The War on Drugs: Racism, Profits, and More Profits

In my previous post I explored two myths about illegal drugs in the US:

  1. Illegal drugs are more dangerous than legal drugs
  2. Drug use is linked to higher rates of criminal violence

After looking at the death rates related to illegal and legal substances, we were able to substantiate that most illegal drugs pose very little risk to public health when compared to their legal counterparts (alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals). We also established that illegal drug use by individuals is not a public safety issue. Drug use and violence aren’t inherently linked, and most violent crimes are not drug-related.

The first two myths are propagated on a grand scale to enforce the concept of moral policing. If we (society) think an activity is dangerous to the public, we tend to view that activity as immoral. The activity may not, in fact, be dangerous to anyone other than the person doing it (think skateboarding, skydiving, mountain climbing, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, eating McDonalds) but if it’s widely accepted that the activity is wrong, it matters not that the person doing it isn’t actually hurting anyone else at all. Stigmas associated with imprisonment and addiction further the ideology that drug use is fundamentally immoral, and populations that are associated with illegal drug use are forced outside societal norms and grouped together with people who actually do cause harm to others. Therefore, we’re gradually and systematically less injured to the idea that people in possession of small amounts of illegal substances can be sentenced to over 10 years in prison (or in this man’s case, life in prison) when rapists and murderers serve comparable sentences.

Race and Incarceration

After bombarding you with numbers in Part 1, I decided a chart was in order to really communicate the disparities for minorities in the criminal justice system. The data from the chart below was found from two sources: Bureau for Justice Statistics and the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.

Drug use and incarceration rates chart

African Americans make up only 12% of illicit drug users, yet represent over 40% of those imprisoned for drug use.

While African Americans make up only 12% of people who use illegal drugs, they comprise over 40% of people incarcerated for drug use. This alone should be alarming. Why are minorities being arrested and convicted at higher rates for using the same illegal drugs as White people? And not only are conviction rates higher for African Americans -the sentences are also longer. According to The Sentencing Project:

“A study published in 2000 found that blacks in Kansas City received sentences that were 14.09 months longer for drug offense convictions and 6.57 months longer for property crime convictions than sentences given to similarly situated whites.”

And a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that sentences for Black men are on average 20% longer than for White men who commit similar crimes.1

WTF, America?

Additionally, users of crack cocaine face much harsher criminal penalties than those who use its almost molecularly identical powder version, the regular (rich white people) cocaine. There is quite literally no difference between the two except for the addition of baking soda to crack cocaine, which lowers the melting temperature, allowing the user to melt and smoke it instead of snorting it up their nose. But as you saw from the mandatory minimums in the last post, you’d have to be hauling around over 5 kilograms of Cocaine (powder) in order to get the same minimum 10 years to life sentence you’d get for possessing 280 grams (about 10 ounces) of Cocaine base (crack).

Decriminalizing illegal drugs won’t fix social injustice in our justice system, but it will help narrow that HUGE sentencing gap that is massively racist and classist and just all-around fucked up.

The Privatization of Prisons

Whenever there is an institutional resistance to rational change, there’s usually a financial motive driving that resistance. The war against drugs is no different. There is big money for a select few in maintaining the status quo, to the tune of $79 billion dollars. Factor in phone companies, commissary companies, prison uniform companies, toiletry companies, the prison construction industry… and well, you’ll be hard pressed to find an industry that doesn’t have an interest in the business of incarceration. Even some of our nation’s public school employee pension plans are investing in private prisons.

What does this mean? It means that in order for these companies to continue making money, people need to keep getting arrested and sentenced to prison. And that equals lobbies and political manipulation.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) maintains a presence in 66 privately run prisons in the U.S and has spent almost $2 million in political donations and over $17 million in lobby expenses over the last nine years, reporting a total revenue of $1.7 billion for 2011. The second largest prison corporation, The Geo Group, Inc. has comparable numbers, and both companies’ CEOs make a combined 9.4 million dollars per year.

By securing contracts with State governments guaranteeing 90+% occupancy rates, CCA is placing those same governments in the position of having to arrest a minimum number of people. CCA has publicly lobbied against relaxed penalties for minor drug possession, reporting in 2010 “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” CCA and The Geo Group advocate mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and Arizona’s recently passed controversial immigration law.

Private prisons tout their cost savings as a selling point, but their performance records (violence in the prisons, falsified staff records, substandard living conditions, abusive treatment of inmates)2 and the fact that their cost estimates do not include housing inmates with mental or physical health issues (of whom state-run prisons are housing in substantial numbers) mask substantial hidden expenses. In AZ, private prisons aren’t even required to provide cost comparisons to state-run facilities anymore, thanks to AZ legislation pushed by Representative John Kavanaugh and Governor Jan Brewer, both huge proponents of the private prison industry. AND, according to Daily KOS, Brewer’s “Chief of Staff, Paul Senseman, is a former lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America.”

That’s some scary shit. The pressure on local police departments to deliver an appropriate number of bodies to the prisons is driving an increase in arrests for minor drug crimes that are of no threat to public health or safety. People are being traded for money. People are losing their freedom and their families for years, sometimes decades, and capital lost from unemployment and urban decay is being sucked out of our lower income communities and funneled into the pockets of the prison industry.

The Liquor (and Pharmaceutical) Lobbies want you to Keep Drinking (duh)

To recap from the first post, the vast majority of illegal substances are no more dangerous or harmful to your health than legal drugs sold to us today (either for recreational use or over the counter prescriptions). Alcohol and tobacco, along with pharmaceutical opioids, are excessively bad for your health and responsible for millions of deaths per year, yet there are millions of dollars in political lobby contributions to make sure you’re led to believe that these substances are somehow safer than illegal substances. And because the liquor, pharmaceutical, prison, and tobacco lobbies want to keep making money, the war on drugs is still a thing and regular people are being sent to prison for possession at higher rates each year.

Cost of incarceration

It costs an average of $28,000 per year to house an inmate in a federal prison. In California, it costs around $49,000. That doesn’t include the cost to arrest, process, and convict an individual, nor does it take into account the personnel hours of law enforcement to patrol, arrest, interview, and process evidence. In most states, the cost to keep an adult locked up exceeds the number of dollars spent to educate students in elementary and secondary school. Look at this graph – it’s crazy. Nationally, excluding municipal and county jails, the cost adds up to $79 billion per year.

Treatment programs, by comparison, cost about $4000-$6000 PER YEAR per individual, and in states where treatment programs are already in place, they demonstrate higher success rates in reducing recidivism – up to 67% in Brooklyn’s DTAP (Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison) program (and isn’t that the whole point?). Additionally, the people receiving treatment continue to work and pay taxes, especially when they are able to avoid the massive stigma of a felony conviction.

What are other countries doing?

Portugal – Decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2000

Brazil – Users are not sent to jail, those in possession of small amounts of drugs are not imprisoned.

Uruguay – Legalized marijuana in 2013 and does not impose jail sentences for use and possession of small amounts of other drugs

Czech Republic – Possession of small amounts of marijuana, ecstasy, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, mushrooms, and hashish is not a criminal offense. Legislation to legalize marijuana is pending.

Spain – Drug consumption is not a crime in Spain.

Denmark – Provides state-sanctioned “drug rooms” where users can consume small quantities of heroin and cocaine.

Find more information on international drug law reform here:


1For further reading on racial disparities in sentencing, visit these sites:

2Some States are taking over management of private prisons now after years of reports detailing appalling conditions, high turnover, undertrained staff, and increased levels of violence.