Archive for Thursday, June 16, 2011

Racial inequities mark drug war

June 16, 2011


Dear President Obama:

Right after your election, somebody asked if I thought having a black president meant black people’s concerns would now receive attention at the executive level. I told them I expected the opposite.

There used to be a saying — only Nixon could go to China. Meaning, of course, that only he, as a staunch anti-communist, had the credibility to make overtures to that nation without accusations of being soft on communism. By the inverse of that political calculus, I never expected that you, as a black man, would do much to address black issues.

And the limitations of your presidency where African-Americans are concerned have never been more obvious than they are this week.

On Friday it will be 40 years since the aforementioned President Nixon asked Congress for $155 million to combat a problem he said had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency.” Thus was born the War on Drugs.

Seven presidents later, the war grinds on. And if it has made even a dent in drug use, you could not prove it by me — nor, I would wager, by most observers.

Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of international leaders including Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, issued a report that begins with this unambiguous declaration: “The global war on drugs has failed.”

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges and other law women and men, calculates we have made 40 million arrests and sunk a trillion dollars into that failure. This week, it issued its own report, criticizing you for talking a good game but doing precious little when it comes to reframing drug abuse as a matter of public health — not criminal justice.

Frankly, Mr. President, you should take this one personally. As you must know, the War on Drugs has been, in effect, a war on black men. Though whites are the nation’s biggest users and dealers of illicit drugs, blacks are the ones most likely to be jailed for drug crimes and to suffer the disruption of families and communities that comes with it.

You have done little to address these and other racial inequities of the criminal injustice system.

Here’s the exception that proves the rule: Until recently, sentencing guidelines treated one gram of crack cocaine (i.e., the “black” drug) the same as 100 grams of regular cocaine (i.e., the “white” drug). You signed a law changing that 100-to-one disparity. It is now an 18-to-one disparity. Pardon me if I don’t break out the confetti.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Obama: Our last three presidents are known — or in George W. Bush’s case, strongly believed — to have used illicit drugs when they were young. None of you were caught.

But what if you had been? They might have been given a second chance by some judge who saw merit or potential in them. They might still have gone on to become productive men.

Mr. President, what do you think would most likely have happened to you?

You know the answer as well as I do. And what you know should compel you to do something about it. No, that might not be politic, but it would definitely be right.

The most fitting way to mark the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs is to ensure the 41st never comes.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on His email address is


Paul R Getto 6 years, 10 months ago

The 'war' on drugs is stupid, racist, expensive and ineffective. Violent dealers and their minions belong in jail, but not the millions of others. Spend our efforts on prevention and treatment of a medical issue. Drug taking chimps, we are. The prison-industry loves this 'war' for obvious reasons, but it is not a good investment of American resources.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

Comparing crack cocaine to powder cocaine is like comparing whiskey to beer. If I drink 12 ounces of whiskey, the effects on the body will be significantly different than if I drink 12 ounces of beer. The same is true with crack and powder cocaine. It's not racist. It just is.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

Jafs, If I tell you drinking 12 ounces of whiskey will produce different results than drinking 12 ounces of beer, my guess is that you would believe me. I wouldn't need to produce a source/evidence for making such a claim. Common knowledge would be good enough. I feel equally comfortable making that claim in regards to crack and powder cocaine. You can believe me or not, your choice. The fact that crack may be preferred by one race, ethnicity or socioeconomic group while powder cocaine is preferred by another seems clear, but again I'm not going to give a source/evidence. It seems pretty well known to most. But simply saying that a given weight of crack and the same weight of powder cocaine yield different sentences at trial is because they yield different results to the body. Just like the alcohol example. Race is a red herring.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

I am quite aware of the difference in strength between whiskey and beer.

Not the case with cocaine - I have no idea if that's true or not.

The preceding differential was 100/1 - is crack cocaine 100x stronger than the powdered form?

The new guidelines are 18/1 - is that the ratio?

Why not supply some actual information if you've got it?

