Race and the War on Drugs

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

Arrests / Imprisonment[edit]

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,[1][2][3] 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.[1][2] 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.[4][5][6]

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.[7] 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.[8] Iowa had the highest racial disparity of the fifty states.[9] Black people in Iowa were arrested for marijuana possession at a rate 8.4 times higher than white people.[9]

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.[1] Nationwide African-Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than white men,[10] even though they only comprise 13% of regular drug users.[1]

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.[11][need quotation to verify][12]

Legal Standpoint[edit]

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.[13] 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.[14]

African American Communities[edit]

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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[16]

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.[15] 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.[17] High numbers of African American arrests and charges of possession show that although the majority of drug users in the United States are white, African Americans are the largest group being targeted as the root of the problem.[17] 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[edit]

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.[18] 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”.[18]

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.[19] 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.[19]

Necropolitics and Feminicide on the US-Mexico Border[edit]

Beginning in 1993, news from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, began emerging of cases of feminicide around the city. The numbers increased during the following years, up to over 6,000 deaths, by 2006.[20] The cause of these deaths has been related to the city’s infamy as a haven of drug violence.[20]

In 1995, a feminist coalition known as La Coordinadora de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales en Pro de la Mujer (the coalition of nongovernmental organizations for women, hereafter “the coalition”), demanded that military and government leaders in the city take action to stop the feminicide.[20] Chihuaha governor Francisco Barrio at the time stated that the murders fell within the normal range for deaths of females of the city.[20] What he failed to acknowledge, something that was realized only years later, was that the deaths were due to an escalating war being fought by the increasingly powerful drug cartels.[20]

Barrio’s assertion rested on the city’s reputation as a working-class city of vice and cultural contamination, reflective of its proximity to a powerful northern neighbor with its loose sexual morals and military men looking for cheap sex and alcohol.[20] Unlike other cities in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez did not confine prostitution to certain districts, and so made it difficult to attribute the feminicide to drug cartels.[20] These women are forced into the sex trade to supplement their income and support their families.[20] The city repeatedly explained to families of girls how had gone missing that they probably led double lives, exactly to provide economical support for the family, and thus, there was no cause for concern.[20]

In reality, these women were suffering from the city’s necropolitics. The coalition argued the violence that threatened these “daughters” was a violence that threatened the very foundation of Mexican society. By 2001, the pressure from the coalition and other international groups was so intense that the government had no choice but to dedicate itself to acknowledging the true interpretations of the murders.[20] In 2006, after he was elected, Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops in Ciudad Juarez to wage war against the cartels.[20]

Unfortunately, the war on drugs was not contained to the cartels, because the narcos do not simply kill each other, but common civilians as well.[20] The fact that the Government of Mexico disregarded the issue for so long, as well as refusing to acknowledge the legitimate reasons of the feminicide show with what impunity government officials act, as well as the total lack of value that women are regarded with in the scope of the war on drugs.[20] These women in Mexico, and especially in the border cities such as Ciudad Juarez, are dispensable bodies to the cartels as well as to the government.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Daniel Burton-Rose, ed. (1998). The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Common Courage Press. ISBN 1-56751-140-6. 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 
  2. ^ a b Elsner, Alan (2004). Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons. Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall. p. 20. ISBN 0-13-142791-1. 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 
  3. ^ Judith Jackson Fossett, Jeffrey A. Tucker, ed. (1997). Race consciousness: African-American studies for the new century. NYU Press. pp. 222–225. ISBN 978-0-8147-4228-0. 
  4. ^ Thernstrom, Abigail; Stephan Thernstrom (1999). America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Simon and Schuster. p. 278. ISBN 978-0-684-84497-8. 
  5. ^ McWhorter, John H. (2000). Losing the race: self-sabotage in Black America. Simon and Schuster. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-684-83669-0. 
  6. ^ Shaun L. Gabbidon, Helen Taylor Greene, ed. (2005). Race, crime, and justice: a reader. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-415-94707-7. 
  7. ^ "I. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS". Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Human Rights Watch. 2000. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  8. ^ http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/061413-mj-report-rfs-rel4.pdf
  9. ^ a b http://www.aclu-ia.org/2013/06/04/iowa-ranks-worst-in-racial-disparities-of-marijuana-arrests/
  10. ^ "Key Findings at a Glance". Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  11. ^ Neuspiel, D.R. (1996). "Racism and Perinatal Addiction". Ethnicity and Disease (6): 47–55. 
  12. ^ Chasnoff, I.J.; Landress, Barrett (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. doi:10.1056/NEJM199004263221706. PMID 2325711. 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. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ Schnieder, C. (1998). "Racism, Drug Policy, and Aids". Political Science Quarterly 113 (3): 427. doi:10.2307/2658075. 
  15. ^ a b 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. 
  16. ^ a b Pearson, Joseph; Janice Pearson, Patricia G. (2002). "Black Youths and Illegal Drugs". Journal of Black Studies 32.4: 422–438. doi:10.1177/002193470203200404. JSTOR 3180884. 
  17. ^ a b 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. 
  18. ^ a b Reynolds, Marylee (2008). "The War on Drugs, Prison Building, and Globalization: Catalysts for the Global Incarceration of Women.". NWSA Journal 20.1: 72–95. 
  19. ^ a b Windsor, Liliane C.; Ellen Benoit; Eloise Dunlap (2010). "Dimensions of Oppression in the Lives of Impoverished Black Women Who Use Drugs". Journal of Black Studies 41.1. 
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Wright, M. (2011). "Necropolitics, Narcopolitics, and Femicide: Gendered Violence on the Mexico-U.S. Border". Signs 36 (3): 701–703. 

Further reading[edit]


Journal articles[edit]

  • 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. 
  • 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): p896–903. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • Katherine Beckett; Kris Nyrop; Lori Pfingst (February 2006). "Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests". Criminology 44 (1): 105–137. 
  • 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 16 (2): 245–255. doi:10.1089/jwh.2006.0070. PMC 2859171. PMID 17388741. 
  • Beckett, Katherine (June 2008). "Drugs, Data, Race and Reaction: A Field Report". Antipode 40 (3): 442–447. 
  • Fellner, Jamie (2009). "Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States". Stanford Law & Policy Review 20 (2): 257–291. 

Conference papers[edit]

  • 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.