Race and the War on Drugs

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Many policy experts and authors have claimed that there are racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, rehabilitation programs, and other aspects of the War on Drugs.

Arrests / Imprisonment

2009. Percent of adult males incarcerated by race and ethnicity.[1]

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which, amongst other things, created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine possession, which some people consider to be a racist law which discriminates against minorities,[2][3][4] who are more likely to use crack than powder cocaine. People convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine will receive a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in federal prison. On the other hand, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence.[2][3] Some other authors, however, have pointed out that the Congressional Black Caucus backed the law, which they say implies that the law cannot be racist.[5][6][7]

Crime statistics show that in 1999 in the United States blacks were far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for drug crimes, and received much stiffer penalties and sentences than whites.[8] A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union determined that a black person in the United States was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though both races have similar rates of marijuana use.[9] Iowa had the highest racial disparity of the fifty states.[10] Black people in Iowa were arrested for marijuana possession at a rate 8.4 times higher than white people.[10]

In 1998 there were wide racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, sentencing and deaths. African-Americans, who only comprised 13% of regular drug users, made up for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes.[2] Nationwide African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than white men,[11] even though they only comprise 13% of regular drug users.[2] A 2015 study found that minorities have been disproportionately arrested for drug offenses, and that this difference "cannot be explained by differences in drug offending, nondrug offending, or residing in the kinds of neighborhoods likely to have heavy police emphasis on drug offending."[12]

In the late 1990s, black and white women had similar levels of drug use during pregnancy. In spite of this, black women were 10 times as likely as white women to be reported to a child welfare agency for prenatal drug use.[13][need quotation to verify][14]

According to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow and a professor of law at Stanford Law School, even though drug trading is done at similar rates all over the U.S., most people arrested for it are colored. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population. Bias plays an important role in this: most Americans now think of colored people when they are asked to imagine a drug user, which leads to discrimination in the criminal justice system "consciously" and "unconsciously." Also, because police officers are just as biased as others, colored people are more likely to be investigated than whites. Thus, she believes racial bias in the War on Drugs is a huge problem because the majority of prisoner are arrested for drug related crime, and in at least 15 states, 3/4 of them are black or Latino people.[15]

Although many have claimed that there is little difference between rates of drug use between blacks and whites based on surveys,[16] one study have shown that blacks, when compared with whites, are much more likely to underreport their own drug use in surveys.[17] However, the underreporting effect diminished to a nonsignificant value when socioeconomic variable was taken into an account.[17]

Legal Standpoint

When sifting through the layers of policy concerning the War on Drugs, one can find racial disparities and obstacles facing those minorities on trial and during punishment. On the surface, de jure suggests that everyone has an equal opportunity in defending themselves from criminal accusations concerning drugs. However, careful scrutiny of judicial jargon along with assessment of limitations of marginalized groups suggests otherwise (de facto). The idea that minorities have to somehow “prove” that racial discrimination was being used during a search and seizure (United States v. Armstrong, 1996) and that the Equal Protection Law has been separated from the Fourth Amendment through successive court decisions leaves the accused at a disadvantage. This separation is open to police discretion and availability of such discretion has been created by court case. The idea that defendants had to show favorability of whites in “similarly situated” court cases was reinforced by the 2002 United States v. Bass decision in which the Sixth Circuit court’s decision to favor a death-eligible, black defendant was reversed; the man had provided data that suggested that the United States charges blacks with death-eligible offenses more than twice as often as it charges whites.The Supreme Court’s conclusion was that raw data does not say anything in particular of “similarly situated” defendants.[18] Moreover, there is the idea that those with tangential associations of the accused are not open to having sentence reductions as they don’t have other dealers to “rat out”; this generally leaves women at the disadvantage as they are usually found as holders of drugs without information (Coker 834). Also, there is a noted racial disparity of those punished and rehabilitated. Professor Cathy Schnieder of International Service at American University notes that in 1989, African Americans, representing 12-15 percent of all drug use in the United States, made up 41 percent of all arrests. That is a noted increase from 38 percent in 1988. Whites were 47 percent of those in state-funded treatment centers and made up less than 10 percent of those committed to prison.[19]

African-American Communities

The War on Drugs has incarcerated disproportionately high numbers of African-Americans. However, the damage has compounded beyond individuals and their families to affect African-American communities as a whole.

African-American children are over-represented in juvenile hall and family court cases, and as a result, they are removed from their families in droves, and placed in the federal system.[20] This is due to two reasons.

