Drugs and Race

We’ve talked about the inherently racist nature of drug policy quite a bit, but several things brought it to the front of my mind again today.

bullet image First, Stephen Gutwillig has an excellent piece in CNN Opinion: Pot acceptable? Not for young and nonwhite

Pot is indeed flourishing in the mainstream as never before, but the sometimes giddy discussion overlooks a sinister parallel phenomenon: More people are being arrested for pot crimes than ever; they are increasingly young and disproportionately nonwhite. […]

Most striking, the marijuana arrest rate in the United States has nearly tripled since 1991. […]

How can the notion that marijuana is “here to stay” coexist with these rates of marijuana arrests? Apparently because the people caught in the crossfire aren’t considered part of the mainstream. In California, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for a pot crime, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. If you’re young and nonwhite, you are especially targeted.

The increase in marijuana possession arrests of California teenagers of color since 1990 is quadruple that group’s population growth.

It’s an important aspect of drug policy that we can never forget, and one of the many important reasons to push for legalization.

bullet image Jacob Sullum at Reason mentions a discussion by John McWhorter regarding books on race that have been under-appreciated, including Ethan Brown’s book (which I am embarrassed to say I have not yet picked up): Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice. In the discussion McWhorter said something very powerful, that I think is true:

If there were no War on Drugs, I sincerely believe that within a single generation, there would be no perceptible “crisis in black America,” and this book shows much of why that’s true. The War on Drugs turns whole neighborhoods against the cops—with no discernible benefit after more than 30 years.

Sullum follows that quote up with one from The Wire co-creator David Simon:

Look. For 35 years, you’ve…marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say ‘What’s the solution?’ and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse.

bullet image Interestingly, today I received a copy of a new book by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold: Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class

I haven’t had time to read the whole thing, but from a first skim it’s quite interesting, following the lives and adventures of actual white college student pot dealers, and observing their relative immunity from significant law enforcement targeting, particularly compared to their non-white counterparts on the streets in town.

This is not to say that white college students don’t get arrested (I’ve personally known a few). But the fact is, Rachel Hoffman is the exception, not the rule.

I was caught by a particular passage in the conclusion:

Because of the relationships we established with some of the dealers […] we were fortunately able to remain in contact with or otherwise keep track of several of the dealers […]

Across the board, none […] is presently involved in illicit drug sales, at least not in any substantial way. […] the majority of our former dealers have matured out of crime and are living the “traditional” lives they, their families, and society at large always assumed they would fall into. Unquestionably, this maturation process was made far easier by their lack of formal interaction with the criminal justice system and being formally labeled a drug dealer.

Interestingly, though, the entrepreneurial savvy and spirit of capitalism that were essential assets in many of their illicit businesses are currently evident in their endeavors as they have crossed over to become full-time actors in the lawful economy.

So the black youth on the street corner ends up with a lot of experience in the criminal justice system (from the wrong side), and the white youth in the dorm room gains valuable entrepreneurial experience.

Sure, there are some pretty gross generalizations going on here, but that doesn’t prevent them from being statistically true.

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14 Responses to Drugs and Race

  1. kaptinemo says:

    And another aspect of that ‘maturation’ needs to be addressed: just how much of the initial cost of setting up their businesses…came from illicit drug proceeds?

    Given that it’s a tacitly (and sometimes openly) admitted fact that the major banks were able to weather what should have been their financial Gotterdamerungs thanks to laundering the proceeds of illicit drugs sales, it becomes painfully obvious how much of a stake the major banks (who have the ears of the politicians; Mr. Obama is beholden to such, as this link will explain) have in maintaining drug prohibition…as do every industry, large or small, that is equally dependent upon what amounts to a wholly dysfunctional social policy. One that targets the most vulnerable (i.e. minorities) of our society, and does so institutionally.

    This is why this subject is so incredibly explosive, and also why the MSM has done all in it’s (corp-rat-ly) directed power to play down or ignore.

    Race is inextricably linked to the issue of drug policy, which is itself fastened, Siamese twin fashion, to economics, which in turn affects political actions. For want of a better word, an ‘ecology’ is involved, and the ‘criminal’ element isn’t always the dealer in the street, but also resides in the boardrooms of the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet…who don’t want their apple-carts upset by upstart drug law reformers pointing to the whole mess and connecting dots that lead to those boardrooms.

  2. Drew says:

    Bill Moyers has interviewed John McWhorter a number of times and I like almost everything he has to say.

  3. R.O.E. says:

    I.ve always said we are lawing ourselves out of freedom,we are lawing ourselves out of advancement as the humanrace ,due to fear and petty bigotries.

  4. cabdriver says:

    Those two books sound like invaluable resources.

    “If there were no War on Drugs, I sincerely believe that within a single generation, there would be no perceptible “crisis in black America”

    I’ve held that view since arond 1980- at the outset of most of the phenomena that are held to be components of the “crisis”, as well before the nationwide “gang surge.”

    I date my revelation to reading a Washington Post story on an open-air heroin market- iirc, operating up around 4th St. and U (unsure whether NW or NE)- dating from 1979-1980. That was the first street drive-up illegal drugs market I had ever heard of that operated outside of New York City.

