The Drug War in Black and White


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.]