Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jun 2011
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2011 Independent Media Institute
Author: Deborah Small


It's Time to Begin the Debate About Whether to Repeal Drug 
Prohibition and Replace It With a Real System of Drug Regulation and Control

Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report
stating publicly what many people privately believe: THE WAR ON DRUGS

The high-level commission which includes three former heads of state -
from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, former U.N. secretary-general
Kofi-Annan, former Reagan cabinet official George P. Schultz, former
Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker and Virgin mogul Richard Branson
calls on governments to end the criminalization of cannabis and other
currently illicit substances. In a clear and forthright statement the
report says:

Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to
articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the
evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will
not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and
cannot, be won.

An earlier post on Jack & Jill Politics by Keith Owens did a great job
of laying out the reasons why the "war on drugs" is in his words "a
joke". I agree it is a joke in that after more than 40 years of
relentless law enforcement and more than $4.5 trillion in expenditures
(just in the U.S. alone) illicit drugs are as available as ever,
substance abuse continues unabated and drug-related crime and violence
has increased.

However, if the "war on drugs" is a joke, it's a joke on black people
since we're the ones who've been the principal focus of drug law
enforcement resulting in devastating impact to our most vulnerable
individuals, families and communities. Black people don't use or sell
drugs at higher rates than whites or any other racial or ethnic group
but we are grossly over-represented among the population of people
arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug offenses.

More than 40 years of punitive drug policies directed at poor black
and brown communities has resulted in the alarming fact that in many
of our cities more than a third of all black men are under some form
of criminal justice supervision. Over the past few decades there has
been an 800% increase in incarceration of women (especially black
women) - driven by the "war on drugs" and mandatory minimum sentencing
which impose long prison terms for relatively minor offenses
regardless of individual culpability or personal circumstances. In
addition to mandatory sentencing we've enacted a slew of punitive
post-conviction sanctions that deny those convicted of drug offenses
of their right to public housing; financial aid for education; public
assistance; and in many states - the right to vote. A drug conviction
is a substantial barrier to employment for a population that far too
often suffers from inadequate education and job training.

In the words of Michelle Alexander, "the war on drugs functions like
the new Jim Crow trapping an increasing population of black people in
a permanent under caste." The so-called "war on drugs" is in fact a
misnomer - it's really a war on people, people involved with the drugs
we've deemed 'illicit', though as was true with alcohol prohibition,
drug prohibition is not directed at all those involved with such
substances - no - drug prohibition is almost solely enforced against
the poor, the marginalized and the powerless. Those with money, status
and power are able to buy and use illicit drugs without fear, secure
in the knowledge the police are too busy chasing poor black and brown
addicts on street corners and in housing projects to go after the rich
addicts in fancy offices and country clubs.

The public policy response to crack cocaine is just one salient
example of racialization of the "war on drugs" here in the U.S. Though
the use of crack cocaine at its height never exceeded the use of
powder cocaine in the U.S., it was hyped as an epidemic by the media
and became the focus of a host of new punitive laws, the most
notorious of which imposed a 100:1 federal sentencing disparity for
crack cocaine vs powder cocaine offenses.

The law required a mandatory five-year federal prison sentence for
anyone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine - possession
of more than 500 grams of powder cocaine was needed to receive the
same sentence.

Because of the harsh mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses -
law enforcement and prosecution was so racially skewed that for more
than a decade blacks accounted for more than 80% of federal crack
cocaine convictions! In 1995 the Commission concluded that the
violence associated with crack cocaine is primarily related to the
drug trade and not to the effects of the drug itself.

The racial disparity in prosecutions for crack cocaine offenses was so
bad for so long the U.S. Sentencing Commission practically begged
Congress to change it, warning in one of its many reports recommending

Nevertheless, the Commission finds even the perception of racial
disparity to be problematic. Perceived improper racial disparity
fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice
system among those very groups that Congress intended would benefit
from the heightened penalties for crack cocaine.

It took more than a decade of continual advocacy by civil rights,
racial justice and human rights organizations (among others) before
Congress heeded the call to reform the crack cocaine sentencing
disparity, but instead of equalizing sentences for crack and powder
cocaine offenses (as urged by reform advocates) it reduced the
disparity from 100:1 to 12:1. Now Congress is considering whether
apply the sentencing reform retroactively - which if passed could
provide relief to more than 13,000 people imprisoned in the federal
system for crack cocaine offenses.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have supported reforming
federal cocaine sentencing policy in part to address its clear racial
bias, but have been significantly less outspoken in addressing the
harms caused by disproportionate arrests of black and Latino youth for
marijuana possession. In New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and
Atlanta (just to name a few) marijuana possession arrests have risen
dramatically, accounting for the majority of drug-related arrests
involving youth of color.

Most of the arrests do not result in prison sentences but they all
result in the young person being booked, fingerprinted and entered
into the local criminal justice database.