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

I don't have actual information because none exists. The fact is that every drug, legal or not, is going to have different effects on different individuals. I may get drunk after three beers while you could walk a straight line after ten. You may become addicted to cocaine after a few uses while I could use for years and not become addicted. It's a game of Russian roulette. That said, the information I've given is generally true.

sr80 6 years, 10 months ago

how about my personal experience with both types,will that be good enough jafs?

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

What's that exactly?

How much stronger than powdered cocaine is crack?

sr80 6 years, 10 months ago

It is as jhawk said,there is no comparison!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 10 months ago

OK, if you're going to make that comparison, which is worse, drinking 9 ounces of whiskey (6 drinks @ 1 1/2 ounces per drink,) or 72 ounces (6 beers) of strong beer? For someone looking to get a good buzz on, these are typical amounts.

sr80 6 years, 10 months ago

bozo you should go work for obama,you and him are both geniuses in math!!!!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 10 months ago

The primary difference between the two drugs is cost. Cocaine is more expensive, so its users tend to be of a higher socio-economic demographic. Crack is much cheaper, which is why it's more favored by those of a lower socio-economic demographic-- ie, a ghetto drug.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

Why is the cost lower?

From what I just read, crack is made from powdered cocaine, so you have to get the powdered form first.

And, I wasn't able to find out anything about relative strength - it seems that crack is made by boiling cocaine powder in some chemicals.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

I disagree that the primary difference between the two drugs is cost. While that is true, the primary difference is the effect it has on the body. Let me give you an example. Suppose I bought a certain amount of powder cocaine. I split it in half and snorted my half. You injected your half intravenously. Exact same drug, exact same weight and lets assume we had the exact same body weight. The method of use will result in a very different reaction from our body. That's the difference between crack and powder cocaine. Most people have an aversion to needles and for that reason, powder cocaine is rarely injected. Crack was developed specifically for that population, the group that wants the intense rush of intravenous use but don't want to use needles. Cost is one difference, but the effect on the body, that intense rush, which is so highly addictive, is the main difference between the two.

pizzapete 6 years, 10 months ago

Crack is cheaper because it's mixed with baking soda and water and then cooked. After the cocaine is cooked it more than doubles in size to make crack. It's like comparing a ball of snow (crack) to a shot glass of water (cocaine).

equalaccessprivacy 6 years, 10 months ago

Right --which supports the idea that the "War on Drugs" is a war on poor people and those of color.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 10 months ago

Saw the headline & knew this was a Lenny column.

bevy 6 years, 10 months ago

I love where he says "you couldn't prove it by me." Does that mean he's still doing drugs?

pizzapete 6 years, 10 months ago

This quote was taken directly from this web site... T

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. … Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” — Harry J. Anslinger, America’s 1st Drug Czar (FDR – JFK)

Flap Doodle 6 years, 10 months ago

Hey, hey, ho, ho. Eric Holder's got to go!

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

Well, since nobody answered my questions, I did a little research.

Pharmacologically, per molecule of cocaine, crack is identical to powdered cocaine.

Some say that smoking crack is more addictive than snorting powder, others dispute that.

The cost differential is undoubtedly why so many more low income folks use crack than powder.

So far, I have found nothing to justify longer sentences for crack use than for powdered cocaine use, even if I thought drugs should be illegal.

The end result of this difference is exactly what Pitts describes - large numbers of poor and minority folks in prison for smoking crack vs. low numbers of rich white folks in for using powdered cocaine.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

Why can a smoker of 10 years quit on their first try and another can't? Why does one person become addicted to drugs and another doesn't? We don't know. Look at my reply to bozo, the one where I gave the example of two people using the exact same amount of powder cocaine. One person snorted it and another injected it. The "high" they get will be very different. The "rush" they get will be very different. That's the difference between crack and powder. I don't need a pharmacologist to tell me about the molecular structure of this or that. And I don't need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind blows. Crack is a far more dangerous drug to the person who takes it and the consequences to society are greater. Hence the disparate sentences. Race is a smoke screen (pardon the pun). Or look at it another way. Suppose I had a couple at a bar and drove home. I get stopped and blow a 0.08, legally drunk. Another person does the same thing, but he had a couple of more. he blows a 0.20, very drunk. Same drug. Same crime, DUI. Same sentence? I don't think so. And if the the person who blows a 0.20 claims discrimination, fair?