First, the high incarceration rate has not ignored families: mothers and fathers are incarcerated as well. This leads to a lack of a parental (mother or father incarcerated) figure to provide a good role model and stabilize a household. The impacts on their children are severe. African-American youths are becoming highly involved in gangs in order to generate income for their families lacking a primary breadwinner; with the War on Drugs having made the drug trade lucrative, it is a far more profitable for them to work for a dangerous drug gang than at a safe entry-level job.[21] The second-hand consequences of this are African-American youths dropping out of school, being tried for drug-related crime, and acquiring AIDS at disparate levels.[21]

Second, the high incarceration rate has led to the juvenile justice system and family courts to use race as a negative heuristic in trials, leading to a reinforcing effect: as more African-Americans are incarcerated, the more the heuristic is enforced in the eyes of the courts.[20] This contributes to yet higher imprisonment rates among African-American children, and tearing apart already damaged families.

The high imprisonment rate has also led the police to target African-American communities at disparately high levels of surveillance, invading privacy rights of individuals without probable cause, and ultimately breeding a distrust for police among African-American communities.[22] High numbers of African American arrests and charges of possession show that although the majority of drug users in the United States are white, AfricanAmericans are the largest group being targeted as the root of the problem.[22] A distrust of the police in African-American communities seems like a logical feeling. Harboring these emotions can lead to a lack of will to contact the police in case of an emergency by members of African-American communities, ultimately leaving many people unprotected. Disproportionate arrests in African-American communities for drug-related offenses has not only spread fear but also perpetuated a deep distrust for government and what some call racist drug enforcement policy.

Women of Color

The War on Drugs also plays a negative role in the lives of women of color. In 1997, of women in state prisons for drug-related crimes, forty-four percent were Hispanic, thirty-nine percent were black, and twenty-three percent were white, quite different from the racial make up shown in percentages of the United States as a whole.[23] Statistics in England, Wales, and Canada are similar. Women of color who are implicated in drug crimes are “generally poor, uneducated, and unskilled; have impaired mental and physical health; are victims of physical and sexual abuse and mental cruelty; are single mothers with children; lack familial support; often have no prior convictions; and are convicted for a small quantity of drugs”.[23]

Additionally, these women typically have an economic attachment to, or fear of, male drug traffickers, creating a power paradigm that sometimes forces their involvement in drug-related crimes.[24] Though there are programs to help them, women of color are usually unable to take advantage of social welfare institutions in America due to regulations. For example, women’s access to methadone, which suppresses cravings for drugs such as heroin, is restricted by state clinics that set appointment times for women to receive their treatment. If they miss their appointment, (which is likely: drug-addicted women may not have access to transportation and lead chaotic lives), they are denied medical care critical to their recovery. Additionally, while women of color are offered jobs as a form of government support, these jobs often do not have childcare, rendering the job impractical for mothers, who cannot leave their children at home alone.[24]

