Drug Policy

The Drug War in Black and White

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In yesterday's column, based on a recent report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, I noted how racially skewed the Giuliani-Bloomberg anti-pot crusade has been. Two studies published this week highlight the racially disproportionate impact of the war on drugs generally. Between 1980 and 2003, the Sentencing Project reports, the rate of drug arrests rose by 70 percent among whites and 225 percent among blacks. Looking at data for 34 states, Human Rights Watch finds that "a black man is 11.8 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, and a black woman is 4.8 times more likely than a white woman."

Drug warriors presumably would argue that such disparities reflect blacks' greater propensity to be involved in the illegal drug trade. Human Rights Watch is a bit evasive on that point. "Although whites commit more drug offenses," it says, "African Americans are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges at much higher rates." Or as the group's senior counsel, Jamie Fellner (who wrote the report), puts it, "Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black."

It's true that blacks and whites are about equally likely to use illegal drugs. Whites, being the majority, therefore commit "more drug offenses" and account for "most drug offenders." This comparison is directly relevant in evaluating the fairness of New York City's crackdown on pot smokers: As I noted in my column, blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in New York even though they are no more likely to be pot smokers (and therefore, presumably, no more likely to be carrying small quantities of marijuana in public). But comparable drug use rates do not mean that blacks and whites are equally likely to commit the sort of drug offenses for which people tend to go to prison. For a variety of reasons, including a lack of appealing economic alternatives in inner-city neighborhoods, blacks are disproportionately represented among the low-level drug dealers who are most conspicuous and easiest to catch. That's the main reason they're disproportionately represented among drug offenders who get arrested and go to prison.

If, instead of going after street dealers, police raided homes at random throughout the country, the drug offenders (including users) they nabbed would be more representative of the general population. Needless to say, this is not a change in strategy anyone should be advocating for the sake of racial justice. As Fellner says, "The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders."

In a 2006 review of Nate Blakeslee's book about the Tulia, Texas, drug bust scandal, I argued that the drug war's racial impact is just one aspect of a broader injustice.

Addendum: Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance points out that a 2000 Human Rights Watch report cited data on the prevalence of drug dealing among blacks vs. whites:

During the period 1991-1993, SAMHSA [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] included questions about drug selling in the annual NHSDA [National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which has since been replaced by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health]. Although the responses are best seen as a rough approximation of drug selling activity, they are nonetheless highly suggestive. On average over the three-year period, blacks were 16 percent of admitted sellers and whites were 82 percent.

So it may well be that whites (currently about 80 percent* of the U.S. population) are just as likely to sell drugs as blacks (about 13 percent of the population) yet much less likely to be caught doing it, perhaps because they are less likely to do it frequently (the survey question asked whether  the respondents had sold drugs at all in the previous year), less likely to do it in public, and/or less likely to do it in neighborhoods with a heavy police presence.

[*This figure includes Hispanics who do not identify themselves as black or African American.]

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  1. Actually, as I recall, a study found drug use/trafficking rates are similar for all races. The difference is the propensity to be involved in open-air drug markets. Asians were lowest, followed by whites, then Hispanics, then blacks, iirc.

  2. You only get caught for using or possession if you are on the police radar or are of a type that the police are likely to harass. Put me, a 37 year old white guy, in a business suit on the streets of New York and I will walk around with a gram of cocaine in my wallet and the chances of me getting caught are near zero. Make me a dirty looking homeless guy or a young black man dressed in fashionable urban clothes and my chances of getting caught go up a lot. Further, put me in a car that has expired tags or let me get drunk and drive or get into an altercation with someone or have a fist fight with my wife where she calls the police and my chances of getting caught go to near 100%.

    If you watched the news, you would think only poor people do drugs in this country. That is crap. Those Columbian cocaine cartels aren’t making billions off of people’s welfare checks. I doubt that poor people do any more drugs than middle and upper class people do. In fact I bet they do less. The difference is that middle and upper class have much fewer interactions with police and are therefore much less likely to get caught.