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

Well, first, I believe that drugs should be legal.

So, it doesn't matter to me whether one drug is worse for somebody than another, or whether alcohol and cigarettes are as bad, etc.

I think you're vastly underestimating the racial/socio-economic aspects of this. Cocaine use is very bad for people, regardless of form. Yet, rich white folks are much less likely to go to jail, and for much less time, than poor black/minority folks.

Whether or not incarcerating people is a good deterrent is also debatable. Given very high recidivism rates, I'd say it's not a very good one.

Driving drunk is something that endangers other people, so somebody who's more drunk is endangering other people more than someone who's less drunk. That's a reasonable distinction, and would apply if drugs were legal as well.

pizzapete 6 years, 10 months ago

The economics of it is such that two people, one rich and one poor, guilty of the same crime, will receive different sentences. This is because the wealthy individual can pay for a good attorney, pay any required fines, pay for treatment, and pay for a jury trial, among other things. Being poor in America is a very unfortunate circumstance. Add being a minority and or drug addict to the equation and there really is no comparison to being a rich white guy when one is being charged with any crime.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

To key in on your last paragraph, if someone is more drunk, endangering more people, suffering greater consequences, right. The same is true for crack vs. powder. More high, greater risk (addiction, needing treatment, crime to support habit, etc.), suffer greater consequences. It's the same.
Now if you want to add legalization into the equation, fine, but I'm just trying to de-bunk the racial bias aspect. Legalization adds a completely new element that has it's own positives and negatives. One other fact that should be thrown in. During my years in California, a large city where crack use was wide spread and often done in public. In many neighborhoods, you couldn't walk one block without seeing crack use. Powder cocaine use in public was rare, in fact I'm trying to recall if I ever saw it. But the point is that if it's done in public, if I see it daily, multiple times, then the police see it. If powder cocaine is used privately, it won't come to the attention of the police. It becomes an easy explanation that has less to do with race than socioeconomic factors. I'm a bit of a hard-a$$ when it comes to legalization. For me it's either all the way or not at all. Legalize it fine, but no treatment, no services, no emergency care. You choose to play Russian roulette, fine, but you suffer the consequences. You die and I'll just step over your dead a$$. I know that sounds hard, but I've too much suffering to enable people to do what is ultimately self-destructive behavior.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

Except that the example was driving drunk, not just being drunk.

It would be the same with drugs - if somebody were driving under the influence of them.

Somebody who sits in their living room drinking Scotch is not endangering pedestrians and other motorists on the road.

I said socio-economic factors as well. But, you seem to want to ignore/deny the reality that race is connected to those things as well.

That's a harsh stance - I'm not in favor of enabling people, but I am in favor of educating and helping them, if they want help and are willing to take the steps they need to take.

Does your stance apply to alcohol and cigarettes as well?

pizzapete 6 years, 10 months ago

Ever try doing cocaine in public? Besides possibly being arrested, the drug gets blown away by the wind. Kinda like spitting into a full ashtray, you should only make that mistake once.

tbaker 6 years, 10 months ago

Spending tax money to keep someone in prison for personal drug use is such a terrible waste of resources. Illicit drug use should be "treated" not "punished." The fact this practice is disproportionately more prevalent among poor / minority communities is all the more reason to end it.

See 18th amendment to the constitution.

Scott Morgan 6 years, 10 months ago

Often asked why I'm so against rap. Well, demeaning women promoting violence and drug use for one. In the 1970s a guy could get in trouble for opening a door for a liberated women. 2011 we have "stars" bragging about subordinating women while glorifying drugs.

