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The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs
April 16, 2009 8:11 AM   Subscribe

The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs. The Sentencing Project has just released a report (pdf) finding that, for the first time in 20 years, the number of Black Americans in state prison for drug offenses has fallen. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of White drug offenders in state prisons rose about 43 percent, while the number of Black offenders declined by 22 percent. One cause may be a rise in the use of drug courts, which are locally administered programs that divert offenders into treatment rather than incarceration. The Sentencing Project has a recent report (pdf) on this issue as well.
posted by lunit (32 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Hmmm. Certainly happy that the number of black convicts has fallen. But the number of white convicts rising? That's hardly good news. How would the drug courts have had a hand in that?
posted by Afroblanco at 8:13 AM on April 16, 2009

Afroblanco: "the number of white convicts rising? That's hardly good news. How would the drug courts have had a hand in that?"

The Prison-Industrial Complex - like any other enterprise - needs to keep growing in order to survive. If imprisoning blacks is now a "mature industry", they have no choice but to start imprisoning whites as well.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:15 AM on April 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

The explanation I've heard for the racial shift is that the focus of a lot of drug enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s was on crack cocaine, which was widely perceived to be more dangerous than other drugs, both in its use and in its effects on communities. However, in the last 10 years the focus has shifted to meth--which is primarily manufactured and used in rural white areas.

Kai Wright has a pretty interesting summary of some other potential underlying dynamics here.
posted by iminurmefi at 8:28 AM on April 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

But the number of white convicts rising?

Stuff White People Don't Like.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:30 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

on the one hand, i guess this means that the law are getting applied fairly - that's a good thing.

on the otherhand, draconian drug laws still suck. maybe, now that white people are getting locked, up the country will wake up to the fact that "war on drugs" is untenable.

yes, i'm always looking for that silver lining....
posted by askmehow at 8:50 AM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

From the first PDF:
First, the number of people serving prison time for a drug offense is virtually unchanged, increasing by less than 1% over the six-year time frame. While this may not appear dramatic, it needs to be considered in the context of the 1200% growth in the state prison population for drug offenses from 1980 to 1999.
To place some perspective on that change, the number of people incarcerated for a drug offense is now greater than the number incarcerated for all offenses in 1980.
Also, the incarceration rate for Latinos/hispanics didn't change much in federal prisons for drug offenses from 1999-2005 (which I mention because I was wondering why it hadn't been mentioned).
posted by aniola at 8:57 AM on April 16, 2009

Two words:

Crystal meth.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:01 AM on April 16, 2009

> which is primarily manufactured and used in rural white areas.

So is crack in the most part. And it is not just a case of targeting, there was (is) a minimum sentence for 5 years if you had 5 grams of crack (but 50 grams of cocaine). And they let the cops arrest people on a cumulative amount, so an officer could keep buying from a person until they got 5 grams, and then made the arrest. A lot of kids trying to score a few extra bucks on the side because they knew a guy got picked up that way. And no, they wouldn't be surprised that a 30 something white guy would be asking them if they could get them some crack, because that was who the primary buyers were all the time.

And since you needed a lot more coke to get busted (even though you exponentially larger amounts of crack from coke), most dealers moved to moving coke and making crack at the last minute possible. The legislation was tied up from the beginning in part because Coke was scene as a party drug of rich white people, and Crack was a poor urban drug for black people.

What appears to have kicked this off mostly was the death of Len Bias, which was at first associated with crack, until proven otherwise. That didn't change the legislation, but in a country where crack was the new boogieman (or more specifically, the black man high on crack), no elected politician would risk being labeled soft on drugs.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:03 AM on April 16, 2009

on the otherhand, draconian drug laws still suck. maybe, now that white people are getting locked, up the country will wake up to the fact that "war on drugs" is untenable.

yeah, if there's one thing Washington politicians are famous for, it's falling over themselves to protect the interests of poor, rural white people. Let's face it, there aren't a lot of Boston bluebloods with a meth lab at their summer place on the Cape.

The "it's about class, not race" distinction is an old one, but that doesn't make it any less true.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:04 AM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

iminurmefi: So, Crack = black drug, and Meth = white drug. So, it wasn't our law enforcement being racist - it was the drugs being racist!
posted by jabberjaw at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2009

Keep in mind that these are percentages, so it makes sense to me that if one percentage gets lower (black offenders) then the other must rise (white offenders). The pie is still 100%.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2009

At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge make up more than half of all inmates while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. (link)

Meanwhile, tucked into a bit of fluff reporting, CNN says that this bozo served less than five years for first degree murder.
posted by exogenous at 9:19 AM on April 16, 2009

A huge part of the change was deliberate, changing the sentencing guidelines on crack vs. cocaine. The change to the sentencing guidelines was done specifically because the disproportionate effect on blacks. In fact, when the laws were changed it meant the release of thousands of people who had been serving long crack-related sentences.

