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Published:November 25th, 2015 18:48 EST
The War on Drugs

Race and The War on Drugs

By Natse Jemide

President Nixon`s War on Drugs has had long terms effects on American culture and society, for better and for worse.

One of the lingering and malignant effects has been the racial discrimination by law enforcement  and the criminal justice system toward communities of minority groups.  This has produced disproportionate hardship and suffering among these communities nationwide for decades, and will continue to do so until decisive action is taken.

As it is, people of colour have a much higher chance of being stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations despite the fact that drug use and drug dealing rates are comparable amongst the different races of America. It follows then that higher arrest and incarceration rates for African American and Latino communities are not an accurate representation of the prevalence of drug use or dealing in their communities but are the direct result of law enforcement agencies targeting such urban and lower-income communities of colour, compounded with decades of unequal treatment by the criminal justice system. The tragic effect of this has been to perpetuate the notion that such communities have higher rates of drug use and dealing, leading to a veritable cycle of effect and cause.

The war on drugs is skewed not only in enforcement but also in policy. Consider sentencing penalties for crack cocaine. Since the 1980`s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. As such, a disproportionate number of African Americans were sentenced to much lengthier terms. In recent times, the crack/powder disparity has been reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 but still exists.

The question then, is why? Why this disparity in policy and enforcement? Why this systematic discrimination against minority individuals and communities? And what can be done?

This piece will explore the legislation that criminalize drug use and possession, the reasons for immense disparities in arrest and incarceration rates across racial lines, and the attitude of police toward the crime in minority communities. Finally, solutions will be presented and analysed.

Tracing the problem back to its root leads to the very beginnings of the anti-drug legislation.

The first anti-drug law in the country was passed in San Francisco, 1875. The local law outlawed the smoking of opium - a particular habit of the Chinese community present at the time. Previously, opium had been sold over the counter and used heavily by middle class white women as a pain reliever. It became a widespread belief that Chinese men were luring white women to have sex in opium dens. In 1909 Congress made opium smoking a federal offense by enacting the Anti-Opium Act. The Act intentionally and openly targeted the Chinese community by carving out an exception for drinking and injecting tinctures of opiates that were popular among whites.

Cocaine use was similarly associated with blacks. Newspaper articles bore racially charged headlines linking cocaine with violent, anti-social behaviour by blacks. A 1914 New York Times article proclaimed: Negro Cocaine  `Fiends` Are a New Southern Menace: Murder, Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken To Sniffing. A Literary Digest article from the same year claimed, "most of the attacks upon women in the South are the direct result of the cocaine-crazed Negro brain." It comes as no surprise that 1914 was also the year Congress passed the Harrison Tax Act, effectively outlawing opium and cocaine. By the 1980s, and federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. This disparity has been reduced, but we must consider the fact that at the time these penalties were enacted, crack cocaine was consumed by poorer racial minorities whilst powder cocaine, the more expensive of the two, was consumed by the richer white people. Essentially what this did was create a larger divide in rates and severity of incarceration across racial lines. Minorities ended up facing more severe sentences for consuming a different form of the same drug.  However, it must be considered that the explosion of crack use was due to its affordability an its ease of transport. It became a lot more prevalent more quickly than powder cocaine, and the harsher legislation may have been passed in an effort to counter the speed of the spread.

For Marijuana, the target was Mexicans. Just as cocaine was associated with black violence and irrational behaviour, marijuana was viewed - in the southwest border towns beginning in the early 1920s - as a cause of Mexican lawlessness. A Texas police captain suggested that marijuana gave Mexicans superhuman strength to commit acts of violence:

Under marijuana Mexicans become very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear. I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and it will take several men to handle one man while, under ordinary circumstances, one man could handle one with ease. "Even more recently, the American Coalition - an anti-immigrant group - claimed in 1980 that "Marijuana, perhaps is now the most insidious of narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration."

The problems took root with faulty legislation decades ago, and today racial profiling, appalling incarceration rates and generational damage among minority communities are the bitter fruit.

