Pubdate: Thu, 6 Dec 2007
Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright: 2007 The Times-Picayune
Author: Ira Glasser
Note: Ira Glasser directed the ACLU for nearly 25 years. He is 
president of the board of the Drug Policy Alliance.


This week, more than 1,000 people will gather for the 2007 
International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans. There 
could not be a better venue for us to discuss how the drug war has 
become a war against black Americans.

Louisiana's rate of incarceration for nonviolent drug-law violations
is among the highest in the nation. But all over America, including
states like New York, drug-war arrests, convictions and imprisonment
have increased dramatically, and are disproportionately targeted
against African-Americans, making this a major, though largely
unrecognized, civil rights issue.

In the late 1960s there were fewer than 200,000 people in state and
federal prisons for all offenses. By 2004, there were more than 1.4
million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and more
than 700,000 in local jails -- about 2.2 million in all, an explosion
in prison population heavily due to nonviolent drug offenses. Since
1980, the proportion of all state prisoners who are there because of a
drug offense increased from 6 percent to 21 percent. In federal
prisons, the proportion increased from 25 percent to 57 percent. Drug
arrests have tripled to 1.6 million annually, more than 40 percent for
marijuana -- and 88 percent of those are for possession, not even sale
or manufacture.

At the same time, the racial disparity of arrests, convictions and
imprisonment have become pronounced. According to federal statistics
gathered by The Sentencing Project, only 13 percent of monthly users
of all illegal drugs are black, roughly corresponding to their
proportion of the population. In other words, black people do not use
illegal drugs disproportionately to their numbers in the population.
But nationwide they are arrested, convicted and imprisoned
disproportionately. Thirty-seven percent of drug-offense arrests are
black; 53 percent of convictions are of blacks; and 67 percent --
two-thirds of all people imprisoned for drug offenses -- are black.

This is not because more black than white Americans use drugs: About
eighty percent of drug users are white. There is no evidentiary
justification for racially targeted stops and searches or for racially
targeted arrests and convictions. The law is being enforced as if skin
color were a credible proxy for evidence amounting to probable cause.
It is this kind of targeting that has resulted in the explosion of
racially disparate incarceration in our prisons.

These racially targeted patterns affect more than imprisonment: They
have effectively eroded much of the voting rights victories won by the
civil rights movement during the 1960s. Until recently, many states
have barred former felons from voting, some permanently, some in a way
that allowed -- theoretically but often not as a practical matter --
for the restoration of voting rights. Nearly 5 million people are now
barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. The
United States is the only industrial democracy that does this. And the
origin of most of these law is the post-Reconstruction period after
slavery, when many states sought to undermine the 15th Amendment,
which had newly granted former slaves the right to vote.

Today, the racially discriminatory origin of most of these laws is
reinforced by the disparate impact they have on racially targeted drug
felons. In the states of the Deep South, 30 percent of black men are
barred from voting because of felony convictions. But all of them are
nonetheless counted as citizens for the purpose of determining
congressional representation and electoral college votes. The last
time something like this happened was during slavery, when
three-fifths of slaves were counted in determining congressional

Just as Jim Crow laws were a successor system to slavery in the
attempt to keep blacks subjugated, so drug prohibition has become a
successor system to Jim Crow laws in targeting black citizens,
removing them from civil society and then barring them from the right
to vote while using their bodies to enhance white political power in
Congress and the electoral college.

That people of good will have been at best timid in opposing the drug
war and at worst accomplices to its continued escalation is, in light
of the racial politics of drug prohibition, a special outrage. People
of good will should instead stand with us in this fight against the
racist war on drugs, and not only in New Orleans.
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