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.

DARE to Stop Buying into Drug War Propaganda

I don’t want to lose you so I’ll start slow:

The Federal Government should legalize all illegal drugs.

Whoa- sorry. That just popped out. I was going to start with some statistics, walk you down the path that led me to make that very controversial statement. My bad.

Let’s start over.

You know, I think most people find the idea of doing meth distasteful. Same goes for heroin and crack cocaine. We shake our heads in dismay at the physical toll it takes on the body. We worry about our children and the choices they’ll make when they encounter illegal drugs.

I was first introduced to the concept of decriminalization1 in 2008 by a neighbor of mine in Colorado. He said the most shocking thing: “We should decriminalize all drugs.” And I freaked out. Freaked. Out. (Because: A. I’m a product of the D.A.R.E. generation; and B. At the time, I worked as a Corrections Officer at the county jail and a large number of inmates were obvious meth users and had sad, scary lives.)

My two main impressions about illegal drugs (and these are probably concerns shared by many other Americans) were these:

  1. Illegal drugs are worse for your health and more dangerous than legal drugs
  2. Illegal drug use is linked to higher rates of criminal violence

“What about heroin!? What about coke? And crack and meth!!! And…well, won’t it be dangerous for kids!?” I asked.

“Isn’t alcohol dangerous for kids? And cigarettes? And bleach? And riding in cars? And guns? And swimming? All of those things are legal.”

He was sort of flip and tended to disparage government services and regulation in general (he once told me we should eliminate speed limits and that driving drunk should be legal so long as you didn’t kill anyone), so I dropped the subject and wrote him off as one of those sovereign citizen types.

Health Concerns

But then I moved to Washington, and in 2012 it was one of two states to legalize recreational marijuana possession. I started doing some research about the actual safety and health concerns related to cannabis and came up with   … nothing. Really. In the history of all recorded causes of death ever, not one single person has died of marijuana overdose2. Not one.

Additionally, there are no long-term health effects (other than lung-related ailments if one is a long-term smoker of weed, and alternative methods of consumption eliminate this health risk).

Even the DEA and CDC fact sheets on LSD, “magic mushrooms” and mescaline were surprisingly benign (the exact words were “Deaths exclusively from acute overdose of LSD magic mushrooms, and mescaline are extremely rare.”) Yes, heroin and meth are more dangerous, and the instances of overdose are more common.3 But did you know that in 2010 more people in the US died of prescription drug overdose (22,134) than all other illegal drugs combined (17,000)?4 And even that number is peanuts when you look at the number of deaths caused by alcohol in the US alone: 88,000. In the world: 2.5 million.

Globally, tobacco use causes more than 5 million deaths per year. In the US, more than 440,000 people die every year from cigarette smoking (including second-hand smoke related fatalities). Yet smoking and drinking are legal, regulated, and taxed. And we know from experience that alcohol prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking or curb the distribution of alcohol (rather, it made drinking more dangerous than it is now due to unsafe manufacturing processes and unregulated alcohol content, not to mention the illegal enterprises that sprouted up to make money on the black market).

It’s clear that the most common illegal drugs are hardly a public health risk when compared to legal substances, so what are some of the other arguments against legalizing or decriminalizing illegal drugs?

Crime and Criminals

Along with concerns about the health effects of illegal drugs, my other immediate reaction to the idea of decriminalization involved public safety and crime related to drug use, trafficking, and dealing. Weren’t people who used and dealt drugs also violent? That’s why they go to prison, right? Wrong.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3.9% of homicides are drug-related5.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom and popular myth, alcohol is more tightly linked with more violent crimes than crack, cocaine, heroin or any other illegal drug. In state prisons, 21 percent of inmates in prison for violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol–and no other substance–when they committed their crime; in contrast, at the time of their crimes, only three percent of violent offenders were under the influence of cocaine or crack alone, only one percent under the influence of heroin alone.”  – Joseph Califano, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

In 2007, more than 14 million arrests were made in the US. Of those, drug abuse violations came in at #1 with over 1.8 million people arrested for possession, trafficking, manufacturing, and distribution of illegal substances. According to the same BJS report, more than 4/5 of those arrests were for possession. And while the number of arrests for sale or manufacture of drugs has stayed static at about 300,000 annually since the late 80s, the number of arrests for possession has tripled from around 500,000 per year to over 1.5 million arrests per year.

