The Racial Injustice of the War on Drugs

This report from the Washington City Paper could have been written about any large city in the country.

But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.

This is true nationwide, and not just with marijuana but with other illegal drugs as well. Black people use drugs in about the same proportion as their percentage of the population yet they are a staggeringly high percentage of the arrests made for possession and use. This graphic says it all:

Just one more reason, on top of all the others, to end the drug war. And this is important too — it simply doesn’t stop drug use.

Still, D.C. isn’t exactly Amsterdam: More per capita marijuana arrests are made in the District than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.

And that’s just pot. Such laws are even less effective in preventing use of drugs that are truly addictive.

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  • janiceintoronto

    So the drug laws are doing exactly what they were designed to do when they were formulated.

    What a surprise, eh?

  • D. C. Sessions

    Never mind preventing use, the question is whether the WoD is keeping white girls from messing around with jazz musicians.

  • stevarious

    I find it absolutely hilarious that the ads that pop up next to this blog entry are for weedmaster lawn mowers.

  • anneliese

    The war on drugs is not really about drugs at all. It is a war on people, mostly minority and, to a lesser extent, poor people.

  • Modusoperandi

    D. C. Sessions, not to mention the Wetba…Mexican farm workers and our white daughters.

  • lofgren

    It’s so weird, because black people also make up about 50% of the people in my household, but about 91% of the people imprisoned in my basement.

  • I jut started reading “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon, which is all about how beginning in the late nineteenth century the legal system made it very easy to arrest blacks on the flimsiest of charges, towards the goal of providing a large pool of enforced labor for factories and mines, etc. Basically slavery by another name.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if the drug war’s racial bias in this regard is essentially a remnant of that same policy. Even if it is not as overt or if forced labor is not the immediate goal, the racism behind it certainly would be.

  • There’s something I always remember when this sort of racial bias shows up:

    After I graduated from high school, the school got a new principal my younger brother got to suffer through. He instituted a dress code that was annoying enough, but the damning part was that it was only enforced on minorities. My brother noticed, and violated the dress code every day with his flip-flops, silently daring the staring teachers to punish a white A/B student as an equal. It never happened.

  • lofgren

    Wouldn’t surprise me if the drug war’s racial bias in this regard is essentially a remnant of that same policy. Even if it is not as overt or if forced labor is not the immediate goal, the racism behind it certainly would be.

    I think it goes like this:

    1. Politicians seize on moral panic, enact laws to please electorate. (Moral panic itself may have racial undertones, but politicians just want votes.)

    2. Cops and juries enforce laws on moral panic unequally. This can be for a variety of reasons, from plain old overt racism to the fact that blacks are more likely to be in high crime/poverty neighborhoods that have been targeted for “clean up” already, that blacks are already more likely to be arrested and punished for other crimes so the new sentences just get added to the docket, blacks are less likely to be able to acquire decent representation (and thus require less work from cops to testify and get a conviction), and blacks are less likely to have “connections” who can put in a good word for them with the judge/arresting officer.

    3. Actual overtly racist politicians and officials at all levels notice the discrepancy, assume that it confirms their biases that blacks are immoral criminals, and tweak procedure in as many ways as they possibly can to focus the enforcement of the law on blacks and black neighborhoods.

    So it’s not like somebody woke up one day and realized that we could get black people off the street by enacting drug laws and enforcing them more strictly on black people. In fact, I think the drug laws in this country are one of the best illustrations of how the system itself is racist, or at least rewards and encourages racist behaviors by those who maintain it. The racism can’t be easily isolated to an individual or a specific law. Many of the folks in the chain have the best of intentions and not racist bone in their bodies, but the preponderance of racism in their community means that what emerges out of a system created to control drug use is a system that is actually so effective at kicking black people in the face (and so ineffective at anything else) they could be forgiven for ever thinking there was any other intent.

    I suspect if we looked at wealth discrepancies between offenders we would see a similar pattern, although perhaps not quite so dramatic.

  • Foster Disbelief

    People who have followed the comments here for a long time may remember that I am a victim of the war on drugs. The racial injustice of the war on drugs is one set of statistics that doesn’t cause the outrage I believe it should. I think it is because of a lack of real world visibility to most people. Reading the statistics is one thing. Having it made concrete for you is another altogether.

    In the small city where I live, the local drug task force has about 4 drug raids each year, around 3 months apart, where they round up all the local “dealers”* their confidential informant managed to get buys on. Around 80 – 90 percent of these “dealers”* are white, reflecting the racial make up of this area. The local county jail has roughly the same make up, probably closer to 70% white to 30% minority. The point I am making here is that if you live in my city and your only exposure to the war on drugs is the local fish wrap or even time in the county jail, no matter how many times you read those statistics, they just don’t seem real.

    Then I went to state prison. And it is enough to say that the statistics were then brought to life for me.

    Yes, I am using anecdotes and I know anecdotes do not equal evidence, but the statistical evidence backs me up. The number of black men incarcerated with me for non-violent drug crimes was staggering. Not only that, but almost to a man, their sentence would be higher than a white man with an equal crime.

    If you live in a small/rural type city with a small percentage of minorities, or a big city with de facto segregation you do not notice the huge amount of minority men “disappearing.” The statistic becomes nothing more than a number. Only when actually confronted does it become reality.

    My city is becoming infamous for harsh drug sentences. In the past few years, sentences of 20, 30, and 50 years have been handed down to some of the few minorities arrested in this area. The judges justify the sentences by labeling the offenders as “outsiders” who came to the community to sell drugs, and pointing to their past records. Meanwhile, a local sunday school teacher was sentenced to 6 months in jail for raping a 12 year old female student of his before class on several different occasions. Can you say “ass-backwards?”

    Sigh. I’m rambling. I’m sorry, I guess I don’t have an overall point. I just wonder how long we are going to allow the government to ruin so many lives for non-violent crimes.

    *In case you are wondering, the reason I put “dealers” in quotations is because, at least in my area, the drug task force rarely arrests an actual drug dealer. The people arrested in the drug raids are almost always addicts getting drugs for a “friend” so they can get something for themselves as well. The drug task force calls that dealing. You may agree. For a junkie, that is just how you get through the day.

  • ruidh

    A little misuse of statistics here? Black and white pot users may represent a similar proportion of their pollulations. But if the black population is 9 times as large as the white population, a 9 to 1 ratio of arrests is not a sign of bias. There’s not enough information here to tell if there’s a problem.

  • Modusoperandi