Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In Our War on Drugs, Women and People of Color Lose

In response to questions about my previous post, I decided to address problems of racism and sexism in the United States', "War on Drugs."

The "War" began in 1969 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act and the term the "War on Drugs" was coined in 1972. Since then, drug use of every kind has increased, as has the prison population. This increase in the incarcerated has been extremely racially disproportional. Although only 12% of the US population is black, black citizens account for 45% of imprisoned drug offenders. The US Hispanic population also accounts for 12% of the total population, but makes up 20% of imprisoned drug offenders. Maybe black and Hispanic citizens use drugs more frequently? Actually, 72% of drug users in the US are white.

It is racist drug policies that cause these discrepancies. One example: crack cocaine and powder cocaine. These two drugs are derived from the same material and have very similar effects on the brain, both in the short and long term. However, there is a large sentencing disparity between these two substances. The distribution of five grams of crack cocaine yields a minimum five year sentence. Distributing five hundred grams of powder cocaine yields the same sentence. How does this help to account for racism in drug policy? Crack cocaine is more frequently distributed in lower income areas and use is more widespread in communities of color. However, powder cocaine is much more expensive to purchase and often sold and used in wealthy, white communities. These two drugs have the same effect on users, why are the sentences so different?

In ten US states, felony convictions, which include these drug convictions, lead to permanent disenfranchisement, meaning the lose of the right to vote, to inform legislators, to have a voice in your own government.

Women, too, have been affected by this "War on Drugs." Women often play minor roles in the drug trade, but when they are convicted they are sentenced to longer sentences than their male counterparts. Marsha Cunningham is an incarcerated African American women serving time for possession with intent to distribute. She was arrested at age 26 when DEA agents found her live-in boyfriend's drugs in her home.

In her words, "Then they arrested me because they found drugs in the storage compartment in the bottom of the stove. I was taken to the FBI office and questioned about the drugs. I told them that I didn't know anything about the drugs and that they were not mine. The agent told me that he knew that the drugs were not mine and that my boyfriend told him that the drugs were his. However, the agent felt like I knew where my boyfriend got the drugs. But I didn't and still don't. From lack of knowledge and having a boyfriend that I could not keep my eyes on 24 hours a day, the government punished me with a sentence of 15 years in prison."

She is currently still in jail. In fact, women are the fastest growing group of prison inmates. Marsha is a victim of a "War on Drugs" that has not curbed drug use but has incarcerated and disenfranchised a population of already struggling Americas, in addition, to harming the innocent elsewhere in the world.


Amelia said...

Great information. Thanks, Kate.

So to connect back to your other post, did you just mean to say that the American "War on Drugs" lead to the pressure for Afghanis to reduce their opiate crops which lost that as a means of income for Afghani families, and THAT lead to an increase in child brides?

If that was what you meant, you might want to make that connection in your post. It was very informative, though. Both of them were. Good work!

Kate said...

Yes. Exactly. The United States government is pressing for eradification of drug fields in foreign nations to aid our own domestic "War on Drugs", such as Afghanstan, which is leading to these innocent victims.

La Pobre Habladora said...

I thought of this post when I heard the second act of this episode of This American Life this morning. I don't think that most citizens of the U.S. realize that, along with heightened awareness and a talk-to-kids campaign, the so-called 'war on drugs' has meant harsh sentences for even minor offenses and, according to your post, some aggressive international action as well.