And when these people are arrested, they’re very often convicted and sent to prison. Federal mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing laws, and three-strikes laws have all played extensive roles in the prison population explosion in the last 20 years. Not only are people going to prison for non-violent crimes, they’re often going away for a very, very long time. Federal mandatory minimums outline the sentencing ranges for different amounts of illegal substances:

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A) and 960(b)(1), a statutory range of ten years to life applies to offenses involving at least:

1 kilogram of Heroin

5 kilograms of Cocaine (powder)

280 grams of Cocaine base

1,000 kilograms of Marijuana or 1,000 plants

50 grams of actual Methamphetamine or 500 grams of mixture or substance

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(B) and 960(b)(2), a statutory range of 5 to 40 years applies to offenses involving at least:

100 grams of Heroin

500 grams of Cocaine (powder)

28 grams of Cocaine base

100 kilograms of Marijuana or 100 plants

5 grams of actual Methamphetamine or 50 grams of mixture or substance

Enhanced Penalties. Sections 841(b) and 960(b) include enhancement provisions based on the defendant’s prior record, which are only applicable if the government provides notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 (Proceedings to establish previous convictions). A qualifying prior conviction increases a 5- to 40-year range to a range of 10 years to life. A qualifying prior conviction increases a 10-year mandatory minimum to a 20-year mandatory minimum (the maximum remains life); a second qualifying prior conviction increases a 10-year mandatory minimum to mandatory life.

That’s a lot of numbers so I’ll take a break for now. What I want to point out here is that millions of people (including a vastly disproportionate number of Black and Latino/a Americans) are going to prison and staying in prison for a long time simply for possessing and using substances that are comparable to legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and acetaminophen.


There are a number of reasons why the war on drugs is still a viable platform for our politicians – too many reasons to discuss in detail today – But we’ve looked at two of the most successfully propagated myths (public health and crime prevention) and in my next post I plan to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system as well as examine the financial motivations in the war on drugs (like private prisons and the liquor lobby).

The fundamental question is this: Do people who choose to use drugs deserve to go to prison for doing so? Really think about that. And if your answer is still “Yes,” ask yourself if people who drink alcohol deserve to go to prison, or if people who use prescription drugs should be locked up? After prohibition failed miserably in the US, the US Government adjusted its approach. Rather than make the alcohol illegal, it was regulated and taxed. And those activities that presented a true public health or safety risk were made illegal (driving while intoxicated, contributing to a minor, etc.) So now that I’ve thrown some statistics at you, I’ll reframe my original statement: The war on drugs isn’t slowing drug use or reducing violent crime. It’s time to decriminalize all illegal drug use and possession.




————–This is Part 1 of a two-part series————-


1The difference between “legal” and “decriminalized” varies by state. While Washington State has “legalized” possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, there are still a significant number of regulations restricting how it will be grown, processed, and sold. So, it’s legal in the state of Washington to carry and consume specified amounts of marijuana, but much like alcohol and tobacco there are laws to regulate the sale and manufacture of cannabis goods, as well as laws that detail enforcement and sentencing for selling to a minor, driving under the influence, and public consumption. “Decriminalization,” on the other hand, often simply involves a local or state convening authority declaring that certain activities will no longer be prosecutable offenses, or that those activities will now be considered misdemeanors or civil infractions punishable only by fines rather than felony offenses. In 2010, prior to I-502 (the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in WA state) the Seattle City Council voted to reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor, and the Mayor instructed the police department to make arrests and searches for cannabis the department’s lowest priority. This was essentially decriminalization. There were no laws explicitly authorizing possession of cannabis, but sanctions for violations were much more lenient, if/when they were enforced at all.

If it seems that I’m using these terms interchangeably throughout this post, it’s because I am. Decriminalization is the more likely than legalization for the majority of presently illegal substances.  I’ll take either one (or both).

2In contrast, according to, over 1500 people died from acetaminophen poisoning between 2001 and 2010. That’s about 150 people per year.

346 people died of heroin overdoses in Minneapolis in 2011 – by comparison 204 people died in the same city during 2011 in motor vehicle accidents

417,000 deaths attributed to illegal drugs, including those deaths caused by vehicle accidents, HIV infections, and hepatitis

5 Victims of violent crimes who chose to participate in the BJS victim perception survey reported that just 4.9% of offenders were on drugs when they committed their violent crime. Alcohol, however, was reported by to be a factor in over 15% of violent crimes. 28.8% reported the perpetrator was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and 44.2% reported they didn’t know.