a bird and a bottle

Undoing the Damage of the “War on Drugs”
November 13, 2006, 10:43 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, law, politics

I’ve been waiting all day to write about this.

Crack cocaine is punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine. There’s no scientific basis for this. Crack is not more addictive, nor more lethal. Crack is not uniquely related to violence or to child developmental problems. The only thing that is worse about crack than powder cocaine is that crack is strongly associated with poor communities and communities of color, while cocaine is correlated to Hollywood and the Ivy League. Whether this was a motivating factor of the sentencing laws or a byproduct of them is up for debate, but it’s not what I want to focus on here.

What interests me is this: In Monday’s L.A. Times, Eric Stirling, one of the people who was instrumental in implementing the harsh crack sentencing laws has come out in support of their dismantling. And what he recommends – including raising the amount of crack or cocaine that would trigger a trafficking charge to reflect the real volume in which drug traffickers deal – is a great first step. But it’s not going to undo 20 years of villifying crack users, particularly pregnant women and mothers who are addicted to the drug. As Stirling himself notes, the “crack baby myth” was exactly that, a myth. But it endures.

So what should we take away from all this? Certainly few would argue that crack and cocaine addictions are societal goods. But perhaps the experience of the War on Drugs has taught us that criminalization of recreational drug use and the unconstitutional criminalization of drug addicts hasn’t done anything to make communities safer. It’s increased prison populations around the country, with the numbers growing fastest in women’s jails and prisons. It’s shifted the focus from treatment to incarceration. Incarceration separates families, sends kids into the foster system and robs people of job and educational prospects. Community-based treatment allows families to stay together and acknowledges that addiction is an illness and not a crime.

For more on the perils of the War on Drugs and its effects on pregnant and parenting women, check out National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

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[…] As I reported the other day, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is contemplating getting rid of the huge sentencing disparities for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Implemented in the mid-1980s as part of the “War on Drugs,” these policies are not rational and have further no legitimate purpose. The sentencing policies, which punish crack 100 times as severely as powder cocaine, have disproportionately impacted African-American communities, where crack is concentrated, while sparing similar acts in white communities (where powder cocaine is more common). And there’s no scientific basis for this – crack is not any more harmful or dangerous than powder cocaine. […]

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[…] On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle featured an editorial calling for the end of the harsh “War on Drugs” sentencing for low-level drug offenders, an issue considered last week by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (I wrote about it here and here; the American Constitution Society has followed the story here). The Editorial notes that even Judge Michael McSpadden, a “respected felony criminal judge known for his ‘lock-’em-up’ philosphy” has criticized these sentences, complaining that they are filling up the felony docket and taking time, energy, and other resources away from more dangerous and violent offenders. Neighborhoods are no safer than they were before this sentencing structure was put in place, and small-time drug users (who were charged with possession of as little contraband as residue in a crack pipe) are clogging local jails, necessitating new construction to alleviate the overcrowding. As I have noted before (in the second post linked above), jail overcrowding makes some people (the ones who run the private companies that build and provide for the jails) happy because it makes them rich. […]

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