See also


  1. Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009 - Statistical Tables (NCJ 230113). U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rates are for adult males, and are from Tables 18 and 19 of the PDF file. Rates per 100,000 were converted to percentages.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Burton-Rose, Daniel, ed. (1998). The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Common Courage Press. ISBN 1567511406. possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine--100 times the amount of crack--carries a 5 year minimum sentence" ... in reality a racist war being waged against poor Blacks 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Elsner, Alan (2004). Gates of injustice: the crisis in America's prisons. Saddle River, New Jersey: Financial Times Prentice Hall. p. 20. ISBN 0131427911. Critics blasted the law as blatantly racist" ... "Convicted of selling 5 grams of crack cocaine ... or 500 grams of powder cocaine ... received a 5 year minimum sentence 
  4. Ho, Karen; Marshall, Wende Elizabeth (1997), "Criminality and citizenship: implicating the white nation", in Jackson Fossett, Judith; Tucker, Jeffrey A., Race consciousness: African-American studies for the new century, NYU Press, pp. 222–225, ISBN 9780814742280  Preview.
  5. Thernstrom, Abigail; Thernstrom, Stephan (1999), "Crime", in Thernstrom, Abigail; Thernstrom, Stephan, America in black and white: one nation, indivisible, Simon and Schuster, p. 278, ISBN 9780684844978  Preview.
  6. McWhorter, John H. (2000), "The cult of victimology", in McWhorter, John H., Losing the race: self-sabotage in Black America, Simon and Schuster, p. 14, ISBN 9780684836690  Preview.
  7. DiIulio, Jr., John J. (2005), "My Black crime problem, and ours", in Gabbidon, Shaun L.; Taylor Greene, Helen, Race, crime, and justice: a reader, New York: Routledge, p. 78, ISBN 9780415947077.  Preview.
  8. "I. Summary and recommendations". Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Human Rights Watch. 2000. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  9. The war on marijuana in black and white: billions of dollars wasted on racially biased arrests (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union. June 2013. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Iowa ranks worst in racial disparities of marijuana arrests". ACLU of Iowa News. American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. 4 June 2013. 
  11. "Key findings at a glance". Racial disparities in the war on drugs. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  12. Mitchell, Ojmarrh; Caudy, Michael S. (22 January 2013). "Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests". Justice Quarterly. 32 (2): 288–313. doi:10.1080/07418825.2012.761721. 
  13. Neuspiel, D.R. (Winter–Spring 1996). "Racism and perinatal addiction". Ethnicity & Disease. International Society on Hypertension in Blacks (ISHIB). 6 (1-2): 47–55. PMID 8882835. 
  14. Chasnoff, Ira J.; Landress, Harvey J.; Barrett, Mark E. (1990). "The prevalence of illicit-drug or alcohol use during pregnancy and discrepancies in mandatory reporting in Pinellas County, Florida". New England Journal of Medicine. 322 (17): 1202–1206. PMID 2325711. doi:10.1056/NEJM199004263221706. During the six-month period in which we collected the urine samples, 133 women in Pinellas County were reported to health authorities after delivery for substance abuse during pregnancy. Despite the similar rates of substance abuse among black and white women in our study, black women were reported at approximately 10 times the rate for white women (P<0.0001), and poor women were more likely than others to be reported. We conclude that the use of illicit drugs is common among pregnant women regardless of race and socioeconomic status. If legally mandated reporting is to be free of racial or economic bias, it must be based on objective medical criteria. 
  15. West, Michelle Alexander (2012), "Chapter 3: The color of justice", in West, Michelle Alexander, The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, Cornel (foreword) (Rev. ed.), New York: New Press, pp. 97–139, ISBN 9781595586438 
  16. Szalavitz, Maia (7 November 2011). "Study: Whites More Likely to Abuse Drugs Than Blacks". Time. Retrieved 9 December 2015. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Fendrich, M. (1 June 2005). "Race/Ethnicity Differences in the Validity of Self-Reported Drug Use: Results from a Household Survey". Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 82 (2_suppl_3): iii67–iii81. doi:10.1093/jurban/jti065. 
  18. Coker, D. (2003). "Foreword: Addressing the Real World of Racial Injustice in the Criminal Justice System". Journal of Criminal Law and Crimonology. 93 (4): 827–879. doi:10.2307/3491312. 
  19. Schnieder, C. (1998). "Racism, Drug Policy, and Aids". Political Science Quarterly. 113 (3): 427–446. doi:10.2307/2658075. Retrieved 15 Mar 2012. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Alexander, Rudolph (2010). "The Impact of Poverty on African American Children in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems". The Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 Pearson, Joseph (2002). "Black Youths and Illegal Drugs". Journal of Black Studies. 32.4: 422–438. JSTOR 3180884. doi:10.1177/002193470203200404. Retrieved 6 Feb 2012.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  22. 22.0 22.1 Nunn, Kenneth B. (2002). "Race, Crime and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: Or Why the War on Drugs Was a War on Blacks". The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice. 6 (Fall): 381–446. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 Reynolds, Marylee (2008). "The war on drugs, prison building, and globalization: catalysts for the global incarceration of women". NWSA Journal. 20 (1): 72–95. Retrieved 16 March 2012. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Windsor, Liliane C.; Benoit, Ellen; Dunlap, Eloise (2010). "Dimensions of oppression in the lives of impoverished Black women who use drugs". Journal of Black Studies. 41 (1): 21–39. doi:10.1177/0021934708326875. Retrieved 16 March 2008. 

