Illegal Drug Use Laws
Drug laws and their enforcement is a controversial issue in America. Drug swoops, arrests, incarcerations and other forms of punishment for convicted drug offenders have been the main bone of contention. Intrinsically, drug laws such as the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (1938), the Controlled Substance Act (1970) among others are crafted without the intention to apply selectively and discriminately to different races and social classes. However, studies by federal and private agencies have revealed that the laws apply or are enforced unfairly to some races and especially on African Americans. For instance, the ratio of African American to white arrests has stagnated at between 3.5 and 3.9 since 2000. A study 2003 study by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed that African Americans charged with drug offenses, faced incarceration rates that were ten times higher than their white counterparts. This statistics present a grim situation where either the laws are applied selectively based on race or there is poor legal representation of blacks in the courts. Evidence presented in this case is substantial to prove that the disparities in drug arrests and incarcerations stem from unfairness in the application and enforcement of drug laws.
Asked to describe a typical drug offender, hardly any American would paint the picture of a white, middle class man smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine. Instead, many would describe an unkempt, African-American youth slouched in an alley snorting powder cocaine or a closely related scenario (Fellner, 2009). This perception of drug offenders has largely influenced and shaped the enforcement of drug laws. Since 1914 when the Harrison Narcotic Act came into force regulating the use of opium, numerous prohibitive laws against drug trade, distribution and use have been initiated. The “war against drugs” has largely been a cat and mouse game between the users, traders and distributors on one hand against state and federal antidrug enforcement authorities. The laws and their enforcement have been received very differently by the US populace across the racial and socio-economic divides. Drug swoops, arrests, incarcerations and other forms of punishment for convicted drug offenders have been the main bone of contention (Williams, 2009; Manski, Pepper & Petrie, 2001). While some people view and present evidence that the laws are fair to all, others have presented insurmountable evidence to show that the laws are applied selectively, discriminately and they oppress people from certain races and social-economic statuses.
Almost all drug laws are intrinsically fair; crafted to fight illegal drug use regardless of race or socio-economic status (Helms, Constanza, 2009). These laws include the 18th Amendment (Volstead Act on alcohol prohibition), the 21st Amendment which overturned alcohol prohibition, the Marijuana Tact Act (1937), Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (1938), Controlled Substance Act (1970), The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act (1996), federal law to regulate cannabis, Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act of 2000 among several others (Helms & Constanza, 2009). They never meant to apply selectively or discriminately.
As early as 1906 when the Food and Drugs Act came into force, the fight against drug abuse targeted some races and social-economic classes. The Act was meant to be a “labeling law” affecting misbranded foods and drugs (Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society-RAPS, 2011). Medicines were allowed to contain animal secretions, tar, cocaine, heroin or any other substance as long as they were properly labeled (RAPS, 2011). When this law was being implemented, there were fears that Chinese Opium dens would mushroom and take advantage of the law. Consequently, there were numerous crackdowns in Asian communities which used native medicines (Helms & Constanza, 2009). Stories that cocaine use in medicine was fueling violence among Black people in the south also gained root (RAPS, 2011). There were also numerous inflammatory and unsubstantiated accounts that “legalization” of cocaine led Black men to rape many white women. This led to blacks and Asians becoming heavy targets of the Food and Drugs law.
Since the 1970s when the fight against drug abuse started to intensify, public officials have been relatively untroubled by the disproportionate arrest and imprisonment of people from some races and social classes for drug offenses (Young & Reveire, 2009). Partisan politics, misinformation about drugs, skewed “tough on crime” punitive philosophies and uncritical embrace of the fight against illegal drug use have largely led public officials to harbor a preconceived notion that African Americans have a higher likelihood to break drug laws (Young & Reveire, 2009). This largely unfounded myth may have originated from the notion that African Americans are a bitter lot who seek legal and illegal means to reduce stress caused by racial oppression. As such, the harboring of outdated myths causes public officials to targets African Americans in the enforcement of drug-related laws.
The enforcement of laws against drug abuse has wrongly been seen as a way to protect the minority communities from harassment, addiction, violence and generally to ensure their survival (Green, et al, 2010). Contreras (2013) notes that supporters of the laws against drugs argue that enforcement of drug laws is in the best interest of minority communities such as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other minority races. However, rather than serve correctional and rehabilitative purposes that the laws are supposed to in order to allegedly help the minority communities, enforcement of these laws has largely achieved the contrary (Curry & Corral-Camacho, 2008). According to Williams (2009), drug laws enforcers clamp tightly on suspects and convicted offenders from minority communities as compared to how they do on whites. Many offenders from minority communities suffer relatively more extensive harassments during drug swoops as well as wrongful and lengthy incarcerations.
Although the laws against drugs are supposed to apply to all US citizens, they seem to have waged a war against black Americans for many years. Relative to their population in the country and also among the total number of drug offenders, African Americans are disproportionately, searched, arrested, convicted and imprisoned on drug charges (Young & Reveire, 2006). A 2004 study carried out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found out that among youths aged 12 and 17; American Indians contributed the largest percentage (26%) of drug users in that age group, 12.2% for youths of mixed races, 11.1% whites, 10.2% Hispanics, 9.3% Blacks and 6% Asians (Fellner, 2009).
