Political Physics: The “Malcolm X” Approach to the War on Drugs

a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

CorifeuThe United States has been waging a “war on drugs” for several decades, even before Nancy Reagan coined the term “Just Say No!”  The weapons of choice for this particular war were several pieces of legislation and policies aimed at reducing the illegal drug trade creating harsher penalties thereby discouraging the production, distribution and consumption of targeted substances.

In the mid-80’s Congress felt that we were still not “winning the war.”  So in 1986 Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which forced judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors. Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture and the number of prior convictions.

Fast forward more than thirty years later.  Is the war over?

In 2002 around 14 million Americans were using illegal drugs on a regular basis.  In the same year, Americans spent about $64 billion on illegal drugs.  According to the US Department of Health & Human Services about 2.5% of Americans used cocaine at least once in 2006, the same percentage as in 2002.  In addition, while seizures are up, so are shipments.  1,421 metric tons of cocaine were shipped to the US and Europe last year.  This is 39% more than in 2006.  And the United Nations estimates that the area devoted to growing coca leaf in the Andes expanded 16 percent last year.  In December 2007 article in Rolling Stones, Ben Wallace-Wells notes, “after thirty-five years and $500 billion, drugs are as cheap and plentiful as ever.”

So, is the war over or are we winning the war on drugs?  I do not think so, but more importantly I am not sure we can live with the unintended consequences.  Is this really a war that we want to win “by any means necessary?”

According to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the “US Sentencing Commission and the Department of Justice have both concluded that mandatory sentencing [the core weapon of the war on drugs] fails to deter crime.  Furthermore, mandatory minimums have worsened racial and gender disparities and have contributed greatly toward prison overcrowding.”

In May 2007, the US Sentencing Commission released a report to Congress that focused on the flaws inherent with mandatory sentencing.  In the report, the Commission notes that the penalty structure, often referred to as “100 to 1” ratio because it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack to trigger the same mandatory minimum penalty, is responsible for sending record numbers of women and people of color to prison.

Cocaine, in powder form, is ten times more expensive than crack.  Therefore, crack tends to be the “poor man’s drug.”  The average user and retailer of crack is typically a minority.  Since the enactment of mandatory sentences in 1986, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites.  Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.  According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in Massachusetts 80 percent of people incarcerated under mandatory minimums are people of color. In 2006, 75 percent of the people convicted under mandatory minimum drug laws were minorities though only 15 percent of the state’s population is minority.  And between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in prison for drug law violations increased by 421%.

Prisons in states around the country are bursting at the seams with non-violent offenders serving significant sentences.  The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers noted that “the average crack cocaine sentence, 120 months, is greater than: the 103-month average sentence for robbery; the 76-month average sentence for arson; the 64-month average sentence for sexual abuse; and the 31-month average sentence for manslaughter.”  More than 80% of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 is due to drug convictions.

The US Sentencing Commission continues to maintain that the “100 to 1” drug ratio is not only ineffective and fails to provide adequate proportionality between powder cocaine and crack. However, this ratio is the leading cause of prison overcrowding and disproportionately impacts minorities.

A new bill aptly titled the Powder-Crack Cocaine Penalty Equalization Act of 2009 is making its way through the halls of Congress right now.  The bill, H.R. 18, would amend the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, with regard to trafficking, possession, importation, and exportation of such substances, by changing the applicable amounts for powder cocaine to those currently applicable to crack cocaine.

It’s a little too late for the hundreds of thousands of minorities and women currently serving disproportionate sentences for drug-related offenses.

There was a quote by the Drug Policy Alliance Network that said it best, “few public policies have compromised public health and undermined our fundamental civil liberties for so long and to such a degree as the war on drugs.”.


flickr.com photo credit: Marco Gomes