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New Rhetoric, Same Old Drug War Policies: Drug Czar Addresses African American Community

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Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske held a media briefing today to discuss the disproportionate impact our nation's "drug problem" has on African-American communities.

It is simply Orwellian for the drug czar to focus on the disproportionate impact of our nation's drug problem on African-American communities without acknowledging the disproportionate racial impact of drug law enforcement. According to the federal government's own yearly research surveys, African Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates at whites -- yet African Americans are arrested for drugs at 13 times the rate of whites.

While it is clear that drug misuse of both illicit and legal drugs can ruin lives and cause incredible pain, it is also clear that the drug war causes even more damage than drug misuse itself -- especially in African American communities.

While the Drug Czar's rhetoric is all about the need for a public health approach -- he even says we "can't arrest our way out of the drug problem" -- the reality is the drug war under Obama is as vicious and as racist as ever before. More than 1.6 million people were arrested last year on nonviolent drug charges, and the vast majority of these arrests were for low-level possession, not selling or trafficking. Almost half of these arrests -- 750,000 of them -- were for marijuana possession alone. While the Drug Czar talks about a "balanced" approach, the reality is that U.S. still spends two-thirds of the $50 billion-a-year "drug control" budget on enforcement, guns, jails and interdiction -- about the same proportion as under Bush and previous administrations. And, despite the new rhetoric about a "public health approach," the vast majority of people who have a drug problem still can't get treatment.

The reality is that despite the 40-year-old, $1 trillion drug war, our society is swimming in drugs. Though we urge people to be "drug free", we use caffeine to boost our energy, alcohol to celebrate and recreate, and prescription and over-the-counter drugs to modify our moods, lift us out of depression, and help us work, study and sleep. Yet only certain people and certain drugs are stigmatized, while others are normalized.

As Michele Alexander describes in her renowned book, The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs has had a devastating impact on African American communities, on a scale entirely out of proportion with the actual levels of criminal activity taking place within these communities. People of color are classified as "criminals," permanently trapping them in a second-class status and allowing a whole range of legal discrimination (in employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting rights, jury duty and so forth).

Leaders in the African-American community are increasingly speaking out against the drug war. The NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus and black state legislators are often at the forefront of sentencing and other drug policy reform efforts. Alice Huffman, the influential head of the California NAACP, has been an especially vocal proponent of drug policy reform -- she broke new ground by endorsing California's 2010 marijuana legalization initiative, drawing unprecedented attention to the disproportionate rate of marijuana arrests among African Americans.

Hopefully the media and the public will continue to question the Drug Czar about the disproportionate rate of enforcement in African-American communities. Why it is that young white people use and sell drugs at similar rates yet our prisons are filled mostly with African Americans and Latinos? What are the consequences of arresting our young people for small amounts of marijuana: the loss of college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights? Money wasted and lives ruined ... and for what?

The fact of the matter is that we have to learn how to live with drugs, because they aren't going anywhere. Drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harms of drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems, and leave in peace the people who are not causing harm. And we need to take action against the incarceration of so many of our brothers and sisters who are suffering behind bars because of the substance that they choose to use.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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