Unreleased: The Drug War and Jim Crow’s Cosmetic Overhaul

David and Kevin, who asked to keep their real names off the record, were both convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. For David, a 31-year-old black male, and Kevin, a 21-year-old white male, this is where the similarities end.
David comes from an immigrant family in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Portland. Prior to selling marijuana, he had only tried the drug a handful of times.
“I never saw myself in that type of situation,” says David.
However, he says he needed to feed his family and couldn’t find a job so he turned to drug sales. Although he was a low level dealer, he was brought down with an elaborate sting and served two and a half years in the Sea-Tac Federal Prison.
Since his release, David has struggled to find employment but has been forced to scrape together money for his prison costs, work permit and the lawyer fees to fight against his deportation. He says the process for obtaining a work permit, valid for a year, can take around six months and cost $300-$350. If the first application doesn’t go through he must repay the fee to reapply.
“It’s a way to take away my status,” he says. “When I’m 67 I won’t be eligible for any government assistance because I have no status. All the money in the work pool won’t help me because I can’t get retirement.”
Kevin, on the other hand, comes from an upper middle class family in Los Angeles. According to him, he first tried smoking marijuana around the 8th grade and began doing it regularly at the end of his sophomore year in high school. Kevin says he’s experimented with a number of drugs including mushrooms, LSD and ecstasy. As a college junior, he lives in a house where the marijuana smoke smacks you in the face as soon as you open the door.
Kevin doesn’t remember much about the night he was busted in the dorms. According to him, campus security suddenly showed up at his room, beginning an inconvenient legal process.
He was given probation for a year, 80 hours of community service and a felony conviction. That felony conviction is now a misdemeanor, which Kevin is planning to have expunged through a $250 application process. He served no jail time nor paid any fines and the money that was seized during his bust was put towards his court fees. Even finding employment has been relatively easy for him.
“So many people don’t care or don’t check,” says Kevin.
The difference in David and Kevin’s punishments reflects in the statistics of the US prison system. According to the Justice Department, black males make up 35.4 percent of the prison system despite blacks only accounting for 13 percent of the US population. In contrast, white males account for 32.9 percent of prisons even though white people are 63 percent of the US population.
The majority of people incarcerated are serving time for drug crimes as a part of the 40th year of the War on Drugs. Despite statistics that show the rate of drug use and sales are uniform across all racial lines, blacks are overrepresented in prisons.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this dynamic is neither new nor a coincidence.
“If the goal of the War on Drugs was actually to reduce drug abuse and addiction then it is a failure of extraordinary proportions,” says Alexander. “If the goal of the Drug War was to incarcerate millions of people and create a vast new racial under caste then it has succeeded.”
In her book, Alexander asserts that mass incarceration is the newest evolution of racial caste in the US, the next logical progression after slavery and Jim Crow. She says that mass incarceration creates legalized second-class citizenship by discriminating against ex convicts in areas such as employment, housing and voting. There are actually more black people incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1850 and more disenfranchised black voters today than 1870.
According to Alexander, these dynamics have persisted because of supposedly colorblind laws, which use coded language to target people of color under the guise of being tough on crime.
She says this legacy started during Reconstruction, when white elites pitted poor whites against recently freed blacks by suggesting blacks would take their jobs. This allowed for things like vagrancy laws, which gave the police discretion to round up blacks for being in public and eventually spelled the end of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow.
When the War on Drugs began 40 years ago, former President Richard Nixon used rhetoric about getting tough on crime and going after urban drug criminals, which was a not so subtle reference to black and brown people. According to Alexander, drug abuse and addiction were actually on the decline and were considered a fairly minor problem at the time. However, the media campaign used by Nixon and amplified during the Reagan years, when images of the crack epidemic filled nightly newscasts, stirred the public into thinking the drug problem was worse than it was and that poor people of color were the problem. The same rhetoric used to rally poor whites during Reconstruction was revived in the War on Drugs through colorblind condemnations of drugs criminals, accompanied by images of black men in order to put a face on the “enemy.”
After enlisting the public’s complicity with the War on Drugs, the US Criminal Justice System went through the courts to give police more discretion in pursuing drug criminals. In many cases these rulings have flown in the face of 4th Amendment.
According to Alexander, the police are allowed to exhibit unchecked discretion, which creates an opportunity for racial bias, both conscious and unconscious. She cites a test where respondents were asked to close their eyes and imagine a drug criminal. 95 percent of the respondents pictured a black man.
With such bias exhibited in society it doesn’t help that the DEA has laid out a broad list of guidelines for pursuing the War on Drugs.
