Skip to main content

Why End Drug Prohibition? Stops Racism, Ends Violence

If drugs were legal, we could alleviate some of the more egregious forms of institutionalized racism within our legal system. For those of you who don’t believe this is the case let me suggest the problem is so bad that in order to find more racist policies one would have to return to the centuries of slavery in the United States. I understand that is a pretty harsh statement but I believe the statistics bear out its veracity.

According to the 1998 Federal Household Survey:

  • Whites constitute 72% of all drug users in the U.S.
  • Blacks constitute 13.5% of all drug users in the U.S.
  • But 37% of those arrested for drug violations are Black.
  • Over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations are black.
  • African-Americans comprise almost 60% of those in state prisons for drug felonies.[1]

According to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • Of convicted defendants, 33% of whites received a prison sentence and 51% of African-Americans received prison sentences.
  • In New York State prisons Nine in 10 of the 19,000 people serving mandatory sentences for drug offenses are Black or Brown
  • According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, a young couple giving birth to a Black male baby today has an expectancy of one-in-three that their child will serve time in prison
  • Disenfranchisement: Due to the fact that many state laws say no one convicted of a felony can vote, the fact that nearly all drug violations are felonies, and the fact that for drug felonies we arrest seven times as many black men per capita as white men, 14% of the total voting population of black men in the U.S. have lost their right to vote — In Texas 31% of black men have lost their voting rights.[2]

Racism drives the war on drugs. The estimated population of males 18-years-old and above in the US in 2008 was 113,215,601. Of that number the white population was 90,798,912, the Hispanic population was 16,303,046, and the black population was 14,491,597. In 2008 the number of those in prison by race were: Whites = 856,593 or 0.9% of that population; Hispanics = 451,862 or 2.8% of that population; Blacks = 966,106 or 6.6% of that population. That means blacks in the US are being imprisoned at 7‑times the rate that whites are being imprisoned.[3]

Another way at looking at this issue is in 1993, under the most racist regime in modern history, South Africa’s Apartheid Law, 851 black men were imprisoned per 100,000 population.[4] In 2008 under the United States’ Drug Prohibition Law we imprisoned males 18-years-old and above per 100,000 population at rates by race of: 943 white men, 2,777 Hispanic men, and 6,666 black men.[5] Remember that blacks are only 13% of the problem.

Although it is true that the U.S. imprisons more than twice as many Hispanic men per capita as we imprison white men, that statistic actually hides an even worse problem. Today police are monitored rather closely to determine if they are conducting racial profiling stops. By definition racial profiling stops are initiated by an officer because the driver of the suspect vehicle is a dark-skinned person. But most police departments give their officers a choice of three items to mark for this demographic; “Black,” “White,” and “Hispanic.” An officer who tends to stop dark-skinned people is very happy for the designation of Hispanic. If officers can say the people they stop are “Hispanic,” they do not have to record the race category as black or white. I suspect that if we could divide the list of Hispanic men imprisoned into two groups—identified as white or black—we would discover that the blacks in the Hispanic category also vastly outnumber the whites in the Hispanic category.

Drug prohibition is an effective tool used by the United States’ prison industrial complex to maintain the largest per capita rate of incarcerations in the world. There are more black men in US prisons today than there were slaves in 1840[6] and they are being used for the same purpose; working for private corporations at 16 to 20 cents an hour. Now we are creating private prisons for profit and the owners of those prisons have banded together to hire lobbyists to go to Washington and demand longer mandatory-minimum prison sentences. Prisons for profit do not belong in a democratic society.

            The June 2010 study “Targeting Blacks for Marijuana: Possession Arrests of African Americans in California, 2004-08,” proves that this institutional racism also exists in our war against marijuana users. The report shows African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple or even quadruple the rate of whites—even though the U.S. government studies consistently find that per capita rates of marijuana use is lower among young blacks than young whites.[7]

            And things are getting even worse with time. data from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice shows half of California's marijuana possession arrestees in 1990 were nonwhite and 28 percent were under age 20, but in 2009, 62 percent were nonwhite and 42 percent were under age 20. Marijuana possession arrests of youth of color rose from about 3,100 in 1990 to about 16,300 in 2008—a surge about three times greater than that group's population growth.

            On the other side of the continent, despite the fact that New York State decriminalized an ounce of marijuana 30 years ago, since 1997 the New York City Police Department has arrested 430,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The vast majority were young people of color. Harry Levine reports:

[Y]oung whites use marijuana at higher rates than do young blacks or Latinos. But the NYPD has long arrested young blacks and Latinos for pot possession at much higher rates than whites.

In 2008, blacks were about 26% of New York City's population, but over 54% of the people arrested for pot possession. Latinos were about 27% of New Yorkers, but 33% of the pot arrestees. Whites were over 35% of the City's population, but less than 10% of the people arrested for possessing marijuana. In 2008, police arrested Latinos for pot possession at four times the rate of whites, and blacks at seven times the rate of whites.[8]

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Summary Report 1998 (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1999), p. 13.

[2] US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1998 (Washington DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 1999), p. 343, Table 4.10, p. 435, Table 5.48, and p. 505, Table 6.52;

Beck, Allen J., Ph.D. and Mumola, Christopher J., US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1998 (Washington DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 1999), p. 10, Table 16.

[3] When you break down the 1,009 inmates per 100,000 adult residents by race and gender you find: Men 18+ imprisoned in the United States: All – one in 54; White - one in 106; Hispanic – one in 36; Black – one in 15. Source: “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” The PEW Center on the States: Washington, DC, 2008, p.5 & 26

[4] Mauer, Marc. Americans Behind Bars: The International Use of Incarceration, 1992-1993, The Sentencing Project, September 1994, p.1.

[5] “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” Washington, DC: The PEW Center on the States, 2008, p.5 & 26

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, Table 1. United States - Race and Hispanic Origin:  1790 to 1990, Internet Release Date:  September 13, 2002

[7] Harry G. Levine, Jon B. Gettman, Loren Siegel. "Targeting Blacks for Marijuana: Possession Arrests of African Americans in California, 2004-08.” Drug Policy Alliance, LA: June 2010.

[8] Harry G. Levine, “Arrests in New York City: Marijuana possession is legally decriminalized in NY State. Nonetheless, NY City makes more pot arrests than any city in the world. How do they do it?” AlterNet, August 10, 2009


Popular Video