Commentary: War on Drugs and the racial caste system

The Miami HeraldJuly 20, 2010 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Ron Allen probably thinks Alice Huffman has been smoking something.

Huffman, president of the California Conference of the NAACP, recently declared support for an initiative that, if passed by voters in November, will decriminalize the use and possession of marijuana. Huffman sees it as a civil rights issue.

In response, Bishop Allen, founder of a religious social activism group called the International Faith-Based Coalition, has come out swinging. "Why would the state NAACP advocate for blacks to stay high?" he demanded last week at a news conference in Sacramento. "It's going to cause crime to go up. There will be more drug babies." Allen wants Huffman to resign.

But Huffman is standing firm, both in resisting calls for her head and in framing this as an issue of racial justice. There is, she notes, a pronounced racial disparity in the enforcement of marijuana laws. She's right, of course. For that matter, there is a disparity in the enforcement of drug laws, period.

In 2007, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 9.5 percent of blacks (about 3.6 million people) and 8.2 percent of whites (about 16 million) older than 12 reported using some form of illicit drug in the previous month. Yet though there are over four times as many white drug users as black ones, blacks represent better than half those in state prison on drug charges, according to The Sentencing Project. The same source says that though two-thirds of regular crack users are white or Latino, 82 percent of those sentenced in federal court for crack crimes are black. In some states, black men are jailed on drug charges at a rate 50 times higher than whites.

And so on.

So while the bishop hyperventilates about blacks "staying" high (?), he ignores a clearer and more present danger. As Michelle Alexander argues in her book, The New Jim Crow, those absurd sentencing rates, combined with laws making it legal to discriminate against even nonviolent former felons in hiring, housing and education, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system.

Allen worries about a baby being born addicted to pot, but the likelier scenario is that she will be born to a father unable to secure a job so he can support her, an apartment for her to live in or an education so he can better himself for her -- all because he got caught with a joint ten years ago.

It is a cruel and ludicrous predicament. And apparently Huffman, like a growing number of cops, judges, DEA agents, pundits and even conservative icons like the late William F. Buckley, Jr. and Milton Friedman, has decided to call the War on Drugs what it is: a failure. It is time to find a better way, preferably one that emphasizes treatment over incarceration.

You'd think that would be a no-brainer. We have spent untold billions of dollars, ruined untold millions of lives and racked up the highest incarceration rate in the world to fight drug use. Yet, we saw casual drug use rise by 2,300 percent between 1970 and 2003, according to an advocacy group called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). And as drug use skyrocketed, we find that we have moved the needle on addiction not even an inch, up or down. All we have managed, and at a ruinous cost, is to re-learn the lesson of 1933 when alcohol Prohibition collapsed: you cannot jail or punish people out of wanting what they want.

I've never used drugs. I share Bishop Allen's antipathy toward them. But it seems silly and self-defeating to allow that reflexive antipathy to bind us to the same strategy that has failed for 30 years. By now, one thing should be obvious about our War on Drugs.

Drugs won.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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