The United States is home to less than 5 per cent of the world`s population but nearly 25 per cent of its prisoners, in part because of the overly harsh consequences of a drug conviction. Many of the 2.3 million people behind bars (and 5 million under criminal justice supervision) in the country are being punished for a drug offense. Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year for a drug law violation. The drug war seems to actually have done more harm than problematic drug use itself by breaking up families, putting millions of people behind bars, burdening even more people with a life-long criminal record, worsening the health prospects for people who use drugs and significantly compromising public health. Black and Latino communities have been most affected as 57 per cent of the population incarcerated for drug offenses come from these communities despite the fact that illegal drug activities among these groups is similar to the rates among whites.

In her article, The Discrimination Inherent in Americas Drug War, Kathleen R. Sandy reported in 2003 that black Americans then constituted approximately 12 per cent of our country`s population and 13 per cent of drug users. Nevertheless, they accounted for 33 per cent of all drug-related arrests, 62 per cent of drug-related convictions and 70 per cent of drug-related incarcerations.

However, white Americans are more likely than black Americans to have used most kinds of illegal drugs, including cocaine, marijuana and LSD. Yet blacks are far more likely to go to prison for drug offenses. 1 in every 5 white people have used cocaine, compared with 1 in 10 of blacks and Latinos, according to a 2011 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A larger proportion of white people have also tried hallucinogens, marijuana, pain relievers, and stimulants like methamphetamine, according to the survey. Crack is more popular among blacks than whites, but not by much. Despite all this, blacks are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as whites, according to a 2009 report from the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. In 2011 225,242 people were serving drug sentences; 45 per cent were black compared to just 30 per cent being white, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

According to U.S. Sentencing Commission figures, no class of drug is as racially skewed as crack in terms of numbers of offenses. According to the commission, 79 per cent of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were black, versus 10 per cent who were white and 10 per cent who were Hispanic. The figures for the 6,020 powder cocaine cases are far less skewed: 17 per cent of these offenders were white, 28 per cent were black, and 53 per cent were Hispanic. Combined with a 115-month average imprisonment for crack offenses versus an average of 87 months for cocaine offenses, this results in African-Americans spending more time in the prison system.

Jamie Fellner, author of the Human Rights Watch report, offered an explanation for this discrepancy. "The race issue isn`t just that the judge is going, `Oh, black man, I`m gonna sentence you higher,`" she said. "The police go into low-income minority neighbourhoods and that`s where they make most of their drug arrests. If they arrest you, now you have a `prior,` so if you plead or get arrested again, you`re gonna have a higher sentence. There`s a kind of cumulative effect."

The consequences of any drug conviction are life-long and severe, and are not experienced equally. Despite comparable drug use and selling rates across racial groups, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately punished for drug law violations. Drug violations are an easy solution for police officers pressed for high arrest quotas, resulting in thousands of wrongful arrests that overwhelmingly victimize communities of colour. The life-long penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans who may be prohibited from voting, being licensed, accessing public assistance and any number of opportunities and activities. The skewed enforcement of anti-drug policies means people and communities of colour suffer more heavily from these exclusions.

But why exactly allows this to happen? Despite the obvious racial issues that lay the foundations for these laws, does the current situation with the war on drugs stem from a less abstract place? Taken at face value, the laws do not appear to be racist. Would it be far-fetched to infer that racism comes into play during enforcement and not during legislation?

In recent years, more light has been shone on police brutality and police shootings of African American people. The names, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Sandra Bland all immediately spring to mind. This builds a strong case for saying that racial disparities in the war on drugs may just be part of a larger issue. Could these drug related profiling and arrests just be a single symptom of a larger disease which reveals itself in a wide array of incidents, including even homicide?

The police disagree.

The idea that police wake up, strap on their guns and pin on their badges, and sit around thinking about how they`re going to make lives miserable in the minority community "that`s just at variance with common sense," said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national labour union representing rank-and-file officers.

Police officers are very, very upset at what`s going on now, and the way that 700,000 of us are being painted with a broad brush of racism and ill-intent and malevolent motivation "that we just want to go out there and hurt people, when it`s the exact opposite,"said James Glennon, a retired police lieutenant from Lombard, Illinois, referring to the number of police working in the U.S.

