How drug laws compound race inequality

By KomodoMK · Oct 12, 2008 · Updated Oct 12, 2008 · ·
  1. KomodoMK
    The war on drugs disproportionately targets black people in the US and UK, exacerbating oppression, says Sebastian Saville.

    Crack possession is treated far more harshly than the mainly white drug of choice cocaine powder, says Saville. (Photograph: Mark Read/Corbis)

    On September 18 drug campaign group Release held its annual conference in London. To thunderous applause, drug policy reformer and racial equality advocate Deborah Small gave a harrowing account of the plight of her fellow black Americans whose lives are caught up in the vicious interplay of the drugs and race wars being waged by US authorities.

    "People say the drug war isn't working," she opines, "but not me - I say it is working, only too well. It's a highly successful method of maintaining the oppression of black people in the United States."

    Small points to the disparities in sentencing for cocaine offences as evidence of her claims. When Congress enacted its mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, it singled out crack cocaine for especially harsh treatment; whereas possession of only 5g of crack brings a mandatory five year prison term, it takes 500g of cocaine powder to draw the equivalent. On the US drug scene, cocaine powder is the drug of choice for affluent whites, while crack is associated with urban black society. As a result, the burden of these policies has fallen overwhelmingly on African Americans. These are poor, low-level offenders, and becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system leads them and their communities inexorably into a cycle of imprisonment, unemployment, one-parent families, political disenfranchisement, poverty and crime.

    "The war on drugs is the continuation of Jim Crow by another name," Small says. A long-time activist and impassioned speaker, her reference to Jim Crow evokes the bitterness of the black experience of post-civil war America, when the former Confederate southern states enacted a raft of laws named after a minstrel with blackened face whose performance mocked a stereotyped figure of the African American male. The Jim Crow laws replaced slavery with a new regime in which segregation and disenfranchisement underpinned an informal culture of brutality and lynching. Despite the promise of emancipation, once again African Americans were down by law.

    According to Small, they still are. "When the civil rights movement succeeded in dismantling Jim Crow, the drug war took over the work of discrimination."

    Contemporary African Americans are three times as likely to be arrested and 10 times as likely to receive a prison sentence as white Americans. The data is stark and shocking—but how does it compare with the UK? It was this intriguing question that Alex Stevens of Kent University set out to answer in his presentation as he followed Small onto the stage. She was quite an act to follow, but Stevens managed it, mainly by letting the data do the talking.

    Those on the liberal left of British politics tend to adopt a self-congratulatory tone in respect to the shameful inequalities of US drug laws and policies. The hard lesson the audience learned was the UK does not, by contrast, stand out as a shining beacon of racial equality. Instead, we heard for drug offences, black Britons are around eight times more likely to be arrested and 10 times more likely to be sent to prison than their white fellow citizens. Arguing against the possible explanation the differentials simply reflect greater drug use by black people, Stevens examined further academic research showing whites and blacks use drugs in about the same percentages and, in the case of Class A drugs, a rather greater percentage of whites use them.

    In his discussion, Stevens pointed to a number of factors which might explain the disparities. One was the greater availability of black people in the street, as they are almost five times more likely to be homeless, and nearly three times more likely to be unemployed or excluded from school.

    He also stressed the need to take into account broader questions of power and inequality in understanding the data, and it was in this analysis that he began to tread the same sort of terrain as Small. The police tend to target areas of socio-economic deprivation, and these are the areas into which black Britons have been herded by poverty and marginalisation.

    The poor and black are crucially lacking in what sociologists call "cultural capital"—they don't have the right accents, they lack powerful connections, lawyers, the credit cards that bespeak respectability, and so on—and this makes them easy targets. By contrast, Stevens invited us to recall the recent affair of Eva Rausing, wife of the Swedish billionaire's son, who was caught smuggling heroin and cocaine into the US embassy. Her husband Hans was subsequently arrested too, when allegedly a large stash of Class A drugs was found at his Chelsea home. Both were given conditional cautions.

    Such high profile cases stand in sharp relief against a background in which black Britons are routinely directed into our burgeoning prison system. They should remind us of the massive inequalities in power and wealth which structure our society and underlie the disparities in the criminal justice system, not only across the Atlantic but here, in the daily grind of Britain's own perhaps less brash but equally injurious war on drugs.


