This is the fourth and final article in a series on how the “War on Drugs” is state-sanctioned theft, rape, murder, and class warfare. Read Part ONE, “Theft“, Part TWO “Rape” and Part THREE “Murder”.
State-Sanctioned Class Warfare
I’ve already discussed how civil asset forfeiture funnels resources from the poor to law enforcement, but the War on Drugs provides other avenues for this as well. A few examples:
- Inmates charged daily fees for jail stays
- For-profit probation is creating modern debtor’s prisons
- Exorbitant fees charged by prison phone service providers
- Prison-based gerrymandering
There is also the issue of which groups are intentionally targeted most often in drug busts. From the Huffington Post:
Nearly 20 percent of whites have used cocaine, compared with 10 percent of blacks and Latinos, according to a 2011 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — the most recent data available.
Higher percentages of whites have also tried hallucinogens, marijuana, pain relievers like OxyContin, and stimulants like methamphetamine, according to the survey. Crack is more popular among blacks than whites, but not by much.
Still, blacks are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as whites, according to a 2009 report from the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and current Law Enforcement Against Prohibition member Matthew Fogg explains how drug enforcement targets were selected:
“When…we were setting up all of our drug and gun and addiction task force determining what cities we were going to hit, I would notice that most of the time it always appeared to be urban areas.
That’s when I asked the question, well, don’t they sell drugs out in Potomac and Springfield, and places like that? Maybe you all think they don’t, but statistics show they use more drugs out in those areas than anywhere.
The special agent in charge, he says “You know, if we go out there and start messing with those folks, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians. You start locking their kids up, somebody’s going to jerk our chain.” He said they’re going to call us on it, and before you know it, they’re going to shut us down, and there goes your overtime.
What I began to see is that the drug war is totally about race. If we were locking up everybody, white and black, for doing the same drugs, they would have done the same thing they did with prohibition. They would have outlawed it. They would have said, “Let’s stop this craziness. You’re not putting my son in jail. My daughter isn’t going to jail.”
You also see racism and classism at work in how different drugs are prosecuted based on who uses them, or is thought to use them. First there was the huge discrepancy between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine:
“Crack and cocaine may be nearly identical on a molecular level, but people who are charged with possession of just 1 gram of crack are given the same sentence as those found in possession of 18 grams of cocaine.
This 18:1 sentencing disparity is actually an improvement from the previous sentencing gulf of 100:1, thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but as new research shows, any disparity unfairly targets crack users, who are more likely to be black, low-income and less educated.”
Much of the same classism that demonized crack users was also on display during the height of meth scaremongering, which has somewhat subsided as the age of care and compassion for white middle class opiate abusers has been ushered in. While health and law enforcement officials set the tone by describing meth as “the most dangerous drug in America,” “the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind,” and making “crack look like child’s play, both in terms of what it does to the body and how hard it is to get off,” politicians singled out the drug for harsh penalties and mandatory minimums, and robbed cold sufferers of access to effective over-the-counter medications.
The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 increased criminal penalties for trafficking and producing methamphetamines. The law also restricted access to precursors, including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which were key ingredients in over-the-counter cold medicines. Another change in the United States — the Methamphetamine Penalty Enhancement Act of 1998 — lowered the cut-off that would trigger mandatory sentences for methamphetamine trafficking. The Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 imposed restrictions on access to precursors, including blister packs for over-the-counter ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 increased restrictions on pseudoephedrine.
The unflattering portrait that emerged for meth users was one of poor, rural, uneducated whites, as criminal and shiftless as they were toothless, perpetually mixing up shake and bake batches of methamphetamine in their toxic trailers. The reality is that meth users are often hard-working low-income folks trying to make ends meet.
From the Washington Post article Here’s what ‘Breaking Bad’ gets right, and wrong, about the meth business:
The CDC notes that some meth users rely on it to get “increased energy to work multiple jobs.” Researchers at Indiana University and at the Universities of Colorado and Kentucky have found that, “The long hours and tedious work in oil fields, agriculture, construction, ancillary health care and fast food restaurants may be more tolerable on methamphetamine. Users report using meth to provide the energy to work multiple jobs or be a good mother.”