"We pull people out of wrecked cars, we hold people`s hands when they`re dying, we talk to 5-year-olds when they get raped,"said Glennon, who owns Calibre Press, a company that trains police officers in the use of force. Those who deny racism in the police force would point to black police officers that routinely express regret for the stigma, negate it completely and are growingly torn due to backlash from their own communities.

However, none of this takes away from the fact that minorities are still disproportionally targeted and although the police claim no mal intent, the numbers say otherwise.

Others make so bold as to say it is the fault of minorities for their situation with the law. It`s not racism, they proclaim, it`s just the result of a situation that they (the minorities) put themselves in. This is the opinion expressed by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate with regards to crime in black communities. Black-on-black crime "is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community," he asserted on NBC`s "Meet the Press." "So why don`t (they) cut it down so so many white police officers don`t have to be in black areas?"

In this view, African-Americans have only themselves to blame for the presence and behaviour of cops in their neighbourhoods. If they would get serious about cleaning up the problems in their own communities, police would not be arresting or killing so many black people. And evidently this spills over into the war on drugs along with everything else.

The message is that blacks are the cause of the issue and should be the ones to solve it " white people shouldn`t have anything to do with it.

There`s an element of truth to this line of argument. Drug related crime rates are far higher among blacks than among whites and other groups. And one reason cops have a disproportionate number of interactions with African-American males is that these men commit a disproportionate number of offenses.

So why don`t more blacks living in bad neighbourhoods learn to behave like sober middle-class suburbanites?

One reason may be the shortage of stable families, steady incomes, good schools and safe streets. If one had been provided these things growing up, it`s relatively easy not to be derailed into a life of crime. Without them, it`s a lot harder.

So, who is to blame for the lack of good schools and opportunities for people in disadvantaged minority communities?

Crime and poverty create a vicious cycle; A child raised in a chaotic environment is not likely to learn the habits that foster success. Black children afflicted with these disadvantages often take the wrong path as teens or adults. When this happens, it is everyone`s responsibility to ensure that communities like these are given the appropriate support.

In essence, it`s very difficult to point a finger at any one group in particular. It is easy to say that minorities should just clean up their act but one must also consider how the deck is stacked against them: it`s easier to be arrested for a drug-related crime due to the disproportionate police focus on your race. Subsequently, a criminal record makes it nearly impossible to find suitable work, which just drives people back to crime. It is also difficult to clean up your act when your opportunities are catastrophically limited.

So what is to be done to reduce these racial disparities in the war on drugs? If it`s not the fault of the victims or the police, then how do we move forward? Pro-legalisation advocates would point towards the decriminalisation of drugs (notably marijuana) and an end to the war on drugs entirely as a step in the right direction. The general consensus is that removing the factor of drug arrests and incarcerations would better the overall situation for minority communities as well as work towards getting rid of the stigma that police and law enforcement are racist. The massive economic potential of marijuana is well documented and the numbers suggest that in reality it is extremely difficult to truly identify the root of the problem, as it is so incredibly dynamic. Whatever the case, work toward bettering the present situation must begin now, and in earnest. The future depends on it.


1. Tony Payan, Kathleen Staudt, Z. Anthony Kruszews (Ed) "A War that Cannot Be Won: Binational Perspectives on the War on Drugs."

2. Sandy, Kathleen R. 2003. The Discrimination Inherent in America`s Drug War: Hidden Racism Revealed by Examining the Hysteria over Crack. Alabama Law Review 54 (Winter): 665

3.  Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Henrik Jungaberle 2011 "The Internationalization of Ayahuasca." LIT Verlag Münster

4. Susan Marjorie Zieger 2008 "Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-century British and American Literature." University of Massachusetts Press.

 5. Steven B. Karch, MD, FFFLM 2005 " A Brief History of Cocaine, Second Edition" CRC Press 28 Sept 2005

6. "Volume 3 of Congress and the Nation: A Review of Government and Politics in the Postwar Years." Congressional Quarterly, inc