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  1. dpayne
    SwiD often had wondered when reading about laws on crack and hcl cocaine. Whats the law on FREEBASE (amonia) cocaine? Same as crack?

    There is numerous articles around that point to crack as 50 50 dirty cut of cocaine targeted to sustain poorer markets/ addicts in the form smokeable/ iv coke. But thats just a litle grey area swiD often wondered about.

    This is the biggest load of shit in swiD opinion his eyes have come accross on these forums....

    SwiD is actually amazed and quiet impressed that the US has taken this aproach. In no way shape or form can anybody living in the 21st century cry racism here, this makes swiD blood boil. The laws the law'

    The law is there to protect the country and its people. Constantly evolving and changing as different things impact the community in a negative/ destructive manner. If crack wasnt so hardshly dealt with america would be alot scarier place at night than it is at the moment. White black pink yellow fat skinny red hair or bald, do some research or experimenting with drugs or watching people involved in smoking/ iv compared to non smoking/ iv drug use in general coke meth.

    Its not good and supply of a substance prepared in a way that to be consumed requires iv or smoking should be and is dealt with on a higher scale than powders...
  2. KomodoMK
    In the UK both cocaine and crack are class A drugs so the punishment for possession is up to 7 years in prison and/or unlimited fine. For possession with intent to supply it's up to life in prison and/or unlimited fine. So the scope for varying degrees of punishment is quite wide. Crack tends to be dealt with more seriously than cocaine HCL due to it's more destructive/harmful effect on society and crime.

    To be honest I think this is fair and the way it should be dealt with. Punishments should not be influenced by race, gender or anything other than the impact on society as a whole.
  3. Routemaster Flash
    You can't ignore the fact that crack is a much more addictive and harmful form of cocaine than powder - though whether it's a hundred times more addictive and harmful is a matter for debate, of course.

    Just out of interest, how harshly is possession of meth punished in the States, compared to crack or powder coke? Because the impression I get of the drug's demographics is that it's used mainly by poor rural/small-town whites in the Midwest (and gay nightclubbers, of course).
  4. aerozeppelin123
    The ironic thing is that if it weren't for prohibition of cocaine, crack would probably never have existed, as prohibition pushes the market towards ever more concentrated, powerful and addictive - and therefore more profitable - forms of any given drug. Not to mention that it is less risky to smuggle smaller packages. Look at the indigenous cultures of South America who have been using coca leaf for thousands of years with very few problems...until prohibition comes along and we get purified cocaine and subsequently crack due to the driving force of maximum profit per unit weight which dictates the black market.

    It was the same in America during alcohol prohibition...suddenly you get 80 or 90% moonshine instead of beers and wines as it was more concentrated, more profitable per unit and far easier to smuggle...then lo and behold when it ended people were more than happy to go back to the milder drinks.

    I agree with the people in the article that the disparity between cocaine and crack sentencing is ridiculous and yes at least partially based on racism. Crack certainly is more addictive and destructive than cocaine HCl, but why does that mean we need to criminalise those addicted to it more? It should mean that more of our education, treatment and prevention resources are directed towards crack than towards powder cocaine. Prison is the last thing these people need.
  5. dpayne
    Racism in the form of "oh well if it aint a white problem we'll come down like a ton of bricks on everyone regardless of race becuase 99% arent white?"

    Is this the way you see the racism? As in IF whites were more involved the law wouldnt of bent this way and would be different?

    Criminalise those addicted to it more?
    We are talking about criminalising those choosing to sell the crack.
    Not those in need of help with an addiction.

    If you cant see the difference plain and simple the law is making here then swiD pitty the fools.

    dpayne added 20 Minutes and 7 Seconds later...

    Meth is about % and form of product. Base, Hcl or Re-Crystalised hcl and % to weight ratio of pure meth to total weight of substance.

    High percentage Re-Crystalised is alot more punishable by weight than crude impure hcl and is about on par with crack.

    But a comparison to an imported and cooked back substance to a home grown created product is a bit hard to totally put into perspective. Comparing apples and oranges.....

    dpayne added 1 Minutes and 51 Seconds later...