  3. I wonder how black libertarians feel about this. I think i’ll call them. All three.

  4. I wonder how black libertarians feel about this. I think i’ll call them. All two.

    Fixed. Number 3 was just shot in a no knock raid.

  5. I must be a bad libertarian. Because I don’t even know where to buy pot outside of a rock concert. My whitiness is showing through.

  6. Wait, has anyone notified Heather MacDonald?

    Anon

  7. So how long can this Drug War insanity go on before people start to notice how insane it is?

  8. If the War on Drugs survived the Baby Boomers, the generation that grew up on pot and all sorts of other illicit substances, and subsequently thrived under their watch, this war will survive forever.

  9. If the War on Drugs survived the Baby Boomers, the generation that grew up on pot and all sorts of other illicit substances, and subsequently thrived under their watch, this war will survive forever.

    Its doing more than surviving. If you look at the bigger picture (smoking bans, trans fat bans) there’s an overall movement towards removing freedom of choice in the name of public safety. When I look at our country, I see a future of comparatively homogenous human drones that do not make choices about what they eat & do.

  10. The drug war will go on forever as long as it only effects poor people. As I said above, you can use drugs pretty much with impunity in this country as long as you stay out of trouble, live in a good neighborhood, and look the part. You want to end the drug war, get the cops to launch a campaign against suburban drug use. Instead of busting black kids on the streets of New York for pot possession go into the high end high schools in Long Island and Jersey and bust those kids and give them real prison time to. Instead of doing no knock raids of houses in NE Atlanta, do no knock raids of downtown law firms. Do some of that and you would see the drug war end and end fast.

  11. “” I see a future of comparatively homogenous human drones that do not make choices about what they eat & do.”””

    Victory Gin for everyone!!

  12. man, city journal is such a piece o’ shit rag.

  13. I agree John. It’s easy not to care when it doesn’t affect you. Rush Limbaugh is a great example. He spoke highly of prosecuting people for drugs and zero tolerance, till they knocked on his door.

  14. Dhex,

    That city journal piece never mentions drugs. McDonald just points out the inconvienent fact that blacks commit an alarming percentage of real crimes like assault, murder and robbery. The article has nothing to do with the drug war.

  15. TrickyVic,

    I don’t recall Rush ever saying much about the drug war. He gets tagged for that but I have never seen any actual quote or link showing where he did. But he is a good example. He poped vicodins until he went deaf and never had any trouble with the cops. Had he not been so well known I am not sure he ever would have had any issues with the cops. If you are wealthy and not just a flat out degenerate addict, the drug war is as remote to you as the war in Iraq; it is just something you read about in the newspapers.

  16. Another example was Bush’s first drug czar. The guy resigned after a few months on the job. His daughter (I think) was busted for Heroin. He said he realized that war on drugs was a war on our families, so he resigned.

  17. Instead of busting black kids on the streets of New York for pot possession go into the high end high schools in Long Island and Jersey and bust those kids and give them real prison time to. Instead of doing no knock raids of houses in NE Atlanta, do no knock raids of downtown law firms.

    John is correct. It’s one thing for Suburban Mommy to say “drugs are bad, mm-kay” and shake her head when some black people get sent to jail out of her sight. It’s entirely another if one of her progeny is facing jail time; then it’s “they’re just kids/we all did it/JAIL??? FOR WEED???/etc.”

    The drug war is massively useful to the cops. They purposefully tend not to harass middle-class white people for this very reason–blowback that would result in their losing power.

  18. “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families. Drug use destroys societies. Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. And the laws are good because we know what happens to people in societies and neighborhoods, which become consumed by them. And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.

    What this says to me is that too many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales. Too many whites are getting away with trafficking in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out of jail because we’re not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too.