It would be interesting to see if the absolute numbers of white offenders has gone up, or if the number of prisoners in total has gone down, with most of the reduction due to crack-related offenses.
posted by delmoi at 9:23 AM on April 16, 2009

> So, Crack = black drug, and Meth = white drug

Actually, even that is wrong, this study has it while as a group, .7% of african americans are using crack, .2% of whites are. But just looking at percentages is misleading. .7% of blacks = 172,000 people vs .2% of whites = 238,000. So are the article summarizes: 49.9% of ALL crack users were white. So if the law was actually being enforced effectively, your incarceration rates would reflect that.

If anything, the enforcement trends reflect the stereotypes of drugs, which are prejudices, which are racist. And too many people make too much money off of it otherwise to actually look at actual research that demonstrates something contrary to "gut intuition."

Meth will always be characterized as a white, poor rural drug because that is how it was first introduced to the mainstream, no matter who ends up being the statistical primary users.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:26 AM on April 16, 2009 [6 favorites]

so maybe when they start locking up the middle class professional people for a little bit of weed (medical or recreational) the house of cards will come falling down. regardless, i think its inevitable. our society can't afford to create criminals, pay to keep them locked up and continue to lower taxes.... CAN WE!? (in the john stossel voice)
posted by askmehow at 9:29 AM on April 16, 2009

iminurmefi: So, Crack = black drug, and Meth = white drug. So, it wasn't our law enforcement being racist - it was the drugs being racist!

That's because people who use drugs see the drugs that they use as no big deal, while the drugs others use (especially poor people) are horrible. Meth is associated with "trailer trash" and since most people don't see themselves that way, it's easy to demonize. It was the same with crack and even with Marijuana in the 1960s. Weed was seen as a "hippie" drug, which is why Nixon wanted it banned. To get back at the hippies, who he hated.

Alcohol is a much worse drug then marijuana, but since everyone is familiar with what it does, it's seen as harmless. Now that more and more people have smoked marijuana and are familiar with it, it's becoming more and more likely to be legalized (this is mainly due to pre-boomers dying off)
posted by delmoi at 9:32 AM on April 16, 2009

I think the rates of incarceration have a lot less to do with who is using the drugs than who is manufacturing, distributing and selling it. Particularly at the street level where most busts are made.

And that has shifted as meth has become more prevalent: it used to be a biker thing, then it was a widespread locals things with lots of little labs. Nowadays they've cracked down on materials and the major producers and distributors in CA, which is the motherlode for meth, are supposedly what the press calls "Mexican gangs". There are still a ton of rural and suburban white guys making and distributing it though.

For the average small police department it's a shitload easier to bust the guy making it in his backyard or selling to his buddies though because most small scale meth producers and distributors aren't exactly discreet. I don't use drugs but I do live in an areas with a HUGE meth problem and I could walk you down my upscale suburban street and point out 3 or 4 houses where you could go to "party". If I can do that you sure as hell know the local police can.
posted by fshgrl at 9:42 AM on April 16, 2009

It would be interesting to see if the absolute numbers of white offenders has gone up, or if the number of prisoners in total has gone down, with most of the reduction due to crack-related offenses.

Interesting and easy, if you click the link.
posted by DU at 9:48 AM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

The racial dynamics of war on drugs in are incredibly complicated, but I figured it was worth point out that this line, from the Washington Post article:

The war on drugs began in 1986, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to combat violence associated with the crack cocaine trade.

is pretty much completely wrong.

The phrase "War on Drugs" dates to the Nixon administration, when the primary concerns were heroin(because of so many US soldiers being addicted to it) and marijuana. The Nixon administration, although it ignored suggestions to legalize marijuana, did a lot in the right direction in terms of supporting treatment programs for heroin addicts. Then in the late 70s, the focus shifted from heroin to marijuana, under pressure from parent's groups, who were worried about their children's use of marijuana. At this time, the War on Drugs wasn't racialized in the way we think of it now, it wasn't about punishing black people for doing "black" drugs, it was about protecting white children from white drugs. This isn't to say that punishing blacks for doing black drugs isn't what the drug war is about now, but to see everything from the perspective of "the war on drugs start in 1986 as a war on crack" misses a lot of the history(which predates the Nixon administration by a fair bit as well).

I'm also not too optimistic for this shift to mean a shift in attitudes toward drugs. Middle class white people aren't going to have much sympathy for poor white meth addicts just because they're white.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:25 AM on April 16, 2009

So, Crack = black drug, and Meth = white drug. So, it wasn't our law enforcement being racist - it was the drugs being racist!

jabberjaw, I can't tell what your point is. The decline in crack-related arrests, which has mostly been concentrated in black urban areas (whether that is where those drugs are predominately used or because that's where enforcement is heaviest isn't totally clear), is mentioned in the Sentencing Project report as a factor in the decline. Similarly, a few pages later it goes through how meth--which has seen stepped-up enforcement, particularly in Midwest and Western states, and particularly in rural areas, all of which have heavily white populations--is probably a factor in the increased proportion of whites being arrested for drugs. The data isn't tracked well enough for them to attribute exactly how much this is responsible for the shift, but it's certainly not just me pulling stuff out of my ass here.