    Missed this KomodoMK and swiD couldnt agree more you took the words out of his mouth that he couldnt put together.
  6. aerozeppelin123
    I'm not saying it's entirely to do with race as crack is genuinely more harmful than cocaine powder...just saying that it could easily be a factor...look at the first laws against cannabis/marijuana and tell me they weren't based on racism. So the same can apply to crack.

    Also, we are talking about criminalising addicts more: simple crack possession - not just supply - is treated more harshly than cocaine powder possession. Which means that crack users are criminalised more than cocaine users.
  7. KomodoMK
    I really like this concept/theory and it's not one I've come across before. Logically it is quite a sound opinion. As I started reading it I expected it to go nowhere but the few examples you gave really backed up your point of view. Good post. :)
  8. dpayne
    Wish I could agree but swiD feels once people get a taste of anything they want more and better ways to do it in life in general.

    Prohibition didnt produce crack.

    It would of always been there but as swiD takes in your perspective it has deffinetaly created the potential for capitalists in the black market.

    May swiD be lazy and ask for how marijuana laws were racist?
    The perspective swiD fails to draw up is.
    Whats bad for whites is bad for blacks, we are all human. If something is effecting a community its not about black and white its about humanity. Any racial claims have to be put aside and the impact on the community is the sole focuss?

    Or is the perspective that blacks/ indians/ natives (pardon my lack of vocabulary here dont mean to be rude at all) had been enjoying such things are marijuana for forever and prohibition has taken this away from them and it was apart of their culture and accepted and they wore the brunt of it?
  9. aerozeppelin123
    Perhaps it would still exist, but I really don't think its use would be anywhere near as widespread as it is today. Given the choice, I think most users would prefer to use milder preparations of cocaine and just consume it more gradually, because quite simply the vast majority of people don't want to ruin their life with crack addiction, even if they know that the high is 'better' or more intense. The thing is though, how many dealers have you heard of offering coca leaves or coca tea? There are practically none - if you want to experience cocaine, you have to buy it in a highly concentrated form. Aside from that, more intense doesn't always mean more enjoyable anyway. Take caffeine as an example of a legal stimulant drug. Snorting ProPlus would be an 'intense' way of doing it, yet most people are quite content to forgo the stronger effects and simply enjoy a cup or two of coffee. Now I'm not saying that we would see exactly the same patterns of use were cocaine legally available (caffeine and cocaine are considerably different drugs), just that people don't always want the strongest form of a drug, yet prohibition strongly encourages the prevalence of these forms over milder ones.

    Harry Anslinger was the 'drug czar' in the early days of the war on drugs in the US (the country that started the global policy of prohibition), and you can see from that page that his desire to outlaw marijuana was largely based on his incredibly racist views.
  10. Routemaster Flash

    There was a very widespread scare to do with negroes allegedly corrupting innocent white teens (especially girls, of course) with their licentious dancing, lewd jazz and blues music and also cannabis. It's the whole 'Reefer Madness' thing, although I don't know if the wicked dope pushers in that particular film are black. Cocaine was illegalised around the same time for similar reasons; in particular it was thought to make black men go on the rampage and rape white women. It's even said that police officers were issued with larger-calibre revolvers because it was thought normal bullets were insufficient to stop black men when they were high on coke (just like the fearsome reputation of PCP in the '80s). There was a newspaper headline from this period that was something like COCAINIZED NEGRO FRENZY!, which I think would be a *badass* name for an over-the-top-to-the-point-of-camp-parody 'hardcore' rap act, but never mind. :D Of course, this was all before freebasing became widespread and cocaine HCl became 'semi' socially acceptable.

    Opium/heroin was a similar story, but for blacks substitute Chinese, who were blamed for introducing the stuff into America and...corrupting innocent white teens. There was a similar public attitude to opium in late 19th century London (fuelled by a hysterical press - how times have changed, eh?), which was pretty fucking rich considering it was the British who introduced opium to China and then declared war on them when they refused to import it any more, resulting in most of the country's adult population getting addicted to it. Then again, they did this so as to balance a trade deficit caused by the importation of tea, which in SWIM's humble opinion is more addictive than crack or heroin. He's got a cup on the go now in fact, pathetic junky that he is. ;)
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