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« "Is This America?" | Main | African-American U.S. Senators »

Uneven Drug Policy- 30 Years

Recent events in history (as well as distant events) shape our present and our future.  They have a way of shaping how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.

Since the 1980s (over the past 30 or more years) no single issue has struck at the heart of the struggles in Black America quite the way the War on Drugs has.  It doesn’t matter whether you are one of the 89 - 90% of black people who do not use illegal drugs or whether you do have experience with them, this issue has most likely impacted your views in some way. 

Let me first reiterate that approximately 90% of black, white and Hispanic people do not use drugs.  This has been the case for decades—stretching back into the 1980s.

When you take a look the population of the United States it has been over 300,000,000 for the last ten years and it now stands at about 321,000,000 people. 

If you just used 300,000,000 as a base, there are about 21,000,000 white people in the United States who use illicit drugs and about 4,000,000 African Americans who do.  This includes marijuana.  

Estimates of current drug use from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.

Given the media coverage and War on Drugs over the past 30 years, you might think that drug dealing and crack cocaine are what drives drug abuse violations in America, but the data show something different. 

According to the FBI’s 2014 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program 83.1% of ALL drug abuse arrests reported to them were for possession (not sales), and of that, 39.7% were for possession of marijuana. 

When you look at drug sentencing laws, they have largely been focused in specific areas and have been unfair.

In 1980 there were abut 40,000 people in jail for drug offenses—in 2009 there were more people in jail for drug-related violations than were in jail for all offenses thirty years earlier (Mauer-Sentencing Project).

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws required that someone who possessed 5 grams of crack cocaine receive five years of minimum jail time, while someone who had 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive that same sentence.

5 grams vs. 500 grams = a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity

In 2010 the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine to an 18-to-1 disparity, now 28 grams of crack cocaine and still 500 grams of powder cocaine carry a five-year (mandatory) sentence under the newest federal trafficking law.

The law also eliminated the first-time mandatory minimum penalty for simple possession of crack cocaine.  These policies have led to different sentences, over the years, for people convicted of essentially doing the same crime.

United States Sentencing Commission, August 2015 (federal criminal justice system).

Note that in 2005 the average sentence imposed on cocaine traffickers was 83 months and the average sentence of crack cocaine traffickers was 124 months--a difference of 3.4 years.  In 2013 the difference was 17 months.  Given the fact that it takes much less crack cocaine than powder cocaine to carry the same sentence, the justice system still isn't fair.

This uneven focus and unequal approach to drugs has contributed to a criminalization of black people to the point where many feel subjected to suspicion and observation wherever they go--“stop and frisk” procedures, driving and traffic stops (see Justice Department Ferguson Report for an example), etc.

Former Representative, and now Senator, Tim Scott from South Carolina described how he was stopped seven times in one year by law enforcement officers as an elected official in the United States.

These trends are disturbing, no matter who is in the White House or the Capitol, we must make sure that our children…our men and women…are not subjected to sentencing laws that are unfair, that medical treatment and prevention strategies are directed toward ALL of those who suffer from drug addiction and that our children are not demonized before they even finish school.

Despite the fact that are many more millions of caucasian Americans who use drugs than there are African Americans who do, African-American men made up 37% of the men who were in prison in state and federal prisons at the end of 2014 and they are regularly put forward as the "face" of drug abuse in America.

According to the Sentencing Project, over 6.1 million people are estimated to be disenfranchised due to felony convictions.  For African-Americans in the states of Florida (21%), Kentucky (26%), Tennessee (21%) and Virginia (22%) 1 in 5 are disenfranchised and 7.4% are estimated to be so throughout the country.  Eighteen states deny voting rights to people who are currently in prison, on parole or probation.  

Another twelve states deny those rights to people who are in prison, on parole or probation AND to some or all of those who have completed their sentences.  

Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people who are in prison to vote.

Consider this...

When it comes to incarceration, if you add in Hispanic-American men, black and Hispanic-American men made up 58.9%—almost 60% of all of the men who were imprisoned in the United States at the end of 2014.

Bureau of Justice Statics Prisoners in 2104. 


Copyright 2016 Red and Black Ink, LLC



CNN. Black senator: I was stopped 7 times by police. July 13, 2016.


Department of Justice.  Federal Bureau of Investigation.  2014 Crime in the United States.  https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/persons-arrested/main

Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Trafficking Penalties.  https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ftp3.shtml

Mauer, Marc.  Testimony of Executive Director, The Sentencing Project, May 21, 2009. 

Uggen, Christopher. Larson, Ryan. Shannon, Sarah.  6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016.  Sentencing Project.  Accessed October 2016. http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/6-million-lost-voters-state-level-estimates-felony-disenfranchisement-2016/

U.S. Census Quick Facts.  Accessed October 31, 2016. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST040215/00

U.S. Department of Justice.  Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Prisoners in 2014.Imprisonment rate of sentenced state and federal prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, by demographic characteristics, December 31, 2014.  https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14.pdf

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.  Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:  Summary of National Findings.     

United States Sentencing Commission. Impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 2015)