I would think it's unsurprising to assert that while people of all races have about the same propensity to use illegal drugs, the patterns of which drugs you use are probably heavily influenced by your peer group, which is very dependent upon geography and race (what with our high levels of segregation even today). To say that drug policy has had a disproportionate effect on black people because policymakers have chosen to levy far heavier penalties on drugs that are more likely to be used by black people doesn't deny that the drug war has had a racist outcome, nor claim that it's black people's fault somehow.

I mean, while I don't doubt that individuals with racist beliefs are a part of why the drug wars have played out like they have, I think there's a bigger story here, about the way that certain drugs get demonized as *especially* dangerous and destructive to communities. (And maybe they are, although we've certainly seen a major reversal in the conventional wisdom about crack.) Having lived in the Midwest for the most of the first half of this decade, the parallels between the media circus around Len Bias' death--which touched off the whole sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack--and the media breathlessness around meth labs has been notable. There's been countless articles and 5pm newscasts about how meth is this uniquely dangerous drug, much worse than any other--a drug that literally rips communities apart, and kills defenseless children when their parents' meth labs explode (please note the parallel here to the concern for crack babies in the 1980s). This has created an appetite for communities, either local or state, to start putting a bunch of money into catching meth producers and users. I would imagine that's at least part of why we're seeing a shift on the state level but not the federal level, where meth panic seems much less present.

I'm curious about the ultimate causes of why certain drugs are seen as especially dangerous. I think delmoi gets to part of it--the belief that anything I use can't be that dangerous, while anything unfamiliar used by Other People (and note that here is where we can start to see the seeds of racist policy being planted) is much more likely to be Really Bad Shit that Must Be Stopped.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:50 AM on April 16, 2009

The phrase "War on Drugs" dates to the Nixon administration, when the primary concerns were heroin(because of so many US soldiers being addicted to it) and marijuana.

So, let me get this straight: Win a war, impose draconian terms on the losers (Versailles, etc). Lose a war (Vietnam, where all these soldiers got addicted), impose draconian laws on your own country.

Sounds consistent to me.
posted by qvantamon at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2009

The Wire has convinced me I have nothing meaningful to say about this subject.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:30 AM on April 16, 2009

I think its worth mentioning that, while drug courts are generally quite successful, they're expensive in both time and money. I think this suggests that a lot of societal issues can be solved if you get enough smart people in a room deciding how to do it. However, more often than not, its going to be expensive.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:44 AM on April 16, 2009

The article is part wishful thinking, half half-assed deception.
posted by karmiolz at 11:52 AM on April 16, 2009

according to interviews conducted in the nation's 14,500 state prisons and 3,700 federal prisons.

Jesus Christ that's a lot of prisons. WTF is wrong with this country?

"The Prison-Industrial Complex - like any other enterprise - needs to keep growing in order to survive . . . "

When can we start the revolution? I'm sober and I'm 100% for legalization.
posted by eggman at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2009


As a (non-contributing and rarely present) member of a group trying to get medical marijuana legislation debated by my state legislature (we don't hold any hope it'll ever be PASSED -- it'd be enough for us to just get a bill out of committee and debated on the floor) I'm acquainted with the guy who started the first drug court program in my state. He's told me that his whole goal was to keep non-violent misdemeanor drug offenders out of jail, but that the way the municipalities have implemented the program strikes him as counter-productive. I've also, um, attended the drug court's mandatory brainwashing programs in lieu of doing jail time for marijuana possession. Actually, I got both jail time AND drug court, with the stipulation that I complete drug court program or do more jail time.

I would have much preferred to do the extra jail time. Ninety days in jail would have been cheaper, less disruptive, and much easier to complete than the ridiculous hoops I had to jump through at drug court.

Random urine screens, which came up on average once a week and cost $25 every time. Twice-weekly "counseling" which cost $20 every time, took place in the middle of the day, and lasted three hours. Once a month, check in with the "court referral officer", who might make you pee ($25), or might not (then you just pay the regular "court referral fee" of $15). Add that up -- there would be weeks where drug court requirements would take up to ten hours of your time and $100 of your cash. Just send my ass to jail, please. Easier for everyone.

I was lucky -- I worked nights, so it didn't interfere with my job. Other people in drug court were forced to quit their jobs or were fired for attendance because they had to go to the brainwashing meetings.

