Race and the War on Drugs

Brent Duke
Poverty & Prejudice: Paradoxes of U.S. Drug Policies
June 4, 1999



The “war on drugs” is a very interesting beast that our society has created, and as the “war” continues to gain momentum it becomes harder to decipher what its purpose is.  Every year America spends billions of dollars on the “war on drugs” because politicians win votes with the stance of being hard on drugs.  Although the rhetoric of the politicians does not include anything about unequal enforcement in black and white communities, this is the underlying issue that needs to be addressed.  While only 13 percent of those using illegal drugs are African-American (exactly their proportion in the national population), blacks constitute 35 percent of those arrested for simple possession and a staggering 74 percent of those sentenced for drug possession (Wink, 1999).  Although African Americans do not use drugs more than their white counterparts, blacks are punished disproportionately to whites.  The purpose of this paper is to examine the reasons behind this differential treatment and discuss possible solutions to the clearly racist policies put forth by our government.

The concept of the “war on drugs” was political farce based on racism from the beginning.  Nixon first declared a “war on drugs” during the 1968 campaign for the presidency because the silent majority was afraid of both hippies and blacks, both perceived to be into drugs.  Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, John Ehrilichman later said, “We knew we were lying about the health effects of marijuana.  We knew we were lying about the relationship between heroin and crime.  But this is what we were doing to win the election.  And it worked” (Wink, 1999). 



            Although the “war on drugs” began as nothing more than a campaign trick, it was a successful one.  Nixon’s success showed that politicians could be extremely successful in waging a war against the drug trade.  Over the past 20 years, $500 billion have been thrown at the drug problem without securing any reduction in the drug trade (Wink, 1999).  This huge amount of money has been spent appeasing voters, although it does not change the fact that drugs are just as readily available today as they have been anytime in the past.  In 1995, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thomas Constantine, said that drug availability of cocaine and heroin were at an all-time high (Falco, 1996).

            The problem is that most of this money is spent on the supply-side of the drug trade.  Politicians are convinced that the best solution to the drug problem is to attack drugs at the source.  This method has yet to work and is clearly not the most efficient way to decrease drug use in America.  Many recent studies indicate that treatment is the most effective way to deter drug abuse.  Some estimates claim that treatment is seven times more cost-effective than domestic law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction, and 23 times more effective than attacking drugs at their source (Wink, 1999).  But our government does not spend money on treatment.  Only one third of the federal spending on the drug war is for treatment of addicts (Rowe, 1998).  This means that as the “war on drugs” imprisons people, it does not also provide drug addicts with sufficient treatment for their problems.

The drug war began to escalate in the early 1980s and the number of people incarcerated for drug use has increased drastically over the past two decades.  In New York in 1980, a drug crime was the most serious conviction offense of 11 percent of the state’s prisoners.  By 1993, that fraction had risen to 44 percent (Dilulio, 1999).  This holds true in many other states, and is evidence that the “war on drugs” is increasing prison populations exorbitantly.  The discrepancy between the arrests and sentencing of minorities and whites for drug offenses are astonishing.  In the same New York prisons in 1997, 95 percent of prisoners whose last and most serious conviction was for a drug offense were black or Hispanic (Dilulio, 1999).  This clearly shows that the government is not fighting a color blind “war on drugs”, but is fighting a war against drugs that is inherently racist.



            Much of the disparity between the treatment of minorities and whites in the judicial system is economic.  On average, white people earn more money than blacks, and because of this many white people can afford better legal representation than blacks.  In 1997, the median income for a black family was $28,602, while the median income for a white family was $49,640.  Not only is there a huge discrepancy in earnings, but 23.6% of African American families fall below the poverty line (US Census, 1999). 

