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December 6, 2007 - Times-Picayune (LA)

OpEd: How The Drug War Targets Black Americans

By Ira Glasser, past director of the ACLU and president of the board of the Drug Policy Alliance

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

This week, more than 1,000 people will gather for the 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans. There could not be a better venue for us to discuss how the drug war has become a war against black Americans.

Louisiana's rate of incarceration for nonviolent drug-law violations is among the highest in the nation. But all over America, including states like New York, drug-war arrests, convictions and imprisonment have increased dramatically, and are disproportionately targeted against African-Americans, making this a major, though largely unrecognized, civil rights issue.

In the late 1960s there were fewer than 200,000 people in state and federal prisons for all offenses. By 2004, there were more than 1.4 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and more than 700,000 in local jails -- about 2.2 million in all, an explosion in prison population heavily due to nonviolent drug offenses.

Since 1980, the proportion of all state prisoners who are there because of a drug offense increased from 6 percent to 21 percent. In federal prisons, the proportion increased from 25 percent to 57 percent. Drug arrests have tripled to 1.6 million annually, more than 40 percent for marijuana -- and 88 percent of those are for possession, not even sale or manufacture.

At the same time, the racial disparity of arrests, convictions and imprisonment have become pronounced. According to federal statistics gathered by The Sentencing Project, only 13 percent of monthly users of all illegal drugs are black, roughly corresponding to their proportion of the population. In other words, black people do not use illegal drugs disproportionately to their numbers in the population.

But nationwide they are arrested, convicted and imprisoned disproportionately. Thirty-seven percent of drug-offense arrests are black; 53 percent of convictions are of blacks; and 67 percent -- two-thirds of all people imprisoned for drug offenses -- are black.

This is not because more black than white Americans use drugs: About eighty percent of drug users are white. There is no evidentiary justification for racially targeted stops and searches or for racially targeted arrests and convictions. The law is being enforced as if skin color were a credible proxy for evidence amounting to probable cause. It is this kind of targeting that has resulted in the explosion of racially disparate incarceration in our prisons.

These racially targeted patterns affect more than imprisonment: They have effectively eroded much of the voting rights victories won by the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Until recently, many states have barred former felons from voting, some permanently, some in a way that allowed -- theoretically but often not as a practical matter -- for the restoration of voting rights.

Nearly 5 million people are now barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. The United States is the only industrial democracy that does this. And the origin of most of these law is the post-Reconstruction period after slavery, when many states sought to undermine the 15th Amendment, which had newly granted former slaves the right to vote.

Today, the racially discriminatory origin of most of these laws is reinforced by the disparate impact they have on racially targeted drug felons. In the states of the Deep South, 30 percent of black men are barred from voting because of felony convictions. But all of them are nonetheless counted as citizens for the purpose of determining congressional representation and electoral college votes.

The last time something like this happened was during slavery, when three-fifths of slaves were counted in determining congressional representation.

Just as Jim Crow laws were a successor system to slavery in the attempt to keep blacks subjugated, so drug prohibition has become a successor system to Jim Crow laws in targeting black citizens, removing them from civil society and then barring them from the right to vote while using their bodies to enhance white political power in Congress and the electoral college.

That people of good will have been at best timid in opposing the drug war and at worst accomplices to its continued escalation is, in light of the racial politics of drug prohibition, a special outrage. People of good will should instead stand with us in this fight against the racist war on drugs, and not only in New Orleans.

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