Test positive for ANYTHING, including alcohol (whether or not your offense was alcohol-related), and go before the judge, who puts you back in jail, with NO credit for classes attended. Then when you get out, you start drug court again. From the beginning. I saw people sent to jail because they tested positive for prescribed medication. Sure, some of them were probably doctor-shopping pill-heads, but I'd prefer a DOCTOR make that distinction instead of a court-appointed bureaucrat.

And then there was the unalloyed joy of the counseling sessions, which boiled down to "Drugs are bad, m'kay?" for three hours a day twice a week. Then we'd close with a prayer. Yeah. State-sponsored program, prayin' to Jesus. I objected, refused to participate in any sort of state-mandated religious activity, and was of course branded a troublemaker. For some strange and no doubt COMPLETELY PLAUSIBLE reason, I got "random" urine screened almost every other day for three weeks after that.

I had great fun during the four counseling sessions where we discussed the Evils of Marijuana, though. Man, the counselors HATED me.

Oh, and part of the requirements was attendance at AA meetings Twenty of them, in fact. Um, what? I hafta show documentation that I attended am anonymous meeting? For the record, I attended every single one and never ever ever got my friends and co-workers to forge attendance slips that I could turn in at the counseling sessions. I'm sure everyone else in the program was equally assiduous.

As for the demographics of drug court: lotsa middle-class white first-time offenders, lotsa women with pill habits, few black and brown people. In jail, though, seems like most of the people there for misdemeanor drug offenses were non-white. Huh. Go figure.

All that said, drug courts are a baby step on the road toward sane drug policy, but the devil is, as always, in the details.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:53 PM on April 16, 2009 [13 favorites]

I think its worth mentioning that, while drug courts are generally quite successful, they're expensive in both time and money. I think this suggests that a lot of societal issues can be solved if you get enough smart people in a room deciding how to do it.

Just look at wallstreet!
posted by delmoi at 1:35 PM on April 16, 2009

Obama's Demented Drug Policy: As he leaves on a trip to Mexico, the president looks poised to continue the same ruinous drug policies and the same failing tactics in the war on drugs.
posted by homunculus at 3:45 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

What this tells me is that we should all share. White people, send some meth to the black people. Black people, send some crack to the white people. People who aren't black or white, what are you holding? Because everyone else would like some, in the interests of racial harmony. Let's all get our stereotypes out and share what we've got.

It's all a big melting pot. Let's combine crystal meth and crack to get ... creth. Damn, I like the sound of that. Give me some creth, I'm gonna light it up, then feel real good about rearranging my collection of glass pipes after I polish them. Then, as other cultures bring in their stuff, we can synthesize an even more complex drug. The Native Americans can bring in some peyote, which we must marry to nicotine. Peycrethtine. Absinthe, nitrous oxide, jasmine tea, kif, coca leaves, all wrapped up in a drug so glorious Phikal 3 will just come with a foldout poster of it you can hang on your wall. The molecule will be so long that, were it unfolded, it might be able to wrap around your brain. So potent will it be that you can pour one dose in you and one dose on the grave of Timothy Leary, and you will never, ever know if it brought him back from the dead or you were just that high.

As the stream of drugs continues, we'll have to ditch just adding syllables willy-nilly, and come up with a new name for it.

I call it "Stoned Soup."
posted by adipocere at 4:29 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Drug court quite literally saved the lives of a couple people I know. It might be overkill for people who like the occasional toke (or people who think they don't have a problem) but it's a fucking lifeline for hard core addicts with no other resources who really need to quit using. And yes you do have to prioritize it over everything else in your life for it to work. That's sort of the point.
posted by fshgrl at 6:10 PM on April 16, 2009

Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, a former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the record incarceration might be worth the cost. "As the number of people under correctional supervision goes up, crime goes down."

So, taking this train of thought to the end of the line, if we were ALL under correctional supervision, there would be NO CRIME AT ALL.

So long the riffraff are kept in jail where they belong and pockets keep getting re-lined, this insanity has no hope of changing.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 6:29 AM on April 17, 2009

As long as there is profit to be made in private prisons, there will never be changes in drug policies.

The companies that own the private prisons have successfully lobbied for years to get more and more draconian laws and punishments passed. And the whores legislators who take their money seem more than happy to sacrifice Americans in exchange for greenbacks.
From Wiki: Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders.[7] Companies operating such facilities include the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc, Cornell Companies, and Community Education Centers. The GEO Group was formerly known as Wackenhut Securities.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has a capacity of more than 80,000 beds in 65 correctional facilities. The GEO Group operates 61 facilities with a capacity of 49,000 offender beds,[14] while Cornell Companies has 79 facilities to service 19,226 adult and juvenile offenders in secure containment and community-based corrections.[15]
There's money in them there druggies, and the system means to squeeze every single bit of it out.
posted by dejah420 at 10:20 PM on April 19, 2009

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