Updating the Drug War


I haven’t written an update on the drug war in quite a while, so I thought I would do one of my end of the year summaries.  As usual, it is not a happy story.

            During 2007 we spent almost $50 billion fighting the drug war.  More than 1.5 million were arrested, with about half charged with marijuana possession.  Meanwhile, more than 10,000 were sent to prison on drug charges.  Speaking of prisons, once again our numbers reached an all-time high, as more than 2.25 million are either in prison or jail.  Our incarceration rate is 751 per 100,000, which puts us number 1 in the world.  A little publicized fact is that the average incarceration rate of other countries in the world is around 100.  

            Not surprisingly, race figures predominantly in these numbers.  Black males represent the largest proportion of prisoners, as they are more than six times as likely to be sent to prison as white males; Hispanic males are about 3 times more likely to be sent to prison than white males. 

            When considering drug offenses, the racial differences are even more staggering.  For example, blacks constitute about 15% of all drug users (according to several surveys conducted over the past 20 years or so), yet are more than one-third of those arrested on drug charges (37%), and three-fourths all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

            Even more astounding, for those born in 2001, it is projected that about one-third of black males (32%) will end up in prison some day; the percentage for Hispanic males is 17 and for white males it is about 6%. Black females born in 2001 will have about a 6% chance of going to prison someday, compared to less than 2% of Hispanic females and less than 1% of white females.  

Speaking of females, they have represented the fastest growing segment of the prison population during the past decade. Between 1995 and 2005 the total number of women in prison grew by 57%, compared to a 34% growth for men. Fully two-thirds of women doing time in federal prison were in for drug crimes as of 2002. During the past 30 years the number of women in prison has increased by 1,043%; their incarceration rate went up by 675% during this time (more than double that for men). 

As many studies have pointed out, women are small players in the big world of illegal drug dealing. An ACLU study noted that women most often serve as “mules” (those who carry drugs for the drug cartels and other high level dealers) for boyfriends or lovers, often doing so because of threats to their lives.  The study also noted that many get involved in the illegal drug world as “a means of supplementing income in the face of unemployment, low-wage and unstable jobs, lack of affordable housing, and cuts to social programs such as child care, social assistance, and health care.”  In many cases their roles are “limited to answering telephones or living in a home used for drug related activities.” 

It remains to be seen what the impact of the recent decisions by the Sentencing Commission to reduce the 100 to 1 ration of powder versus crack cocaine and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kimbrough v. U.S. supporting a federal judge’s below-guideline sentencing decision (see also a companion case, Gall v. US). The Sentencing Commission voted to make retroactive its recent guideline amendment on crack cocaine offenses. The result of the decision is that it makes about 19,500 prisoners eligible for a sentence reduction.  The catch here is that each case is subjected to judicial review and will be staggered over a 30 year period. (For more detailed discussion see the following web site: http://www.sentencingproject.org/)

  I am cautiously optimistic that we are headed in a positive direction, given the decisions by the Supreme Court and the Sentencing Commission, plus the continuous work by the Sentencing Project, along with such organizations as Stop the Drug War (http://stopthedrugwar.org/home) and the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org/homepage.cfm), among many others.  The International Drug Policy Reform Conference, held recently in New Orleans, brought attention to the travesty of the drug war.  During this conference Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance, stated that drug prohibition was "a replacement system for the separation and subjugation of black citizens."  However, for there to be any meaningful change Congress needs to act.

I will close with one question: why is this not an issue during the presidential campaign?


 © 2007, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.