    …We are becoming too tolerant as a society, folks, especially of crime, in too many parts of the country…. This country certainly appears to be tolerant, forgive and forget. I mean, you know as well as I do, you go out and commit the worst murder in the world and you just say you’re sorry, people go, “Oh, OK. A little contrition.”… People say, “I feel better. He said he’s sorry for it.” We’re becoming too tolerant, folks.

    –Rush Limbaugh TV show (10/5/95)””

  19. Another example was Bush’s first drug czar. The guy resigned after a few months on the job. His daughter (I think) was busted for Heroin. He said he realized that war on drugs was a war on our families, so he resigned.

    Was that the guy who looked like Michael Douglas?

  20. “””This country certainly appears to be tolerant, forgive and forget. I mean, you know as well as I do, you go out and commit the worst murder in the world and you just say you’re sorry, people go, “Oh, OK. A little contrition.”… People say, “I feel better. He said he’s sorry for it.” We’re becoming too tolerant, folks.”””

    I just wanted to repeat that part, since that exactly what Rush wanted to benefit from when they knocked on his door.

  21. If, instead of going after street dealers, police raided homes at random throughout the country

    Isn’t that what they’re doing now?

    http://www.cato.org/raidmap

  22. The drug war was conceived by racists, so we should not be surprised that it has dispropotional effcts on minorities. Drug warriors, if not racist, support a policy that has undeniable racist results.

    I hate playing the race card in a debate like a Detroit mayor, but with the War on Drugs Minorities I find myself, more and more, pointing out just what this policy does to the black and hispanic communities, and asking “Why do you hate these people”?

    I stay out of cop bars.

  23. Just to further comment on Rush Limbaugh, the reason he rarely discusses the WOD on his show is that he supports it, as TrickyVic’s post’s above show. What’s to discuss if you support the status quo?

    For most Dems a Repubs alike, the thought of legalizing drugs is akin to legalizing theft, murder and rape. A crime is a crime, don’t ya know…..

  24. “Just to further comment on Rush Limbaugh, the reason he rarely discusses the WOD on his show is that he supports it,”

    I heard Rush talk about the WOD after a libertarian called in & said drugs should be legalized, Rush responded that if drugs were legal everyone would have a drug problem, I immediately knew that meant Rush would have a drug problem.

  25. man, city journal is such a piece o’ shit rag.

    The local policy stuff is interesting – Nicole Gelinas in particular. The rest is National-Review-style neo-conservatism and paternalism.

  26. Oh god thats true, just think of all the frat boys…

  27. Whites are 80% of the population? What planet are YOU on???

  28. Drugs will be legalized when people stop voting for Democrats and Republicans. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that.

  29. I think the person TrickyVic might be refering to (rather than the Micheal Douglas character) is Col. James Hiett, who was the top US military offical in charge of counternarcotics in Bogota.

    His wife was busted for sending herion (and cocaine i think) to the US via diplomatic post. More here:

    http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2000/07/15/hiett/index.html

    Just happened to recently read about this in “Cult of Pharmacology” which I bought after reading a reveiw of it on reason.com. Good book.

    https://www.reason.com/news/show/124980.html

  30. Aren’t blacks more likeley to be arrested in non-drug related crimes as well, making it more likeley that they will have drugs found on them as well? Whereas whites might be carrying drugs at the same rate but getting arrested less frequently and thus having less of a chance of having drugs found during an arrest

  31. The racial divide in drug arrests is interesting, but it is equally unjust for a white or black person to go to jail for a drug “crime.”

  32. The big missing piece is prior record. All victim surveys show that about half of all crime is committed by 13% of the population-blacks. Not happy to say it, but it is true.

    As we know, poverty causes crime. Just look at the Great Depression when poverty was the rule and blacks were discriminated against at a level even the blacks of the 1960s didn’t experience. That is THe explanation for the black crime wave of the 1920s and 1930s.

    Uh…wait…that last “fact” didn’t happen. Blacks and the poor didn’t go on a rampage of crime during the GD. Hmm…need to think this over so my facts match the theory.

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