As part of my research for this paper, I interviewed a 40-year-old black man named “Stan” who has been in and out of prisons for most of this last decade for non-violent crimes.  He has had three drug convictions for small amounts of drugs found in his car.  Stan touched upon the issue of minorities being represented in courts saying, “Public defenders carry a heavy case load causing ineffective council, due mainly to lack of time for preparation.  Only a paid attorney is going to investigate your case and provide witnesses on your behalf.”  With so many African Americans falling below the poverty line, many cannot afford an attorney, leading to tremendous inequality in our judicial system.  Stan then described plea-bargaining as a “modified form of coercion.”  Many poor people accept plea-bargains because they know that they cannot win their cases in court without their own attorneys.  The district attorney threatens people with longer sentences if the case goes to trial, leaving poorer individuals with no choice but to accept the plea bargain they are offered.  Our judicial system clearly favors people who have money.  Because many minorities do not have money, our current system is biased against them.




It is not only economics that leads to the disproportionate number of blacks arrested for drugs, but there are also social problems that go much deeper than money.   Stan feels that “where the problem starts is with the police and their selective investigations, detainment, and harassment of minorities.”  This part of the problem has nothing to do with economics, but everything to do with racism police force.  Police pull over and search the cars of minorities at a much higher rate than white motorists, and cite a method known as “profiling”.  Profiling is looking at the physical and behavioral indicators that make a person seem suspicious.  The problem with profiling is that race is definitely an indicator used by the police.

Although “racial profiling” is illegal, police have always practiced profiling and never been held accountable.  Modern day profiling stems from the practices of a highway patrol officer in Florida named Bob Vogel.  In the early 1980s, Vogel pulled over vehicles because drivers gave him a bad feeling inside and simply looked like drug dealers.  Vogel confiscated many drugs and weapons using this method.  The courts decided that this ran counter to our Constitution’s promise against “unreasonable searches and seizures” (Webb, 1999), but Vogel was not willing to stop the practice he had perfected.  He found a loophole in the court’s decision, and instead of pulling over drivers for looking suspicious, Vogel began pulling over suspicious looking drivers for minor traffic violations and then searching their vehicles.

He found them by the hundreds in the thick volumes of the Florida vehicle code; rarely enforced laws against driving with burned-out license-plate lights, out-of-kilter headlights, obscured tags, and windshield cracks.  State codes bulge with such niggling prohibitions, some dating from the days of the horseless carriage (Webb, 1999). 


This was the loophole that led to the creation of Operation Pipeline, a program now encompassing 301 police commands in forty-eight states.  The obvious problems with Operation Pipeline are that many of these police searches come up with nothing and that most police officers seem to consider minorities to be suspicious looking.

            On the same Interstate 95 where Operation Pipeline originated, 75 percent of the motorists and traffic violators along one stretch of the highway were white, but 80 percent of the searches were of minorities (Cannon, 1999).  This problem is definitely not isolated to Interstate 95, but the Operation Pipeline method of racial profiling is now commonplace along nearly every highway in America.  In New Jersey, 77 percent of motorists searched on the turnpike were black or Hispanic, even though 60 percent of those stopped were white (Taylor, 1999).  90 percent of the people arrested by the CHP’s Pipeline units during the last two years have been minorities (Webb, 1999).  This phenomenon is known as “DWB”, short for “driving while black”.  These statistics clearly point to police racism, not the singling out of shady looking individuals.  Although an equal number of minorities and whites use illegal drugs, police seem to view very few whites as being suspicious enough to search.

                Even Robert L. Wilkins, a Harvard-educated African American attorney from Washington D.C., was viewed by the police as being a suspicious individual.  He was travelling with his family along Interstate 68 in Maryland and was pulled over by a state trooper.  The trooper asked if he could search the car and when Wilkins refused, the trooper set loose a drug-sniffing dog.  No drugs were found and Wilkins was “completely humiliated” (Cannon, 1999).  Wilkins received a lawsuit from the Maryland State Police for $95,000, but the problem is that as long as “racial profiling” remains legitimate, many more innocent minority families will be harassed  everyday.  Any African-American who has teenage kids, especially male kids, has “had ‘the talk’ with them, about what to do when--not if, when--they are stopped.  This is in the nature of instructions for survival” (Taylor, 1999).

