End the War on Drugs

One of the 10 Best Black Books of 2006! --Kam Williams, Dallasblack.com

I taught Getting It Wrong to my undergrad black politics class. The book is a real tonic. --Adolph Reed, University of Pennsylvania

Purchase Getting It Wrong: How Black Public Intellectuals
Are Failing Black America
by Algernon Austin

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Algernon Austin speaks on The Covenant with Black America for The New Haven Black History Coalition’s Annual Black History Celebration, February 24th, 10am, Gateway Community College, Long Wharf Campus

The War on Drugs has been a 35-year long disaster. It has not significantly reduced the availability any drug, and it has been a cancer slowly eating away at the health and strength of black America. We desperately need a new approach.

A great amount of resources has been spent trying to reduce the availability of drugs, and, yet, it has been an utter failure. The Monitoring the Future Study of student drug use clearly reveals this fact. In 1975, 88 percent of twelfth graders said that it was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain marijuana. In 2005, after thirty years and billions of dollars waging a War on Drugs, 86 percent of twelfth graders still reported that it was easy to obtain marijuana—essentially no change. (Monitoring the Future, Vol. 1, Table 9-8, 423-4.)

What about for other drugs? The numbers of high school seniors saying that cocaine is easy to get went from 37 percent in 1975 to 45 percent in 2005—an increase! For heroin, in 1975, 24 percent of seniors said that it was easy to get. In 2005, 27 percent said the same—basically no change. For the more recent drug on the scene, methamphetamine, in 1990, 24 percent of seniors said that it was easy to get. In 2005, 27 percent said the same—again, basically no change. What positive can we say that the War on Drugs has accomplished?

While the War on Drugs has done nothing about the availability of drugs, it has succeeded in producing a very large increase in the prison population. This increase in incarceration has been borne disproportionately by black communities. Young, black males with little education have very few job options. They are more likely to be unemployed in comparison to similar white males, and when employed, they tend to earn less than similar whites. The drug trade lures these young men in precisely because of their inferior legal job opportunities.

To address the problem of drug use in America, we need to focus much more on the demand for drugs and much less on the supply. Drug use has fluctuated over time and it varies by region and social characteristics. We need to better understand what causes these fluctuations and apply this knowledge to drug prevention. We need to more effectively market healthy living. The reduction in the rates of smoking over time shows that these messages can be effective. And we need to make sure that treatment for drug addiction is readily available and easily accessible.

A reduction in drug use prevents the harm caused by drug addiction, and it also reduces the harm caused by the violence around struggles over drug-dealing territory. The crack wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s ended not because of better policing and increasing incarceration, but because the demand for crack dropped and with it the price. By the mid-1990s, the crack trade was no longer worth fighting over.

Steven Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh show us how we can effectively reduce young, black male involvement in the drug trade: jobs. Young men, like the drug dealers Levitt and Venkatesh studied, have an unemployment rate of about 50 percent. Levitt and Venkatesh show that most young, black men in the drug trade earn about minimum wage and that their “labor market participation responds to changing wages in the drug trade.” If low drug wages increase their participation in the legal workforce then more legal job opportunities with higher wages will likely reduce their involvement with the drug trade. Venkatesh’s interviews answer the question of what kind of job it would take to accomplish this result: being a janitor at the University of Chicago.

We can reduce the damage caused by drug addiction and by the violence around the drug trade in black communities by acknowledging that the War on Drugs has been a failure and that we need to do something different. After three decades of failure with an aggressive war on the supply of drugs, we need to try smarter and more intensive approaches to reduce the demand for drugs. We could significantly reduce black involvement in the drug trade by increasing the legal job opportunities and wages of less-educated young, black men. This approach would lead to an increase in the numbers of black males who are tax-paying, productive citizens as opposed to the current practices which have produced very large numbers of black males who waste their lives and billions of our tax dollars in America’s prisons.

--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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