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The Other War: Democratic Candidates are Deafeningly Silent on the Drug War

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There is a major disconnect in the 2008 Democratic race for the White House.

While all the top candidates are vying for the black and Latino vote, they are completely ignoring one of the most pressing issues affecting those constituencies: the failed War on Drugs, a war that has morphed into a war on people of color.

Consider this: according to a 2006 ACLU report, African Americans make up 15 percent of drug users, but account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. Or consider this: America has 260,000 people in state prisons on nonviolent drug charges; 183,200 (more than 70 percent) are black or Latino.

Such facts and figures have been bandied about for years. But what to do about the legion of nonviolent -- predominantly minority -- drug offenders has long been an electrified third-rail in American politics, a subject to be avoided at all costs by our political leaders, who fear being incinerated on contact for being soft on crime.

You might have thought this would change during a spirited Democratic presidential campaign. But a quick search of the top Democratic hopefuls' websites reveals that not one of them -- not Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, not John Edwards, not Joe Biden, not Chris Dodd, not Bill Richardson -- even mentions the drug war, let alone offers any solutions.

The silence coming from Clinton and Obama is particularly deafening.

Obama has written eloquently about his own struggle with drugs, but has not addressed the tragic effect the war on drugs is having on African American communities.

As for Clinton, she flew into Selma to reinforce her image as the wife of "the first black president," and has made much of her plan to attract female voters, but has ignored the suffering of poor, black women right in her own backyard.

Located down the road from her Chappaqua home are two prisons housing female inmates, Taconic and Bedford. Forty-eight percent of the women in Taconic are there for nonviolent drug offenses; 78% of those in the prison are African-American or Hispanic. And Bedford, the state's only maximum security prison for women, is home to some of the worst victims of New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws -- mothers and grandmothers whose first brush with the law resulted in their being locked away for 15 years or more on nonviolent drug charges.

Yet even though these prisons are so nearby, Clinton has turned a blind eye to the plight of the women locked away there, notably refusing to speak out on their behalf.

Our political leaders' avoidance of this issue comes with a very stiff price (and not just the more than $50 billion a year we're spending on the failed drug war). The toll is paid in shattered families, devastated inner cities, and wasted lives (with no apologies for using that term).

During the ten years I've been writing about the injustice of the drug war, I've repeatedly seen politicians pay lip service to doing something about it, then duck and watch as the sickening status quo claimed more victims. Here in California, of the 171,000 inmates jamming our wildly overcrowded prisons, 36,000 are nonviolent drug offenders.

I remember in 1999 asking Dan Bartlett, then the campaign spokesman for candidate George Bush, about Bush's position on the outrageous disparity between the sentences meted out for possession of crack and those given for possession of powder cocaine - a disparity that has helped fill America's prisons with black low-level drug users. Federal sentencing guidelines dictate that judges impose the same five-year prison sentence for possession of five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine.

"The different sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is something that there's no doubt needs to be addressed," Bartlett told me. But in the more than six years since Bush and Bartlett moved into the White House, the problem has gone unaddressed. No doubt about it.

Maybe the president will suddenly wake up and decide to take on the issue five days before he leaves office. That's what Bill Clinton did, writing a 2001 New York Times op-ed in which he trumpeted the need to "immediately reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences" -- conveniently putting aside the fact that he had the power to solve it for eight years and did nothing.

When it mattered, he maintained an imperial silence. Then, when it didn't, he became Captain Courageous. And he lamented the failures of our drug policy, acting as though he had been an innocent bystander rather than the chief executive presiding over these failures (indeed, the prison population doubled on his watch).

As a result of our political leaders' neglect, the disparity has continued to wreak havoc on the black community. Even though the majority of crack users are white or Hispanic, 80% of sentenced crack defendants are black. The injustice is so egregious that a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions, is now leading the charge in Congress to ease crack sentences.

"I believe that as a matter of law enforcement and good public policy crack cocaine sentences are too heavy and can't be justified," says Sessions. "People don't want us to be soft on crime, but I think we ought to make the law more rational."

There's a talking point Hillary and Obama should adopt. It's both the right thing and the smart thing. Because of disenfranchisement statues, large numbers of black men who were convicted of drug crimes are ineligible to vote, even those who have fully paid their debt to society. A 2000 study found that 1.4 million African American men -- 13 percent of the total black male population -- were unable to vote in the 2000 election because of state laws barring felons access to the polls. In Florida, one in three black men is permanently disqualified from voting. Think that might have made a difference in the 2000 race? Our short-sighted drug laws have become the 21st Century manifestation of Jim Crow.

Shouldn't this be an issue Democratic presidential candidates deem worthy of their attention?