Race, Health Care and the Law 
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The War on Drug is Already Lost

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Vernellia R. Randall
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Leonard E. Birdsong

excerpted from: Leonard E. Birdsong, Drug Decriminalization and Felony Disenfranchisement: the New Civil Rights Causes, 2 Barry Law Review 73-108, 74-76, 107-108 (Summer 2001)(230 Footnotes)

The war on drugs has been lost for a number of reasons. It has been lost because drug addiction and usage are being treated as criminal problems when they are actually public health problems. The war has also been lost because people are being sent to prison for longer periods of time, for either possessing, manufacturing, or distributing drugs, instead of being rehabilitated as productive members of society. Finally, the war has been lost because it appears that the war is being used as an immoral pretext to imprison as many African Americans as possible for nonviolent behavior.

The White House drug-control director maintains that fifty-three tons of cocaine in the past year have been confiscated. Certainly, this author believes that this quantity confiscated simply indicates that a great deal more of the substance is reaching our shores. Why is this significant? Simply put, there is a tremendous demand for cocaine and other such mood-altering substances. Legislators continue to concentrate on cutting the supply, apparently forgetting that without demand there would be no need for the supply. The tonnage of drugs coming into this country indicates that there are a lot of people who condone and support such use.

Nor are these drug users all stereotypical "down-and-outers." A recent study reveals that seventy percent of drug users in this country hold full-time jobs. This is a remarkable, even startling, statistic. Nonetheless it is a quite significant statistic, and it should not be ignored.

It is a statistic that reveals that the war on drugs is not being waged against the majority drug-using group. A recent study indicates that drug usage is basically proportional by race and ethnicity to the representation of such groups in the country. In other words, the approximately eighty percent of the American population that is white comprises a proportional percentage of the drug users. However, whites, who therefore embody around eighty percent of the drug users, represent only twelve percent of those arrested on drug charges. In contrast, African Americans comprise about thirteen percent of drug users but involve seventy-four percent of those sentenced for drug possession.

A large and racially disproportionate share of our nation's population has been incarcerated for felony crimes concerning drugs. Department of Justice statistics reveal that at the end of 1998 there were 1,302,019 felons incarcerated under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons in the country. Nearly 640,000 of these prisoners are African American. Although African Americans make up less than thirteen percent of the population of the United States, African Americans make up forty-nine percent of the total of prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction.

Not only is the current prison population disproportionate, but the trend is worsening. The rate of imprisonment for African American men was over eight times that of white men in 1998. Black men were confined in prison at a rate of 3,098 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 370 per 100,000 for white men. More strikingly, in the past ten years the African American men's rate of imprisonment increased ten times more than the white men's rate of increase.

At the beginning of 1998 there were 548,900 African American males in these prisons, compared with 541,700 white males. This is an outrageous statistic for this country, or any country - over half of the male prison population is drawn from a twelve-percent minority group. Furthermore, Department of Justice statistics reveal that drug offenses accounted for thirty percent of the total growth among African Americans incarcerated between 1990 and 1996.

Nor is this trend confined to black men. Statistics further reveal that in 1994 African American women comprised eighty-two percent of all women sentenced for crack offenses. The increase in state imprisonment for drug offenses for African American women between 1986 and 1991 was 828%, compared to a 241% increase for white women.

These numbers show that the American drug war is mainly being fought against African Americans whom Americans choose to put in jail and, thereby, disenfranchise.

. . .

America's terrible problem of teenage gun crime is not uniform throughout America. The problem is very heavily concentrated among older adolescent males in large metropolitan areas, and within that group heavily concentrated among low-income blacks. In this population, the rate of gun-related death is appallingly high and calls for immediate action.

Addressing the social pathologies that beset inner-city minorities is the most realistic approach to dealing with the group's very high homicide rate. Since drugs are readily available in the inner city, despite extremely severe national prohibition, it is foolish to expect that gun controls will take guns out of the inner cities. Nor is it realistic to expect that calling three delinquent friends who use drugs and rob people "a criminal street gang" and imposing a federal prison sentence (as opposed to the severe state prison sentence which would be imposed anyway for the robberies) will end the existence of gangs. The longer that the debate focuses narrowly only on the symptoms of social decay--gangs and guns--the longer elected officials and American society will postpone the difficult work of restoring hope to the underclass.

At the 1966 Senate hearings dealing with the problem of "juvenile delinquents" using guns, Senators Edward Kennedy, Thomas Dodd, and others wrote a report which promised, "(b)y prohibiting the mail-order traffic in concealable firearms entirely and restricting the over-the-counter purchaseof concealable firearms by nonresidents, and by regulating the mail-order traffic in shotguns and rifles, the problem will be substantially alleviated." Every one of Senator Kennedy's proposals (and then some) became federal law in the Gun Control Act of 1968. Three decades later, there is no reputable criminological evidence that the restrictions have "substantially alleviated" the problem of juvenile delinquents carrying guns. Rather than concede that the Gun Control Act of 1968 is a failure and should be repealed, gun-control advocates call for more and more restrictive legislation, which they promise--this time for sure--will take guns away from juveniles.

The conservative response, unfortunately, is to criticize the failure of gun control, and then proceed down an opposite--but equally futile path--by making activities which are already illegal, illegal another time, under the rubric of gang control.

Will elected officials continue to offer the public only the empty promises of gun control and gang control, or will they begin the hard work of combating the true causes of American violence? The answer may determine whether the adult Americans of today will bequeath to twenty-first century Americans a society with more violence and less freedom, or a society that finally started to reverse the blight of its inner cities.

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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law
The University of Dayton School of Law
300 College Park 
Dayton, OH 45469-2772
Email: randall@udayton.edu


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