    And that’s when I saw what was going to happen. I was 24 years old.

    Who did I tell? Who could I tell? I told my friends.

    I told my parents- the only people from the generation in a position to actually do something to head off the problem to whom I thought it was “safe” to air my views.

    I predicted blood running in the streets.

    They acted as if they had their ears glued shut.

    And we all know what’s happened in the years- decades- since then.

    Given a multi-billion dollar illegal market, it was inevitable that the populations drawn to do it for a living (as opposed to dealing for free stash, pocket money, and status) would be those from the most marginalized and impoverished communities- and primarily in the urban areas, for reasons of market demand.

    It was also inevitable that what might be termed a “Gresham’s Law of Illegal Markets” would result- the most violent and career criminal element would tend to rise to the top and pervade the supply industry, driving out those unable or unwilling to employ threat, intimidation, an physical violence as business practices in an arena that functioned- for all PRACTICAL purposes- an unregulated marketplace, abandoned by either regulation or the hope of legal protections.

    Just as had happened in the 1920s, under the Volstead Act.

    Now, 30 years on, some serious associated problems have resulted from the entrenchment of the illegal drugs markets. To provide just one example: in all too many cases, three and four generations of children have grown up visiting their fathers- and mothers- in jails and prisons. That problem, and those related to it, is going to make reversing the “crisis in Black America” substantially more difficult than if it had been done earlier on, when the first warning signs began to occur.

    (That crisis is not confined exclusively to “Black America”, incidentally…there’s always been an element of class privilege as well as race-ethnic privilege at work in the dynamics of the Drug War, and it isn’t just black children who have experienced the effects of growing up in households and surroundings that are linked inextricably to the criminal marketplaces and activities spawned by Zero Tolerance.)

    Still- I’m personally convinced that from the moment that we get substantial drug law reform in this country, the “crisis” will begin to abate.

    And once again, I have to repeat my tactical solution to the open-air illegal drug marketplaces: Civil Confiscation. Civil confiscation. Civil confiscation.

  5. claygooding says:

    The money being made by keeping marijuana illegal is staggering and our biggest obstacle to decriminalization
    or legalization and is the reason that even though 14 states are using marijuana as a medicine,it remains schedule 1. The money launderers and the anti-drug cartels all realize that as soon as marijuana is removed from schedule 1 and the clinical testing can be done,their house of cards falls on their heads and their money train derails. Even though marijuana has been recognized as a cancer blocking substance,because it is a schedule 1 drug,the DEA stopped the testing of marijuana as a treatment for cancer in 1975 at the University of Virginia,and many studies since have attested to marijuana being capable of treating and blocking cancer
    but still our government refuses to allow anyone but the pharmaceutical companies try to manufacture a medicine replacing marijuana’s organic natural safe ingredients with synthetic ingredients,and they have failed,so far.
    The National Institute of Drug Abuse has researched marijuana for 40 years and still can’t find any damage done by marijuana that justifies our policy or our laws
    against it.
    And one of their studies,trying to prove that marijuana caused lung cancer,stated that marijuana use did not cause cancer and that marijuana showed the possibility of blocking cancers and could be a treatment for cancer. The researchers recommended that further studies be done,but they have not.
    If marijuana does block cancer,are we not performing genocide against our own citizens by refusing to verify
    these possible cancer blocking properties?
    Luckily,the people that it is hurting the most are the very people fighting and refusing too allow anyone to check marijuana for its medicinal and cancer blocking properties. At least,I hope none of the people working for an organization like the ONDCP are closet tokers.

  6. Buc says:

    I just hope that, centuries from now when prohibition is over and the United States is no longer a country, the history books will be able to look at this particular era as being an embarrassment to rational thought and one of the worst assaults on general freedom to still be around in the 21st century.

  7. ezrydn says:

    Welcome to America’s Dark Ages. That’ll be the chapter heading in the textbooks.

  8. Wendy says:

    I read today where our locals are finally admitting to the oxycontine abuse.

    It has to be liable to crooked doctors somewhere along the lines..not we the normal people of the world.

    I finally found out today that ‘Ala Aqu Bar’ means “God Is Great!”

    Maybe this crazed shooter (sadly) in Texas felt that no one but himself believed in God or A Higher Power when he snapped.

    It is so sad, because I just watched a epic on t.v. of the Viet Nam Veterans, of whom suffered, by being brain-washed to kill.

    I have never ever understood it it but there are Men like Massey and Others on this series of whom found the extremely coldest hardest Truth of Life!

    To those Men and Women We Are Grateful and finally understand the monsterocity of What We Have Over-Come As One Nation Under God, Almighty, Amen.

  9. R.O.E. says:

    Something I like to ask prohibs is this… If cannabis can be used to cure cancer,and you got cancer, are you going to tell me you wont save your own life and use it because its cannabis?