Veteran California Highway Patrol sergeant, Curtis Rodriguez says, “It’s sheer numbers.  Our guys make a lot of stops.  You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.”  Out of the 34,000 searches conducted in California by the highway patrol in 1997, only 2 percent of the people searched were carrying drugs (Webb, 1999).  Not only are a very small number of the searches successful, most of “the frogs being kissed” are minorities.



            Not only are police racist in their interpretation of certain laws, but there are also many laws that are inherently racist.  One of the most blatant example of a racist law is the one stating that an individual selling five grams of crack cocaine receives the same five-year minimum penalty as a person selling 500 grams of cocaine powder (Skolnick, 1998). Economically disadvantaged individuals tend to use crack more than cocaine, while cocaine use is more prevalent amongst people in the middle and upper classes.  Because many minorities are poor, crack use is higher for minorities than whites.  Although crack is not exactly the same as cocaine, cocaine can very easily be turned into crack.  It is illogical for these two drugs to carry such significantly different sentences.

The law is prejudiced against the economically disadvantaged who use crack more, but this does not explain the difference in the number of people prosecuted for crack related offenses.  Many white people report having tried crack, but it is not very often that whites are prosecuted for the use of crack.  3.4 percent of blacks and 1.6 percent of whites report having used crack, but 83 percent of people sentenced for crack offenses are black (Skolnick, 1998).  While only two times more black people use crack than white people, over four times as many black people are sentenced for crack related offenses.  It is very clear that while the laws are racist, blacks and whites are also prosecuted unevenly.

            Another law that was written which singled out African Americans was the 1986 Schoolyard Law.  This law mandated enhanced sentences for people selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a schoolyard or 100 feet of a playground or video arcade.  A defendant could receive a 20 year sentence in federal court for an offense that would bring only a six month term in state court (Weinstein, 1991).  While the law itself does not seem racist, police enforcement of the law was racist.  The police concentrated their enforcement more heavily around schools, playgrounds and arcades in minority neighborhoods, but made no efforts to enforce the new law in white neighborhoods.  This became quite apparent, when 89 of the 93 people prosecuted under the law in 1988 and 1989 were black and Latino (Weinstein, 1991).  This law was so obviously enforced along racial lines that in 1989 the law was brought before federal judges for review.  The four judges noticed that most of the cases filed were in minority neighborhoods.  They did not fully understand why there were no cases involving white defendants since it was “common knowledge that there was considerable drug dealing in some white neighborhoods and in some schools with predominantly white student bodies” (Weinstein, 1991).

            Because there was no effort by police to enforce this law near schools, playgrounds, and arcades in white neighborhoods, there were virtually no arrests of whites made where the strict punishments of this law were applicable.  On the few occasions when whites were arrested and could have been prosecuted under the federal law, the individuals were very rarely put up for federal prosecution.  Seven whites were arrested during this same period in 1988 and 1989, but none of these individuals was referred for federal prosecution (Weinstein, 1991).  This is a clear example of a double standard in our society that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with racism.

            A problem with this unfair treatment of blacks in the “drug war” is that African Americans become alienated. 

When significant sectors of a community view the system as unjust, law enforcement is compromised…people are less willing to cooperate with the system, whether by offering leads to police officers, testifying as witnesses for the prosecution or entering guilty verdicts as jurors (Cole, 1999).


The unintended consequence of the unfair treatment of African Americans by the police is that our criminal justice system does not work properly.  Without the full cooperation of all citizens, the American system of justice does not work.




            It is time for our politicians to take a look at our government’s drug policies and create laws that are equal for all citizens, although fair laws cannot create fair enforcement and fair prosecution.  In order for drug laws to actually be equal, the enforcement by the police must be the same in both black and white neighborhoods.  And the laws still will not be equal unless prosecutors stop looking at economics and race before carrying out investigations, but look at the severity of crimes.  Until our government can reach equality in enforcement of drug laws, two serious proposals that should be looked into are decriminalization or legalization. 

