elder McKesson writes that his son navigated his childhood braving mean streets where "...everyday at about 8 o'clock in the morning, you could see 150 drug addicts at one time rushing to run toward a street corner to get their fix.”

This sort of hyperbolic language—added to the other language that the media and many of us including me have used like: super-predator, crackhead and crack ho, gang banger and thug—not only portrays our communities as chaotic centers but wholly dehumanizes the men, women and children living in them.  And equally damaging, it lets off the hook all the other factors which disassembled Black and Brown communities, not the least of which included deindustrialization, the closing of hospitals, the lack of access to health services including mental health services, the ending of anti-poverty programs and the dismantling of the Great Society which was created to ensure the lives of those who had the least. 

Or, as leading neuroscientist and Columbia University professor, Dr. Carl Hart wrote in the New York Times three years ago:

“In the 1980s, a common perception was that drugs in general, and crack cocaine specifically, were destroying the black community…The Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “Our culture must reject drugs. … We’ve lost more lives to dope than we did to the Ku Klux Klan rope…Notably, these sentiments were frequently expressed by individuals with no training on drug effects. Their statements were inaccurate…For example, although crack was often blamed for child abandonment and for the raising of children by grandparents, this happened in my family as well as others long before crack hit the streets. The primary reason for this was poverty, not drugs. And the view that drugs are a problem for all who use them is inconsistent with the scientific evidence. Eighty-five percent or more of drug users — whether they use alcohol, caffeine, prescription medications or drugs deemed illegal — do not have a problem.”

April 17th at Columbia University represents a moment when all of us who are committed to ending racism have an opportunity to examine the drug war policies that were designed specifically to contain and control people of color.   These policies have harmed us almost beyond the telling, but we because we are here, we can tell and more, we can set an agenda for the world to adopt that will move us ever closer to justice and equity.  Join us.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog: http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/major-gathering-columbia-university-address-race-and-drug-war-eve-historic-un-session

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