  10. Nick Zentor says:

    Incarceration Nation Marc Mauer, excerpt:

    “Drug policies have been responsible for a disproportionate share of the rise in the inmate population, with the 40,000 drug offenders in prison or jail in 1980 increasing to a half million today. A substantial body of research has documented that these laws have had virtually no effect on the drug trade, as measured by price or availability of drugs. Most of the drug offenders in prison are not the “kingpins” of the drug trade. Indeed, the low-level sellers who are incarcerated are rapidly replaced on the streets by others seeking economic gain.”


    Incarceration Nation: The US is the World’s Leading Jailer by Michael I. Niman, Buffalo Beat, excerpt:

    “The war on drugs, if successful at nothing else, was extremely prolific in filling cells. Drug arrests tripled from 1980 to 1997 with almost 80% of these people being arrested for simple possession. The number of people in state prisons for drug offenses increased eleven-fold from 1980 to 1996. Mandatory sentencing laws stripped judges of their ability to exercise judicial discretion, thus increasing the likelihood that a drug law offender would wind up in jail by almost 450% from 1980 to 1992.

    “Part of the blame for this disparity lands with police agencies that are more prone to stop and search African Americans (for infractions such as “driving while in Kenmore”) or carry out the bulk of their drug enforcement operations primarily in African American neighborhoods where their heavy handed tactics meet less political resistance. Statistics show that both practices are racist, as blacks are not statistically much more likely to abuse drugs. Blacks are, however, statistically more likely to be arrested for abusing drugs, making racial profiling a self-fulfilling prophesy.”


    The American Prison Nightmare by Jason DeParle, excerpt:

    “Meanwhile, the “war on drugs” led to the arrest of growing numbers of small-time users and dealers. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”


    For lots more reading on this subject, just do an online search on “Incarceration Nation”. This is obviously a subject aching for its own TV series.

  11. Mike says:

    Here’s a article written by Sherwood Ross that I thought you might be interested in.

    800,000 Americans Busted Annually For Pot



    Seven million Americans have been arrested since 1995 on marijuana charges and 41,000 of them are rotting in federal and State prisons—but the public is starting to rebel against “the preposterous war on pot,” two political scientists say. Thousands of other pot users and sellers are confined in local jails as well.

    “People convicted of possessing even one ounce of marijuana can face a mandatory minimum sentence of a year in jail, and having even one plant in your yard is a federal felony,” progressive organizer Jim Hightower and co-author Phillip Frazer point out in the November issue of “The Hightower Lowdown.”

    Police arrest someone in America every 36 seconds on marijuana charges, with a record 872,000 arrests made in 2007, “more than for all violent crimes combined,” Hightower and Frazer point out. They note that 89 per cent of all marijuana arrests “are for simple possession of the weed, not for producing or selling it.”

    They argue the drug war “is doing far more harm than marijuana itself ever will,” because (1) it diverts hundreds of thousands of police agents from serious crimes “to the pursuit of harmless tokers”; (2) it costs taxpayers at minimum $10 billion a year to catch, prosecute, and incarcerate marijuana users and sellers; (3) it enables government to snatch the cars, money, computers and other properties of people caught up in drug raids even if they have had no charges filed against them; and (4) it allows “police agents at all levels to trample our Bill of Rights in their eagerness to nab pot consumers.”
    You have a great site!!!!!

  12. DdC says:

    The Racist Ganjawar

    Thank You Miss Rosa

    Heston died, NRA’s Mandatory Minimum Didn’t

    420 Dysfunction Junction, Incarceration Nation
    * Revealing Shattered Lives CC July-August 1999, pp 42-44.
    Showing the faces of the drug war;
    * Journey for Justice Pedaling for Pot
    * November * L.E.A.P. * F.A.M.M.. * M.A.M.A.S. * F.E.A.R. * S.P.R.

    Blessed is the Police State?
    Exporting DEAmockracy

  13. cabdriver says:

    “…Seven million Americans have been arrested since 1995 on marijuana charges and 41,000 of them are rotting in federal and State prisons—but the public is starting to rebel against “the preposterous war on pot,” two political scientists say. Thousands of other pot users and sellers are confined in local jails as well…”

    Let’s see how the paragraph reads when it’s changed around a bit:

    “…Seven million Americans have been arrested since 1995 on homosexuality charges and 41,000 of them are rotting in federal and State prisons—but the public is starting to rebel against “the preposterous war on gays” two political scientists say. Thousands of other homosexuals are confined in local jails as well…”

    As of the year 2009, only the farthest right fringe of theocratic social conservatives in the USA would advocate anything like the policy in the second paragraph.

    Why is it that so many Americans still don’t find the policy in the first paragraph the least bit troubling to their minds? Even many so-called “social liberals” in the US persist in ignoring or evading that topic.

    Furthermore, many social conservatives in the US are still of the mind that the number of people incarcerated for marijuana isn’t nearly great enough. California has had fairly liberal marijuana laws since the 1970s- yet year in and year out, at least through the 1990s, Republican lawmakers in the CA State Assembly and Senate were still introducing measures to re-criminalize pot and make it a more serious offense.

  14. Lutian says:

    Great post. I find this to be a really fascinating topic and you put a new spin on it for me. Thanks! 🙂

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