Not So Deep Thoughts

Race and the War on Drugs

Written by Joe Pettit, Morgan State University

Over the past few weeks, actions have been taken by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Supreme Court to reduce the sentencing disparity between those charged with crack versus power cocaine crimes.  In all of these actions, the problem of racial disparities caused by previous policies has been an important motive for change.  While these changes should be welcomed, they do nothing to change most obvious cause of racial disparities in the United States: the deadly and destructive shadow economy of illegal drugs sales.

The only way to destroy this economy and so overcome the racial inequality created by it is to end the so-called war on drugs, followed by the decriminalization and regulation of many currently illegal drugs.  Politicians and policy experts from across the political spectrum have endorsed this solution.  Most recently Senator Christopher Dodd endorsed the decriminalization of marijuana in a Democratic primary debate.

Let’s be clear that it is not hippies and criminals who favor the decriminalization and regulation of illegal drugs.  Many prosecutors, judges, police officers, and others charged with fighting our current war on drugs have provided powerful arguments for dramatic reform of current policies.  They want change because they have seen the consequences of the war.

In fact, the criminals currently involved in the illegal drug economy are the last people who want any change.  Change could put these criminals out of business almost overnight.

The government currently regulates the sale of drugs, especially prescription drugs.  In some states, governments both regulate and actually administer the sale of alcohol.  The sale of currently illegal drugs could be both regulated and administered by the government as a result of decriminalization.  Most who object to this scenario do so on the grounds that it would make dangerous and addictive drugs readily available to those who want them.

Yet, this objection fails to recognize that the drugs are already readily available to those who want them.  The difference between the two scenarios is that under the current “war” violence and death are commonplace, threatening criminals, bystanders, and law enforcement personnel, tens of thousands of men and women are sent to prison every year for nonviolent offenses, often leaving children behind, and tens of thousands more ex-offenders return to communities feeling they have few options other than to return to the sale of illegal drugs.  Finally, drug addicts currently fail to get the treatment they need and want, while being exposed to drugs made even more deadly by those who package them.

All of these consequences disproportionately affect black individuals and black neighborhoods because the forces of the illegal drug economy disproportionately affect black communities.  White people certainly use illegal drugs, but they purchase them within illegal markets that are entrenched in black neighborhoods.

Decriminalization and regulation would instantly take the profit motive out of the drug trade.  The cost and safety of government drugs would undercut products sold illegally.  This would stop the profit related violence and corruption, as well as the ability to “make a living” while risking arrest selling illegal drugs.  Government revenue raised from the sale of the drugs, along with some of the tens of billions of dollars spent every year on the war on drugs, would enable a dramatic expansion of drug treatment programs.

Some fear that individuals who would not currently become addicted to drugs would do so if there were no criminal risk attached to using them.  This might be true, but it fails to account for at least two things.  First, countless people become addicted to drugs only because of the presence of the illegal drug economy and from the poverty, family breakdown, and hopelessness created by this economy.  Yet, we somehow do not see these as unnecessary addictions.  Second, the possible tragedy of some new addictions would not compare to the actual tragedy created by the current war on drugs.

Under decriminalization and regulation it would still be possible to teach our children to “Just say no” to drugs, and we could prohibit the commercialization of these drugs, avoiding what has occurred with two other deadly drugs – alcohol and tobacco.

As long as the illegal drug economy remains entrenched, reducing a sentence for a nonviolent drug crime from 20 years to 15 years will do very little to reduce the racial disparities in our society.  We must destroy this illegal economy, and can only destroy it with the economic weapon of decriminalization and regulation.