“The DEA devised a long list of contradictory and sometimes nonsensical criteria of who fits the profile of a drug courier,” says Alexander. “Everything from driving too quickly to observing the traffic laws too stringently to appearing nervous or appearing too calm make it possible for the police to view anyone as a drug criminal or drug courier.”
In other words, the police are allowed to stop and search anyone on the basis of a hunch as long as they get the person’s consent. Police are able to obtain consent because most people aren’t aware of their rights. For example police aren’t allowed to use drug-sniffing dogs without a warrant, yet they still threaten and sometimes use them, knowing that many people can’t afford the court costs to fight it. The result is a waste of vast police resources, a population of legalized second-class citizens and an increasingly empowered illegal drug industry.
“We’re losing the battle. The drug market continues to grow,” says Dennis Tune, a former Portland Police Officer who served for 25 years. “The use of it continues to grow in the sense that we’re seeing young kids, male and female, with cocaine, heroin, meth and alcohol.”
Tune worked mostly undercover in the Downtown Portland area where he says most of the street dealers he arrested were black and Latino. He says that a white male who was selling drugs from his home was less likely to be targeted by police because neighbors probably wouldn’t say anything.
The picture Tune paints of arrests and seizures differs greatly from the experience of Kevin. He says he arrested one person four times and each time, the police seized one of the person’s family’s cars.
“How would that impact you if we’re taking all this transportation?” asks Tune. “How do you get to work? How do you get to school?”
He says that once the state seizes a person’s assets, it can sell them or use them in future drug fighting operations.
This unintended consequence of a drug conviction alludes to the second-class citizenship convicts face. According to Alexander, when a prisoner is released he/she faces a lifetime of discrimination that includes denial of the right to vote, to serve on a jury and to apply for public housing for at least five years. Ex convicts can also be legally discriminated against in employment, education, public benefits and even in receiving food stamps.
“The old forms of discrimination are legal again,” says Alexander. “People that have criminal records are living in a parallel universe.”
One has to wonder how any of this is actually helping solve the drug problem.
According to Lee Swanigan, a drug treatment worker and reformed crack user, drugs and all forms of temptation were available to him in prison due to the hustling atmosphere. He says someone has to have their mind made up that they are going to clean themselves up or they’ll keep repeating their drug use and cycle in and out of prison.
“Going to the pen was part of a lifestyle,” says Swanigan.
He is now on dialysis three days a week, which leaves him with no energy to talk for the remainder of the day. Swanigan says he was taking care of the drugs instead of himself.
Perhaps he was suffering from a health problem rather than a criminal one. He stresses that drug addicts need rehabilitation to beat their problems, specifically inpatient rehab.
“Outpatient is totally wild,” says Swanigan. “People are in it for the money. There’s no real teaching in it.”
He says that this system creates a cycle where people on the other side of the economic coin don’t fix their problems and continue losing money for their efforts.
Although some might use this to argue that whites suffer unfair treatment in the War on Drugs as well, it neglects that poor people of color suffer heavy financial losses in the process of reintegrating into society as well as legalized second-class citizenship.
Meanwhile, the only people that benefit from the War on Drugs are drug producers in other countries and the prison industrial complex in the US. The prison industry makes $52 billion a year and private prison companies such as Wackenhut Corrections and the Corrections Corporation of America trade shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Many prisons also outsource their labor to private companies.
According to David, the state makes $100,000 per prisoner in the system, whether he/she is in prison, on parole or probation. There is no incentive to reintegrate them into society as evidenced by the US having the highest rates of recidivism in the world.
David says he knew a number of people who had sell drugs after being released because they couldn’t find work and didn’t have the money to afford classes or community service.
“I knew people who couldn’t cover the bills for a place to live,” says David. “They did a little bit of this and a little bit of that while working to live a decent life.”
Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we tackle drug abuse and addiction. Clearly economic conditions underlie the system of mass incarceration. Increased resources for drug prohibition don’t address the supply of the drug market nor the demand. Instead, millions of people are placed in a permanent under caste while drug abuse and distribution continues to increase.
“We’ve spent over a trillion dollars on the drug war,” says Alexander. “Funds that could’ve gone to improving schools, economic investment, job creation, job training and drug treatment.”
Some countries like Portugal have decriminalized all drug use. They have focused funding towards drug treatment and education. They haven’t seen a rise in drug activity or crime.
Ending drug prohibition would free up resources that could be used to create more drug treatment centers and education programs, and thus, more jobs in the US, especially in low-income communities of color. It makes more sense than creating a permanent under caste.
Then again, it wouldn’t be America without the free labor.

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