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


lalalala 2 years, 10 months ago

You want crack cocaine Mr. Pitts, you're likely going to buy it from an African American young male. If you want meth, a white male ages 15-65.


Brent Garner 2 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.


notaubermime 2 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.


jaywalker 2 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.


nonracist 2 years, 10 months ago

Only a true racist will deny Pitts facts and conclusions.


50YearResident 2 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.


Scott Morgan 2 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.


tbaker 2 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.


SnakePlisskin 2 years, 10 months ago

Which came first. Ethnicity or a penchant for drugs.


jafs 2 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.


Flap Doodle 2 years, 10 months ago

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


pizzapete 2 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)


PaladKik 2 years, 10 months ago

Racism and drugs is why blacks are in prison? That's not very nice.

Pitts article reminds me of the outstanding movie with Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas in American Ganster.

Armed with ruthless, street-wise tactics and a strict sense of honor, crime boss Frank Lucas (Washington) rules Harlem's chaotic drug underworld.


bevy 2 years, 10 months ago

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


Flap Doodle 2 years, 10 months ago

Saw the headline & knew this was a Lenny column.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 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.


jhawkinsf 2 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.


Paul R Getto 2 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.


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