We have a media promoted brand of entertainment which highlights drug use to a specific race called rap. Wish Pitts and Obama would follow Bill Cosby's lead and begin fighting this source of the problem.

50YearResident 6 years, 10 months ago

Some food for thought here. A rich white person (or black) with a cocane habit, takes money out of his or her bank account to support their habit. A poor person of any color, black or white, has to steal and rob to support their habit. Which group is more likely to end up in jail. The dammed thief, of course, no matter what race they are.

jaywalker 6 years, 10 months ago

" Crack was developed specifically for that population, the group that wants the intense rush of intravenous use but don't want to use needles."

Check me if I'm wrong, but crack is not an intravenous drug. It's smoked. You're definitely right about the effect on the body, and the addiction rate is exceptionally high, pardon the pun.

Whatever's going on and the effects that ensue, there needs to be a different approach.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

Yes, crack is smoked but the effect is much the same as using it intravenously. And the effect is very different than snorting cocaine. That is why crack is, and should be treated differently than powder cocaine. Now if we were to see a huge increase in powder cocaine being injected, if for some reason people stopped snorting it, then it should be treated the same as crack. Until that happens, there is a legitimate reason for treating crack and powder differently and the legitimate reason has nothing to do with race.

notaubermime 6 years, 10 months ago

You know, I can buy that drug laws are applied in racially discriminating ways, but that the laws were designed with discrimination in mind? I haven't seen anything that would support that. What Pitts fails to mention is that smoking crack produces a much faster and more ephemeral high than snorting cocaine. It should go without saying that this increases the addictive and destructive power on the body. Not equal drugs means not equal sentences. No racism in that explanation needed.

Kathy Theis-Getto 6 years, 10 months ago

I believe you are not looking in the right places.

"The War on Drugs in the U. S. has its roots deeply embedded in racism. In 1875, the first anti-drug ordinance was passed in San Francisco, because authorities at the time were afraid of Chinese men luring "white women" into promiscuous activities using opium.

In the early 1900's, the idea of the "Negro Cocaine Fiend" was highly publicized as someone who was prone to violent sexual rampages against white women. Outlawing marijuana in 1937 was a repressive measure against Mexican migrant workers who were crossing the borders and taking jobs during the Great Depression. Marijuana was supposed to promote violence within the "degenerate races."

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 months ago

Your most recent example is 74 years old. What does it mean in today's context? That would be like saying that the Birmingham, Alabama Fire Dept. discriminated against blacks in the 1960's. therefore the Kansas City, Missouri Fire Dept. discriminates against blacks today. Even though we know that discrimination exists today, it would be a leap in logic to make that assumption about the K.C. Fire Dept. I have no specific reason to believe that the K.C. Fire Dept. discriminates and I have no specific reason to believe this drug law is discriminatory.

Brent Garner 6 years, 10 months ago

There have been countries who have successfully combatted drug trade. I refer you to a period of time in Canton, China leading up to the first Opium War. England had introduced opium to China and the drug was devastating in its impact. The Emporer appointed a fellow named Lin to go to Canton, which was the center of the opium trade, and fix the problem. Amazingly Lin did. Lin was uncorruptable. He was also forceful using both persuasion and actual physical force and violence to wipe out the opium parlors and confiscate the opium. He forcefully seized over 2 million pounds of opium which he then destroyed. His actions put an end to opium trade in Canton but, unfortunately, triggered was with England over his insistence that British citizens in Canton be subject to Chinese Law. The important point is that his heavy handed methods worked. He raided suppliers, threw them in jail, even executed many. The result was an end to the trade. However, the US lacks the courage to do the same and lacks the uncorruptible officials to carry it out.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

You really think that's the answer?

Simple legalization would be far easier, less expensive, and more consistent with the fact that alcohol and cigarettes are legal.

Otherwise, I suppose we could make those substances illegal as well (oh wait, didn't we try that?)

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