Tuesday, March 03, 2009


America’s war on drugs and structural racism

by Larry Geller

Today’s Democracy Now includes two segments on drug policy: the first is on New York State’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws (“draconian” is the adjective most appropriately used when referring to them), and the second confronts the built-in, or structural, racism that’s part and parcel of the US “war on drugs.”

If you see this in time, the program will air tonight (Tuesday) on Oahu at 10 p.m. on channel 56. If not, a transcript, video and audio are available from the website.

Here are snippets from the second segment.

Guests are Jamie Fellner, Senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and Deborah Small, executive director of Break the Chains. The study they refer to can be found here, and copies can be downloaded.

Decades of Disparity: New Study Underscores Severity of Racial Bias in Drug-Related Law Enforcement

A new study underscores the severity of racial bias in drug-related law enforcement. According to Human Rights Watch, African Americans were arrested as much as five-and-a-half times as whites on drug charges every year for the past three decades. The trend dates back to 1980, the earliest date with complete data.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of who are the drug users and sellers, what is the proportion?

JAMIE FELLNER: Blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at about the same rate. They use drugs and they sell drugs at about the same rate. Since there are six-and-a-half times as many whites in this country, you would think there would be then proportionally six-and-a-half times as many whites being arrested on drug charges.

But that’s not the case, because the police aren’t going into white homes, white bars, white neighborhoods, white offices to make drug arrests. They’re going into black neighborhoods. And if you go into black neighborhoods, that’s where you’ll be arresting black people. And I don’t think that’s—I mean, I hate to say it, but it’s not coincidental.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JAMIE FELLNER: I think that there is a deliberate use of drug laws to—I think that there’s something in this country which can be called structural racism, which doesn’t require any individual policeperson or prosecutor or judge or anyone else to have malign intent. Nevertheless, there is what’s called a conspiracy of forces, of assumptions, of attitudes, of behaviors, which end up with the result that blacks get the short end of the stick.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Small, let’s talk about this nationally, and then we’ll come back to this report—internationally. How do our drug laws compare to others?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, America, the United States, has among the harshest drug sentencing laws in the world. I just recently returned from a major drug law conference in New Zealand, which has a very high incarceration rate—it’s about the fifth highest in the world—and yet, they consider seven years to be a really stiff sentence, a harsh sentence, for any violation, a violent crime, including a drug crime. And when I told them that drug offenders routinely get sentences of ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, they were astounded, because most people around the world would never hand out the kind of sentences that we routinely give for drug-related offenses.

The segment also mentions the US government’s fierce opposition to harm reduction. What’s harm reduction?

And harm reduction basically is a set of strategies that’s designed to help reduce the harms associated with drug use to both individuals and communities. So, needle exchange and overdose preventions are examples of harm reduction programs.

Both this program and the report it is based on would be an accessible introduction to anyone interested in policy issues around prisons, the drug war, and institutional racism in America. Or for anyone who thinks that racism ended in this country with a stroke of Lincoln’s pen or with Barack Obama’s election as president.



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