There are many arguments for and against legalization, and it is difficult to make an informed decision with so much of the data on the topic being speculative.   It is impossible to know the exact social and economic impact of drug legalization, but many have extrapolated data on crime and other statistics.  The problem with the data extrapolated is that there are a lot of contradictions.  Some argue that legalization would cause a decrease in crime.  In one journal it is written that “drug prohibition promotes violence…The evidence that drug consumption induces violence, however, is weak” (Miron and Zwiebel, 1995).  Some feel that violence would increase with the legalization of drugs.  Many of these same individuals believe that legalization would also decrease the productivity in our society.  Representative Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, says that the Drug Enforcement Administration “estimates drug legalization would cost society between $140 billion and $210 billion a year in lost productivity and job-related accidents” (McCollum, 1998).  But there have also been many studies done that counter this belief.  Using wages as a rough estimate of productivity, one can assume that less productive members of society will earn lower wages.  But according to a study done by Gill and Michaels in 1990, drug use (at least once in the prior year) appears to increase wages by about seven percent and hard drug use increases wages by as much as 20 percent (Niskanen 237).  While this might be surprising, it is consistent with a study conducted by Berger and Leigh in 1988, finding that alcohol consumption up through two drinks a day also appears to increase wages (Niskanen).

                Although the impact of legalization might be unclear, what is clear is that our current method of drug enforcement does not work and is very racist.  There is a tremendous discrepancy between the drug enforcement in white and black communities. If drugs are not legalized, drug laws should be enforced as loosely in black America as they are enforced in white America.  In many white communities drug use has basically been decriminalized, with very white few people being arrested for simple drug possession.  A more extreme example of this is a policy known as the Dutch Model.  This policy continues to “criminalize the supply of drugs while reducing or eliminating the penalties against possession and use” (Miron and Zwiebel, 1995).  This is a much better policy than to continue filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders.

            Although the idea of decriminalization might seem absurd, upon taking a look at the danger of illegal drugs, the notion of decriminalization is much more reasonable.  Alcohol and tobacco combine to kill 530,000 people every year.  Heroin, morphine, marijuana and cocaine combine to cause 8,500 deaths per year (King, 1999).  Although the deaths from illegal drugs would probably increase with decriminalization, it is impossible to estimate how significant this increase would be.  This is mainly because it is impossible to estimate how much the use of illegal drugs would increase.  It does not seem as though drug use should increase dramatically because most people can already get drugs easily.  But, the huge decrease in the price of drugs might cause a significant increase in the demand for drugs.  Estimates indicate that cocaine currently sells for at least 20 times its free market price (Miron and Zwiebel, 1995).  Another issue is the stigma associated with illegal drugs and the people who do not use drugs solely because they are illegal.  Upon legalization these individuals would begin to use drugs.  There is no way to actually come up with data on decriminalization, because it is a situation that modern American society has never dealt with.




            Because legalization would be extremely unpredictable, decriminalization seems to be the best immediate solution.  Although there may be some negative externalities associated with decriminalization, they cannot be worse than what is happening with our current drug laws.  With all of the crimes that have already been committed against minorities throughout the racist history of America, our society is now alienating minorities on the issue of drugs.  Until a law is applied equally to blacks and whites, the law should not exist at all.  It is not fair to have different sets of drug laws for whites and blacks.  Not only is this incredibly unfair, it is also a waste of tax dollars.  “Our annual layout for corrections is more than $35 billion, curving steadily upward even as crime rates drop” (King, 1999).  Even as crime is decreasing, more money must be spent on prisons for drug offenders, most of whom are minorities.  It is in my opinion that all Americans should live under the same laws, and this is clearly not happening.  I believe that our society should be forced to take a look into the mirror and see exactly what we have become, and my guess is that most of us would be shocked.











































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