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Sunday, November 3, 2013

War on Drugs

Fighting drug abuse and crime ought to be a good thing. But sometimes good intentions cause serious harm.

Through the 1960's and 1970's drugs evolved with production technology and availability. The social stigma of drug use ebbed and flowed with social movements. Some drugs became a symbol of anti-establishment, social rebellion, gaining popularity predominantly among the young, white, American middle class.

For years, those that could afford to do so turned to powdered cocaine use. But when crack cocaine was developed in 1984, it was sold at much lower price and became available in urban and low-income areas. In cities that were already segregated across racial/economic lines, this meant that a disparity in drug choice began to emerge.

When the political momentum led to a legislative crackdown on drug use, the sentencing differences for these drugs were stark. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that possession of 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine carried the same sentence as possession of only 50 grams of crack, a 1:100 disparity.

Mandatory sentencing itself restricted judicial discretion on the bench, and tended to prioritize crimes of possession over, those of trafficking or dealing (Listen to This American Life episode, 'Sentencing'). On top of legalized sentencing disparities, profound racial differences in arrest rates and convictions has lead to decades of extra accumulated prison time for people of color.

Though black folk represent only 13% of drug users (paralleling national racial demographics), they account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of those sent to prison on drug possession charges. Indeed, even though 72% of drug users are white, black men are 13 times more likely to be sent to prison for a drug offence than white men (see post: New Jim Crow).

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In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released a report delineating the racial disparities in sentencing that resulted from 'War on Drugs' laws, and suggested a equalization of the discrepancy. But for the first time in history, Congress chose to go against the commission's recommendations. Fifteen years later, Congress finally passed the Fair Sentencing Act, but while it reduced some of the disparity, penalties still remain almost 20x greater for crack than for powder cocaine.

In the meantime, millions of individuals have been convicted under biased laws over the years. The prison systems have swelled and profited, while lives are destroyed:
"Convicted felons need to find a place to sleep, but can’t get access to public housing because of their felony conviction. If their families live in public housing, the families can get evicted from their homes for housing a felon. They need to find a job, but employers can legally discriminate against them. They need to eat, but felons can be denied food stamps for the rest of their lives."
With no job, no house, no food, and no allies it's no wonder that there is a 70% recidivism rate.

Bring back memories?
I grew up on the legacy of the 'Just Say No' campaign that was in grade schools everywhere. It seemed like a good thing, but in reality reducing complex social issues of race, poverty, healthcare, and unemployment to a catch phrase solves nothing. In fact, these good intentions can often make matters worse by pathologizing and criminalizing the very folks you think you are helping.

This is all not-so-ancient history. I'd love to hear commentary from folks that were reading the headlines as these policies were being made. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.


  1. On the prison/incarceration front... here is something that is happening in our area of the country... and it appears to be doing some good... the men we interact with (and there are a NUMBER of them who have actually joined our church family and have become participating members there) are men who have come from lives of drugs, incarceration, theft, etc., and Liberty provides a means by which they can re-enter society and, in the process, find a way forward through the church that is not just a "pat" answer...


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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