"Get into the Know"
Despite the fact that drug use is more or less consistent across racial lines, many punitive drug laws are based on beliefs that certain communities of color commonly abuse certain substances. Due to the racial injustices caused by the drug war, supporting drug policy reform can help end racial inequality. Drug Policy Alliance is drawing attention to these disproportionate impacts of the drug war and working to end the war on people of color.
Although African Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses causing critics to call the war on drugs the "New Jim Crow." The higher arrest rates for African Americans and Latinos do not reflect a higher abuse rate in these communities but rather a law enforcement emphasis on inner city areas where drug use and sales are more likely to take place in open-air drug markets where treatment resources are scarce.
Once arrested, people of color are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than whites. The best-known example of the inequality in sentencing is the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences. Crack and powder cocaine have the same active ingredient, but crack is marketed in less expensive quantities and in lower income communities of color. A five gram sale of crack cocaine receives a five-year federal mandatory minimum sentence, while an offender must sell 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. In 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.
Another explanation for the disparate effects on people of color is racial profiling. Racial profiling is the law enforcement practice of substituting skin color for evidence as grounds for suspicion. The pervasiveness of racial profiling in traffic stops has led many to dub the practice "DWB" - Driving While Black or Brown. President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have spoken out against racial profiling and promised to study the problem.
Once released from prison, felony disenfranchisement laws often perpetuate the disparate effects impacting citizens of color. 1.4 million African American men have permanently lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction even though their sentences have been served. This rate of disenfranchisement is seven times the national average.
The racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions have had a devastating effect on families. Of the 1.5 million minor children who had a parent incarcerated in 1999, African American children were nearly nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children and Latino children were three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children.
The racial inequalities of the war on drugs also disproportionately affect pregnant women of color. Despite similar or equal rates of illegal drug use during pregnancy, African American women are ten times more likely to be reported to child welfare agencies for prenatal drug use. In a recent Supreme Court case, Ferguson vs. the City of Charleston, the practice of drug testing pregnant women without their consent and prosecuting the mothers for "distributing an illegal substance" to an unborn child through the umbilical cord was challenged under the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Out of the 30 women who were arrested at the South Carolina hospital,29 were African American. The one white woman arrested was married to a Black man - a fact noted on her medical record.
The devastating health consequences of the war on drugs are more dramatic in communities of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans account for 37 percent of all AIDS cases and 41 percent of those cases are injection-related. Latinos account for 19.2 percent of all AIDS cases and more than 44 percent of those cases are injection-related. Yet African Americans only comprise 12.2 percent of the population and Latinos comprise only 11.9 percent of the population. Despite the proven success of needle exchange programs in reducing the spread of HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis C, most states do not allow them to operate legally.
Support drug policy reform to help end these racial injustices caused by the war on drugs.