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The War on Drugs is Still a War on Blacks

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The recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the sex and drug habits of Americans is the latest to toss the ugly glare on the naked race-tainted war on drugs. The survey found that whites are much more likely to use drugs than blacks. Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug usage by blacks and whites. But what makes the survey more eye-catching is that the survey didn't solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine or street drugs. The finding flies in the face of the conventional drug war wisdom that blacks use and deal street drugs, while whites use trendy, recreational designer drugs, and that presumably includes powder cocaine.

That again calls into question the gaping disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks.

More than 70 percent of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences are blacks. Federal prosecutors and lawmakers justify the disparity with the retort that crack cocaine is dangerous and threatening, and leads to waves of gang shoot-outs, turf battles, and thousands of terrorized residents in poor black communities. In some instances, that's true, and police and prosecutors are right to hit back hard at the violence. But the majority of those that deal and use crack cocaine aren't violence-prone gang members, but poor, and increasingly female, young blacks. They clearly need help, not jailing.

But it's a myth that powder cocaine is benign and has no criminal (even violent) taint to it. In a comprehensive survey in 2002, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White House's low profile task force to combat drug use, attributed shoplifting, burglary, theft, larceny, money laundering and even the transport of undocumented workers in some cities to powdered cocaine use. It also found that powder cocaine users were more likely to commit domestic violence attacks. There was more. The report also fingered powder cocaine users as prime dealers of other drugs that included heroin, meth and crack cocaine. Even more revealing they sold crack cocaine and heroin in inner-city neighborhoods.

The top-heavy drug use by young whites and the crime and violence that goes with it stirs no public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions, and tough prison sentences for white drug dealers, many of whom deal drugs that are directly linked to serious crime and violence. Those whites unlucky enough to get popped for drug use or sale are treated with compassion, hand-wringing, sympathy, prayer sessions and expensive psychiatric counseling, treatment and rehab programs, private treatment centers, and drug diversion programs. And they should be, but so should those blacks and others victimized by discriminatory drug laws.

Voters and legislators in California, New York, Michigan and other states now recognize that bankrupting state budgets to lock up and toss the key at non-violent drug offenders won't win the war on drugs. They have opted for drug diversion, treatment and counseling programs rather than jail, as the far more effective, humane, and cost effective way to deal with drug users. This has brought some measure of sanity back to drug enforcement policy. But that doesn't set well with the drug warriors: they have and will continue to resist any and every effort to get Congress to modify or scrap the blatant, and deliberate racial disparity in the drug sentencing laws.

In an odd way, they have to take their hard stand. The public scapegoat of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless. A frank admission that the laws are biased, and unfair, and have not done much to combat the drug plague would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real and sustained deep soul search over whether all the billions that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war, the lives ruined by it, and the families torn up by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws, has really accomplished anything. It then might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place, and if they do, is it really the government's business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others.

The greatest fallout from the failed drug policy is that it further embeds the widespread notion that the drug problem is exclusively a black problem. This makes it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and bloat state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion that the drug war is being won.

The CDC survey is smoking gun proof of one thing. And that is, as long as state and federal officials ruthlessly hunt for drug culprits in poor black communities, and not the suburbs, that illusion will continue to wreck lives, mostly black lives.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.