Guides to identifying and treating meth addiction, like Herbert Covey’s “The Methamphetamine Crisis,” tell readers to look out for, “workaholics or low-income adults who use it to stay awake and perform in multiple jobs. Working low-income individuals find meth attractive because they must work several jobs or long hours to support themselves or their families. They find that higher energy and alertness (ability to stay awake for prolonged periods) helps them cope with the demands of multiple jobs.”
This holds up if you look at places where meth use is highest. Hawaii’s heavy rate of meth use has been attributed to its high cost of living and service-based economy. “If you’re doing mind-numbing, repetitive work, this enables you to overcome both the painful tedium of the boredom as well as increase concentration and safety,” Dr. William Haning, a psychiatry professor at the University of Hawaii, once told the Maui News. Weishert notes that Cambodia and other countries in Southeast Asia are the biggest consumers of meth (above even the United States), and it’s often used as a work aide. “Women who have to have a job and then do traditional homemaking, they’re just exhausted and meth is a pick-me-up, a powerful one,” he says.
Government-Selected Winners and Losers
Not only does the Drug War deliberately focus enforcement and punishment on racial minorities and the poor, it also pushes those impacted into permanent underclass status. Drug convictions limit social mobility by cutting people off from financial aid for college, legitimate employment opportunities (particularly those requiring occupational licensing), public assistance, and even drivers’ licenses in some states. The negative impact is so pervasive that the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs announced it is no longer using “derogatory” terms like felon and convict because they are barriers for former prisoners re-entering society, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is now saying that disqualifying renters for past criminal records is a form of housing discrimination:
HUD’s new guidance warns that landlords could be breaking the law when they refuse to rent to people with criminal records — even if they have no intention to discriminate — because such a policy would likely have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants.
Housing Secretary Julian Castro puts it another way, NPR’s Corley reports: “When landlords refuse to rent to anyone who has an arrest record, they effectively bar the door to millions of folks of color for no good reason.”
It is truly perverse that the federal government is now lecturing citizens about the effects of the intentionally discriminatory laws and practices that it put in place and perpetuates to this day.
This type of government-created discrimination continues even in states where recreational marijuana is now legal. It has already been noted that the field of potpreneurs is overwhelmingly white, which is interesting considering how the demographics for pot arrests skew heavily towards blacks and hispanics. Much of this is because, even on the legalization front, government is still selecting winners and losers in the drug war.
From Colorado’s list of requirements for a retail marijuana license:
“May not have any Controlled Substance felony conviction in the ten years immediately preceding his or her application date or five years from May 28, 2013, whichever is longer*
*The Licensing Authority may grant a license to a person if the person has a state felony conviction based on possession or use of marijuana or marijuana concentrate that would not be a felony if the person were convicted of the offense on the date he or she applied.”
The huge racial discrepancies with arrest and incarceration rates help to determine who has the resources to start a legal marijuana business by 1. diminishing one’s previous earning potential and credit-worthiness rating as a result of a criminal record), 2. eliminating people who have a criminal record for doing what is now a legitimate business in the eyes of the state. The requirements state Colorado “may” grant a license, which indicates wide discretion allowed there. However, are they tracking how often the state deigns to grant licenses to people it already demoted to second-class citizenship status for the same thing it now profits so handsomely from?
It also specifies possession or use, not distribution/manufacture. So if you already have the knowledge and expertise to run a marijuana operation, but were unlucky enough to catch a criminal charge for it, you are now shut out of the very industry you may be most qualified for.
There are endless reports about what a windfall recreational marijuana is for the states that have been dragged kicking and screaming into a post-prohibition existence by voter initiatives. Take Oregon for example, which recently rolled in $7 million of tax revenue from its first 2 months of legal pot sales. Where does the money from that exorbitant 25% tax go?