Further reading


Journal articles

  • Martin, Dianne L. (1993). "Casualties of the Criminal Justice System: Women and Justice Under the War on Drugs". Canadian Journal of Women & the Law. 6 (2): 305–327. 
  • Hall, Mary F. (June 1997). "The "War on Drugs": A Continuation of the War on the African American Family". Smith College Studies in Social Work. 67 (3): 609–621. doi:10.1080/00377319709517509. 
  • Enid Logan (1999). "The Wrong Race, Committing Crime, Doing Drugs, and Maladjusted for Motherhood: The Nation's Fury over "Crack Babies"". Social Justice. 26 (1): 115–138. 
  • Gorton, Joe; Boies, John L (March 1999). "Sentencing Guidelines and Racial Disparity across Time: Pennsylvania Prison Sentences in 1977, 1983, 1992, and 1993". Social Science Quarterly. University of Texas Press. 80 (1): 37–54. 
  • JM Wallace (May 1999). "The social ecology of addiction: race, risk, and resilience". Pediatrics. 103 (5 Pt. 2): 1122–1127. PMID 10224199. 
  • Graham Boyd (July–August 2001). "The Drug War is the New Jim Crow". NACLA Report on the Americas. 35 (1): 18. 
  • Deborah Small (Fall 2001). "The War on Drugs Is a War on Racial Justice". Social Research. 68 (3): 896–903. 
  • Kenneth B. Nunn (2002). "Race, Crime and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: Or Why the War on Drugs Was a War on Blacks". Gender, Race & Justice (6): 381 
  • Gabriel Chin (2002). "Race, the War on Drugs and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction". Gender, Race & Justice (6): 253. doi:10.2139/ssrn.390109 
  • Samuel R. Gross; Katherine Y. Barnes (December 2002). "Road Work: Racial Profiling and Drug Interdiction on the Highway". Michigan Law Review. 101 (3): 653–751. doi:10.2307/1290469. 
  • Beckett, Katherine; Nyrop, Kris; Pfingst, Lori; Bowen, Melissa (August 2005). "Drug Use, Drug Possession Arrests, and the Question of Race: Lessons from Seattle". Social Problems. 52 (3): 419–441. doi:10.1525/sp.2005.52.3.419. 
  • Banks, R. Richard (December 2003). "Beyond Profiling: Race, Policing, and the Drug War". Stanford Law Review. 56 (3): 571. 
  • Stephanie R. Bush-Baskette (2004). "12. "The War on Drugs as a War on Black Women"". In Meda Chesney-Lind; Lisa Pasko. Girls, women, and crime: selected readings. SAGE. ISBN 978-0-7619-2828-7. 
  • Ruiz, Jim; Woessner, Matthew (Autumn 2006). "Profiling, Cajun style: racial and demographic profiling in Louisiana's war on drugs". International Journal of Police Science & Management. 8 (3): 176–197. doi:10.1350/ijps.2006.8.3.176. 
  • Illya Lichtenberg (March 2006). "Driving While Black (DWB): Examining Race as a Tool in the War on Drugs". Police Practice & Research. 7 (1): 49–60. doi:10.1080/15614260600579649. 
  • Katherine Beckett; Kris Nyrop; Lori Pfingst (February 2006). "Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests". Criminology. 44 (1): 105–137. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2006.00044.x. 
  • Bobo, Lawrence D.; Victor Thompson (Summer 2006). "Unfair By Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System". Social Research. 73 (2): 445–472. 
  • Andrew D. Black (Fall 2007). ""The War on People": Reframing "The War on Drugs" by Addressing Racism Within American Drug Policy Through Restorative Justice and Community Collaboration". University of Louisville Law Review. 46 (1): 177–197. 
  • Veda Kunins, Hillary; Bellin, Eran; Chazotte, Cynthia; Du, Evelyn; Hope Arnsten, Julia (March 2007). "The effect of race on provider decisions to test for illicit drug use in the peripartum setting". Journal of Women's Health. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 16 (2): 245–355. PMC 2859171Freely accessible. PMID 17388741. doi:10.1089/jwh.2006.0070. 
  • Beckett, Katherine (June 2008). "Drugs, Data, Race and Reaction: A Field Report". Antipode. 40 (3): 442–447. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00612.x. 
  • Fellner, Jamie (2009). "Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States". Stanford Law & Policy Review. 20 (2): 257–291. 

Conference papers

  • Johnson, Devon (2003). "Round Up the Usual Suspects: African Americans' Views of Drug Enforcement Policies". Conference Papers -- American Association for Public Opinion Research. 
  • Holloway, Johnny (2006). "Past as Prologue: Racialized Representations of Illicit Substances and Contemporary U.S. Drug Policy". Conference Papers -- International Studies Association: 1–19. 
  • Jeff Yates; Andrew Whitford (2008). "Racial Dimensions of Presidential Rhetoric: The Case of the War on Drugs". Conference Papers -- Midwestern Political Science Association: 1.