“What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs … we’ve been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.” – Time Magazine op-ed
(MintPress) – Since the beginning of the decades-long “War on Drugs” and the United States’ attempted crackdown on distribution and possession, African-Americans have been targeted for drug crimes at far higher rates than the rest of the population, suggesting a targeted racial disparity some civil activist groups argue. According to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), an activist group promoting alternatives to current drug laws, African-Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
Acknowledging that longstanding trend, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recently came out in support of Colorado’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana – the first time the rights group has supported such a measure. Rosemary Harris Lytle, an NAACP chapter president in Colorado, said the growing racial disparity between arrests for drug offenses spurred the organization to take a stand for this year’s general election. NAACP figures show that African-Americans make up only 4 percent of Colorado’s population, but account for 20 percent of drug-related arrests in the state.
“With this endorsement, NAACP activists in Colorado take a significant step: calling for equity, justice and more effective policy — such as the proposal to regulate marijuana like alcohol in our state,” Lytle said in a statement. “The flawed drug policies that so negatively impact our communities must be replaced with policy that is not disproportionately punitive based on race but that helps us get to the root causes of drug use and abuse in America.”
Colorado’s ballot measure, Amendment 64, if passed would allow anyone 21 or older to possess up to six marijuana plants or up to one ounce of dried marijuana. Distribution would be regulated similar to that of alcohol, and it would be taxed in the same way as well.
The NAACP’s support of the Colorado amendment is a pointed effort to expose what it believes to be an unfair hostility toward African-Americans and drug-related crimes. The issue has become so widespread that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both condemned the racial disparities, but have offered no solutions or support for legalization laws.
The first hurdle to overcome the racial disparity is to acknowledge that there is no disparity of proportions as it pertains to drug use. Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior counsel Jamie Fellner argues that the drug war was built on the foundation of race and will continue to disproportionately lock away African-Americans unless the attitudes toward drug use and race change.
“The race question is so entangled in the way the drug war was conceived,” Fellner told the New York Times. “If the drug issue is still seen as primarily a problem of the black inner city, then we’ll continue to see this enormously disparate impact.”
The effects on those in the inner city and poorer areas can be devastating as well. In Minnesota, drug possession can result in anywhere from six months to 30 years in prison, depending on the amount involved in the case. Michael Tonry, law and public policy professor at the University of Minnesota, said drug laws that imprison those with marijuana to decade-long sentences do more harm than good for inner city families. He argues that the tens of millions of dollars spent on policing inner city areas and low-income neighborhoods could be used for improving the lives of the families living there.
Tonry said a better approach to removing drugs from the inner city would be to focus on drug treatment and reducing their effects on families rather that locking the relatives of young children away for years. Instead, he says, police exclusively focus on arresting street-level drug dealers and putting them in an already overcrowded prison system.
“The series of American drug wars are seen by most informed people outside the United States, and many inside, as equally hysterical and destructive,” Tonry wrote in a report. “Drug war elements such as decades-long prison sentences for dealers … and refusal to provide treatment facilities to meet drug-dependent peoples’ needs, have given millions of people jail and prison records and ruined hundreds of thousands of people’s (and their children’s) life chances and lives.”
A targeted system
The discrepancy in drug-related incarcerations of African-Americans has disproportionately filled the family court case system with children in need of homes, thus becoming reliant on the federal system. It has also created what author Rudolph Alexander considers a negative heuristic in court trials involving African-American juveniles. The heuristic – a sociological term for a learned response based on past experiences – puts African-American children at a disadvantage because the courts may see their race as a reinforcing justification to imprison them for a crime.
Others suggest that the high imprisonment rate leaves African-Americans more vulnerable to unlawful surveillance, privacy invasion and searches without probable cause. This issue has already manifest itself in New York City, as reports suggest that the New York Police Department (NYPD) targets African-Americans and Hispanics when searching for marijuana.
A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union said that the NYPD used racial profiling to inflate arrest counts, thus making it seem like marijuana was becoming a problem of epidemic proportions. From 1987 through 1996, the union says the NYPD arrested around 30,000 for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Those figures grew dramatically, when 353,000 were arrested for the same offense between 1997 and 2006.
Robin Steinberg, director of Bronx Defenders, which offers free legal representation, said the issue has expanded to police harassing high schoolers by waiting outside their schools and homes in anticipation of suspicious behavior to happen. Steinberg said that’s not happening in predominantly white neighborhoods or outside affluent private schools.
“The real issue here is that massive numbers of police officers are being deployed in communities of color — poor communities of color — and are staying outside schools waiting for kids to walk home, to go to the bodega, to go to their friend’s houses, and searching them,” she said.