Whites, Blacks and Illicit Drugs

[From the Daily Voice.com]

It is easy to be misled about the reality of race and drugs in America. Movies, television shows, rap music and the incarceration statistics could lead one to believe that drug abuse and drug dealing are far more common among blacks than among other groups.

Occasionally, however, some news reaches the general public to suggest that this might not be the case.

So far this year, 95 San Diego State University students (PDF file) have been arrested for drug dealing and possession. The picture one gets from looking at the arrested students--and the school student newspaper did provide pictures--is radically different from the picture in much of America's popular culture. The arrested students look like middle-class California--white, Hispanic, Asian and black--with blacks in the minority.

This large number of arrests is the result of a special focus by the University police, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the San Diego County District Attorney's Office after the death of a white student from a drug overdose last year. Although San Diego State University may be rare among universities in seriously pursuing illicit drugs on its campus, it is by no means the only university with drug users and drug dealers. As the president of the University stated, "Drug use is a concern on virtually every campus in our country."

When a white student was arrested at New York University for dealing drugs in 2004, a spokesperson for that university concurred. "The issue of drug use by college students is an issue that institutions of higher learning confront on a daily basis," he stated.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, drug use surveys like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show similar levels of drug use among blacks and whites. If whites across the country use illicit drugs, they have to get them from somewhere. Criminologists are convinced that most whites get them from other white friends and acquaintances.

At San Diego State, apparently, many students purchased their drugs from other students. In the Washington D.C. area, my neck of the woods, police recently arrested students from some of the region's elite, predominantly-white high schools for allegedly selling marijuana to other students.

We have every reason to believe that blacks and whites use drugs and deal drugs at roughly comparable rates but the black incarceration rate for drug offenses is about ten times the white rate. For men, the disparity is about twelve times the white rate. Black women are incarcerated at about five times the rate of white women.

These disparities mean that white youth involved with drugs are much more likely to have opportunities to rehabilitate themselves and then get on with their lives. For many students at universities like San Diego State, they can use drugs or deal drugs and still end up in later years as respected adults in the American middle class.

For the many black youth who have similar levels of drug involvement, they are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. For these black youth, a criminal record makes the prospect of finding a good job--or any job--very difficult. Black youth who are incarcerated carry that scarlet letter of a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

If we want to change this lopsided racial disparity in drug incarceration there are two options. We could begin to police predominantly white high schools, colleges, workplaces and neighborhoods searching for drugs as intensively as we police poor black communities. Drug dragnets like the one at San Diego State University would have to become the rule rather than the exception.

The second option is that we rethink the whole idea of the "war on drugs." A recent report by the Sentencing Project states that we've arrested 31 million people for drug offenses since 1980. These arrests have been disproportionately in lower-income black communities, yet I doubt there is a poor black community where we can say the "war on drugs" has been won.

There are many advocates at the Sentencing Project, the Justice Policy Institute, the Drug Policy Alliance, Common Sense for Drug Policy, Efficacy and other organizations with ideas for a new approach to the issue of illicit drugs. After two decades and 31 million arrests have failed to solve the problem, isn't it time to consider another approach?

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