What about harm reduction for those whose rights were violated by laws we now recognize were wrong? I don’t see or hear anything about any formal efforts to help people get marijuana offenses expunged from their records, or to offer some form of restitution to those punished for things that are now recognized as state profit centers. Why not offer grants, loans, small business counseling, or other employment support to these people, or at the very least repayment of the fines and fees inflicted upon them by the state? Surely some of the booming revenues recreational pot is bringing to the states that legalized it should go to those most harmed by pot prohibition.
Welfare Queens with Badges
Those of you who say, “don’t break the law”, even after reading about the unethical underpinnings of drug laws and how they are enforced and government complicity in the drug trade, should note the many people who have been intentionally set up for drug crimes by law enforcement. There are individual cops who plant drugs on innocent people as retaliation for not providing the unquestioning obedience that police officers feel is their due, but there are also widespread coordinated cases linked to DOJ funding programs where ”federal funds generally flow automatically to states and cities to pay for more arrests, more prosecutions and more imprisonment, without measuring their effect on public safety.”
The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) gives around $400 million to states and cities annually…These grants have an outsize influence on state and local policy because these are “bonus” funds that do not need to be raised by taxes.
In 2002, after a JAG-funded operation carried out discriminatory mass arrests based on false drug charges in Tulia, Texas, the ACLU of Texas outed several scandals ranging from evidence fabrication to racial profiling involving JAG-funded drug task forces.
Here’s a reality check for anyone who thinks the Byrne grants are just a leftover relic of Republican “tough on crime” initiatives [emphasis mine]:
The George W. Bush administration had actually begun phasing out the Byrne program. It had been funded at a half-billion dollars per year through most of the Clinton presidency. By the time he left office in 2008, Bush had pared it to $170 million a year. But the grants have long been a favorite of Vice President Joe Biden. And so Obama campaigned on fully restoring their funding, declaring that the Byrne grant program “has been critical to creating the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces our communities need.” On that promise at least, he has delivered. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama infused the program with $2 billion, by the far the largest budget in its history.
“These young people are the cash cows that police apprehend in order to fatten arrest statistics submitted in state annual reports. Without these arrests, police in cash-strapped states could not sustain federal funding for vital priorities: overtime salaries, vehicles, ballistic vests, and so on.
Any program that pegs law enforcement funding to a raw volume of arrests and prosecutions, without acknowledging systemic racial and class-based biases in policing, will inevitably exacerbate and perpetuate the racial disparities that exist at every level of our criminal justice system. The Byrne grant program not only demands the arrest and prosecution of low-level offenders, but also ties the livelihoods of dozens of police precincts across the country to those numbers.
New York City’s infamous Stop and Frisk program was framed as an anti-violence initiative, but it was really a lucrative, illegal ticketing scheme that allowed the NYPD to work around the inconvenient fact that possession of up to 25 grams of pot had been decriminalized back in 1977.
While NYPD’s stated purpose for its aggressive and racially disproportionate stop-and-frisk program is to target guns, the number of people arrested for marijuana was more than six times the number of guns recovered. While 729 guns were recovered, 5,000 people were arrested for marijuana. Overall, more than 26,000 people were stopped for marijuana possession.
The marijuana arrest rate is particularly alarming because only “public view” possession of marijuana is a crime in New York City. It is reportedly a common practice to ask suspects to take everything out of their pockets after a police stop, and then arrest those who reveal marijuana on the theory that it is now in “public view.” The NYCLU’s study also found that, “[t]hough frisks can be legally conducted only when an officer reasonably suspects the person has a weapon that might endanger officer safety, 55.8 percent of those stopped in 2012 were frisked. Of those frisked, a weapon was found only 2 percent of the time.”
If the War on Drugs has helped anyone, it was by accident, not design. When we examine it based on outcomes rather than its purported goals, we see its effectiveness has been limited to political disenfranchisement, wealth redistribution, and empire-building for law enforcement. That which is crooked cannot be made straight.
It’s time to end the Drug War.