A few years ago my organization published a report about the NYPD
practice of tricking youth into revealing small amounts of marijuana
that may have on their person and then charging them with possessing
it in "public view" - an arrestable misdemeanor offense.

One would think police departments in these densely populated - often
high crime - communities would have more important things to do than
arresting young people for possessing small amounts of marijuana - but
so it goes for minority youth who literally see their futures going up
in smoke for conduct white youth engage in with impunity .

If you believe as I do that the "war on drugs" has less to do with
combatting drug use than it does with maintaining the ability to
subjugate and marginalize black people, then the drug war has actually
been one of the U.S. government's most successful wars to date. It's
been successful in restoring a significant percentage of the black
population to a condition of penal servitude; it's been successful in
increasing the rate of black on black violence (particularly among
young men); it's been successful in destroying countless families
ravaged by addiction, incarceration, child welfare policies and
homelessness; it's been successful in maintaining high risk for
drug-related HIV infection in black and Latino communities; it's been
successful in reducing the political power of black communities by
disenfranchising millions of potential voters for felony drug
convictions but most significantly it's been successful in creating a
wedge between the black middle class and the black poor.

For the most part, the black middle class has found it convenient to
ignore the impact of punitive drug policies on poor black communities,
preferring instead to embrace the gospel of 'personal responsibility'
which places the blame on drug users and their suppliers with little
regard for the role of institutional racism in drug law enforcement.
In response to complaints about the impact and severity of mandatory
minimum drug sentencing and other punitive policies on poor black
families one hears the refrain, "if you can't do the time, then don't
do the crime", ignoring the widespread prevalence of drug law
offending within every socio-economic group.

I often wonder if society decided to criminalize and punish illicit
sexual activity (e.g. fornication, adultery and prostitution) with the
same zeal and vigor we punish drug offenses and the majority of those
prosecuted were poor black and brown people would we so readily accept
the justification that it's because they were the ones committing the
offense, or would we demand equal application of the law knowing that
poor people of color don't have a monopoly on illicit sex?

Why have we been so willing to accept specious justifications for
racially disparate drug law enforcement? I believe the answer lies in
part in our continuing acceptance of the punishment paradigm - the
belief that punishment is an effective form of behavior modification -
a firmly entrenched and residual legacy of our racial history in this
country. Punishment was the principal method utilized by slave masters
to control black people, after emancipation fear and punishment
continued to serve as tools for intimidation and subjugation - not
just by former masters and employers - but by any white person seeking
to assert his/her power over black lives.

Over centuries of interactions with whites in the U.S., we learned
that punishment is often swift, harsh and arbitrary.

Until very recently, due 'process of law' did not protect us from
unjust punishment; we've always been subjected to the harshest
penalties - whether long prison sentences or the death penalty; the
spate of recent exonerations for wrongful convictions of black people
around the country demonstrates the extent to which the criminal
justice system can be arbitrary - an innocent man can spend years
behind bars with little hope of relief.

Years of being on the receiving end of punishment has resulted in a
collective internalization of the experience. We need to be willing to
examine the extent to which our attachment to punishment as a means of
behavior modification works against our collective interests.

We need to see clearly that we've allowed the criminal justice system
to impose punishment on poor black communities that is not imposed on
other similarly situated communities and when it comes to drug crimes
we need to face the fact that for all practical purposes drug use is
effectively decriminalized for whites - the police are too busy
scooping up black and brown people to go after the millions of white
drug users in this country. The vast majority of drug consumption
occurs outside of poor black, brown or white communities, it's the
affluent drug user that provides the foundation for the multibillion
dollar drug economy.

The U.S. "war on drugs" is really one more elaborate mechanism for
sustaining white privilege - the privilege to engage in illicit drug
use of all forms with minimal fear of legal consequences while at the
same time maintaining the fiction of fighting drugs in order to
protect children. By acquiescing to this national farce black people
have sacrificed multiple generations of our youth to enable the
majority community to pretend they're protecting their youth.

In reality none are protected - drugs are plentiful and easily
available everywhere.

The official response of the U.S. government to the Global Drug
Commission Report was to dismiss it as "misguided". If there's
anything that's misguided, it's our continued adherence to a policy
that has clearly failed to meet its stated goals.

Recently, President Obama responded to a question about alternatives
to the war on drugs by saying he does not believe in legalizing drugs
but he does think it is a "legitimate topic for debate". I believe
it's time to begin the debate about whether to repeal drug prohibition
and replace it with a real system of drug regulation and control, what
do you think?

If you agree we need to have a national conversation about the future
of U.S. drug policy, please sign the petition urging President Obama
to initiate it. The goal is to collect as many signatures as there are
people incarcerated for drug offenses and that's almost 1/4 of the 2.3
million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. aka PRISON NATION!!!
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.