Another study by SAMHSA in 2006 revealed that 49% of whites and 42.9% of blacks beyond the age of 12 years had used illicit drugs in their lifetimes. 14.5% of whites and 16% of blacks admitted to have used an illicit drug within the preceding year (Fellner, 2009). Since the number f whites in the US is six times higher than that of African Americans, the actual figure of white drug offenders is significantly high as compared to that of African American offenders. Going by SAMHSA’s investigations, about 111, 774,000 aged more than 12 years have used an illicit drug in their lifetime (Fellner, 2009). This translates to 82, 587,000 whites and 12,477, 000 African American users! SAMHSA also estimates that there are about 27 million whites who have used cocaine in their lifetime as compared to 12 million African Americans. In summation, African American drug users contribute between 13 and 20% of users of any given illegalized drug (Fellner, 2009).
Using the above statistics it is expected that application of drug laws to deal with the offenders would yield proportionate results, but it does not. Various researchers have consistently found out that African Americans remain more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related charges relative to their percentage in the general population as compared to white offenders 9manski, pepper & Petrie, 2001; Contreras, 2013). Between 1980 and 2007 more than 25 million people were arrested for drug offenses. The percentage of arrests for African Americans increased from 27% in 1980 to 42% in 1993 before slowing down to 35% in 2007 (Fellner, 2009). Relative to their population, blacks were arrested at higher rates than whites. According to Curry and Corral-Camacho (2008) in 1980, the rate of African Americans arrested for drug offenses was 2.9 times higher than that of whites. During the most intense years of drug fight (1988 and 1993) the rate of African Americans arrested for drug offenses was five times that of whites. Since 2000, the ratio of African American to white arrests has stagnated at between 3.5 and 3.9 (Fellner, 2009).
Although the above discussed ratio has declined since the mid 1990s, racial disparity in drug arrest has persisted. This is in spite of several changes in drug use and law enforcement. The ongoing urban drug law enforcement or drug law enforcement in black urban neighborhoods is testimony to the unfairness of drug laws. In 2007, 77% of drug arrests took place in cities. Although urban blacks make up 6% of the national population, they constituted 29% of all drug arrests in 2007 (Fellner, 2009). Between 1980 and 2003 arrests of African Americans were three times higher that of whites in the largest American cities. In 11 American cities, black drug arrests increased by 500% between 1980 and 2003. In 2002, a survey from 75 of the largest counties in the US showed that Africans arrested for drug offenses constituted 46% of all such arrests even if they represented 15% of the population in those counties (Fellner, 2009). For instance in New York, African Americans make up 10% of the population yet they accounted for 42% of drug arrests in that state.
The racial disparities in the fight against drugs become even more evident as cases wind through the criminal justice system. African Americans make up 43% while whites make up 55% of drug offence case brought before the state courts. However, African Americans account for 53% while whites account for 33% of all persons who are convicted and incarcerated on drug charges! (Fellner, 2009) The most compelling evidence on the unfair and racially tilted application of drug laws is given by the statistics that out of 100,000 black people faced with drug charges, 256 of them were highly likely to be incarcerated. This is ten times higher that the white rates which stand at 25 incarcerations for every 100,000 people. Going by the 2003 SAMHSA study, African American men are 11 time more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses as compared to their white counterparts! (Fellner, 2009). This statistics present a grim situation where either the laws are applied selectively based on race or poor legal representation of blacks in the courts. Either way the disparities evident point to unfairness in the application of drug laws.
Drug laws and their enforcement is a controversial issue in America. It is riddled with claims of taking a racial outlook with many arrests and incarcerations involving African Americans as compared to other races in the country. Drug swoops, arrests, incarcerations and other forms of punishment for convicted drug offenders have been the main bone of contention. Intrinsically, drug laws such as the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (1938), the Controlled Substance Act (1970) among others are crafted without the intention to apply selectively and discriminately to different races and social classes. However, their enforcement has seen them apply to harass African Americans relatively more than other races in spite of the number of African American being relatively low in the country. For instance, the ratio of African American to white arrests has stagnated at between 3.5 and 3.9 since 2000. A study 2003 study by SAMHSA showed that African Americans charged with drug offenses, faced incarceration rates that were ten times higher than their white counterparts (256: 100,000 for African Americans against 25:100,000 for whites). This statistics present a grim situation where either the laws are applied selectively based on race or poor legal representation of blacks in the courts. Poor legal representation could be a manifestation of unfavorable socio-economic disposition of many African Americans as compared to whites. Either way, the evidence presented in this case is substantial to prove that the disparities in drug arrests and incarcerations stem from unfairness in the application and enforcement of drug laws.
American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.).American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved December 19, 2013, from https://www.aclu.org/drug-law-reform/against-drug-prohibition
Contreras, R. (2013). The stickup kids: race, drugs, violence, and the American dream. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Curry, T. R., & Corral-Camacho, G. (2008). Sentencing Young Minority Males For Drug Offenses: Testing For Conditional Effects Between Race/ethnicity, Gender And Age During The US War On Drugs. Punishment & Society, 10(3), 253-276.
Fellner, J. (2009, June 19). Part I: Race Defines the Problem. Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States. Retrieved December 19, 2013, from http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/06/19/race-drugs-and-law-enforcement-united-states
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