[Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Lauren Witte is associate director of client services for the drug crime defense firm Jackson White in Mesa, Arizona. She writes with a particular courage from the battleground of Maricopa County, whose notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes to dress his inmates in pink panties, just so long as they’re men. I heard somewhere Joe favors the underdrawers because Mrs. Arpaio forbids that kind of thing around home.]
What is the Status of The War on Drugs?
In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, and law enforcement and prosecutors across the country began aggressively enforcing and punishing low-level drug crimes, particularly in neighborhoods of poor minorities. Since Nixon’s declaration, the prison population in the United States has risen by 700%.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there were more African-American men in prison or “under the watch” of the justice system in 2011 than were enslaved in the U.S. in 1850. That is a shocking statistic, to say the least.
System of Racial and Social Control
Alexander explains, “…our criminal justice system now functions more like a system of racial and social control, than a system of crime prevention or control.” Though African-Americans reportedly make up only 12% of drug users in the U.S., 34% of those arrested for drug offenses in this country are black.
Who uses drugs more?
A study given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that white students are using cocaine and heroin at a rate seven times higher than their African-American counterparts, and crack at a rate eight times higher.
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki reminds us of the common preconception that crack is a ‘black’ drug while cocaine is a ‘white’ one. This is not the case, says Jarecki. “The majority of crack users in the United States of America are and always have been white.”
Nonetheless, 80% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African-Americans. According to the Sentencing Project, black Americans currently have a 20% higher chance of going to prison for a drug offense than whites, with Hispanics having a 40% higher chance.
Obama and the War on Drugs
Though Obama has been a vocal critic of our nation’s incarceration discrepancies between blacks and white for drug crimes, his administration continues to vilify even the most minor drug offenses.
In a report released in July of this year, officials from the Obama administration promised “to use evidence-based practices to combat drug abuse” in the United States. The report encouraged public education and health programs, better reentry programs, and more compassionate messaging, rather than increased prosecution.
If government officials really want to come off as more compassionate towards drug users, they have a long way to go. Who can forget the national ad campaign featuring erratic and horrific behavior with the tagline, “This is your brain on drugs”?
Marijuana vs. Other Drugs
Perhaps the most alarming hypocrisy by the Obama administration is the refusal by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration to label marijuana as a less harmful drug than heroin, cocaine, or meth.
As opposed to meth, cocaine, and heroin, which contribute to thousands of deaths in this country every year, not a single person has ever fatally overdosed from marijuana.
Prohibition vs. Legalization
While Obama claims he is working to decriminalize drug addiction and label it instead as a disease, it’s pretty tough to decriminalize something that is, by definition, a crime. Violence related to drug prohibition causes thousands of deaths every year in the United States, not to mention those murdered in supplier nations like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico.
Instead of moving towards more lenient penalties for low-level drug offenses, prosecutors in the U.S. continue to arrest and imprison, taking more workers from the economy and breaking up more families. Additionally, those arrested find it much harder to find employment with a criminal record.
Widespread legalization of every drug probably isn’t the answer, but working to decrease penalties and prison or jail sentences for minor drug offenses will point us in the right direction.
The First Step
So, before we can truly mend our nation’s trend of arresting and incarcerating countless men and women of color for minor drug offenses, we must first work to de-stigmatize minor drug use in this country.