The Solution to our Failed Drug Policy

with Jack Cole

War and race dominate the presidential campaign, but one nation–shaping war with profound racial consequences eludes the political radar: the drug war.

I was a front-line soldier in this self–perpetuating, ineffectual effort that has swallowed more than 1 trillion tax dollars and currently yields nearly 2,000,000 arrests every year for nonviolent offenses. I helped incarcerate some 1,000 young people as part of this irredeemably wrong–headed attempt to arrest our way out of a drug problems. Those arrests will follow them to their graves.

I know they follow me.

But while no country locks up as large a percentage of its citizens, the specific impact on minority families has been one step short of the re-institution of slavery: from media portrayals of marijuana–crazed Mexicans, opium–crazed Asians, and cocaine–crazed blacks, this war has always been about race.

The 1980s produced a jump in the number of cocaine–related stories focused on minority youth, yielding great concern and a dramatic increase in the minority prison population. Many people, of course, assume that minorities were disproportionately involved in drugs. Even a seemingly streetwise show like "The Wire," which correctly abandon all hope for this war, supported that impression, portraying virtual swarms of drug–involved blacks.

In fact, according to federal household surveys, whites blacks and Hispanics use drugs in direct proportion to their percentage of the population. So, for example, blacks, who are 13% of our population, account for 13% of our drug use. Yet, according to US Bureau of Justice statistics, of convicted defendants, 33% of whites receive a prison sentence and 51% of African–Americans received prison sentences. Moreover, the US sentencing commission found that black drug defendants received considerably longer average prison terms than the whites for comparable crimes.

This is not a geographic flute: a 2007 Justice policy Institute study found that in Florida blacks were 75 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs while driving than whites; 1991, blacks were 7% of St. Paul's population but 62% of those arrested on drug charges; and in Onondaga County, Syracuse, N.Y., black people are currently 99 times more likely to go to prison for drugs than white people.

There are more black men in US prisons today than there were slaves in 1840, and they are being used for the same purpose; working for private corporations at 16-20 cents an hour. Half the states have private, for–profit prisons whose lobbyists are demanding longer mandatory  minimum prison sentences. Indeed, American blacks are incarcerated at nearly 8 times the level of South African blacks during the height of apartheid.

Inner–city communities are devastated not by drug use but by the same turf–war street violence that accompanied alcohol prohibition and which dramatically decreased once it was legalized and regulated. Almost one in seven African–Americans are denied voting rights largely because of drug arrests, and countless minorities are denied intact families, college loans, drivers licenses, and jobs because of selective enforcement of a prohibition that, even fairly enforced, prevents no one from using drugs.

But things are changing, as resistance grows in precisely those communities hardest hit by this failed policy.

In 2006, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislatures passed a resolution condemning the failed war on drugs and calling for treatment rather than incarceration. That resolution was echoed by a similar resolution passed unanimously by over 225 mayors at the national conference in 2007. An international Association of Black police officers is expected to officially endorse the call for an end to drug prohibition.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an international organization of sworn anti-drug warriors who know that we must end this prohibition in order to legalize and regulate all drugs, thus wresting control from the cartels and street dealers who prey on children.

Ending this prohibition is a singularly potent civil rights issue. It is a remarkable movement, led by both white and minority law enforcement officials.

In an election infused with racial overtones, we wonder which politicians will be brave enough to follow.