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Does Race Change the Way People Discuss Drug Crimes?

November 16, 2015
The Sentencing Project's research analysts Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Ashley Nellis explore the relationship between race and drug policy on Minnesota Public Radio.

Since the inception of the War on Drugs in the mid-1980s, policymakers have enacted punitive drug policies that have disproportionately impact low-income black Americans living in urban areas. A commentary by The Sentencing Project’s research analysts Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Ashley Nellis published on Minnesota Public Radio explores the relationship between race and drug policy in the United States.

The War on Drugs was set in motion in the mid-1980s and urged a punitive, criminal justice response to the crack cocaine epidemic in particular. For decades since, states and the federal government enacted stiff prison penalties that were disproportionately applied to low-income African Americans in urban areas. These policies swelled prisons, deepened racial tensions, and fragmented families and communities.

Americans are once again concerned about the pains of addiction with the growing abuse of prescription medications and the related rise of heroin. Since 2000, heroin-related deaths have quadrupled, and between 2006 and 2013 alone, the number of first time heroin users nearly doubled from 90,000 to 169,000. This time, though, the focus is on the blight in primarily white suburban and rural communities. And this time, political leaders including President Obama are emphasizing drug treatment rather than criminal punishment.

It is hard not to conclude from these divergent trajectories that race and class significantly shape drug policy priorities. Indeed, researchers have shown that when white Americans associate crime with people of color, they are more supportive of punitive criminal justice policies.

But it’s important to recognize that, even though we seem to be reorienting many of our criminal justice responses, components of the drug war rage on. In 2014, police officers made 1.5 million drug arrests and over 300,000 people were in U.S. prisons for a drug conviction. Enforcement continues to disproportionately target people of color: almost two thirds of drug prisoners are black or Latino.

Even for heroin, the public health approach has been limited to certain users. Louisiana and Kentucky have increased sentences for sellers. And prosecutors across the country are levying murder charges against people whose drug sale resulted in a lethal overdose. These convictions can carry decades-long sentences for people who are sometimes addicts themselves.

In 2009, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske retired the drug war ideology, explaining: “We’re not at war with people in this country.” His successor, Michael Botticelli, advances a public health approach and is himself in recovery. But we remain far from aligning our policies with our vision for effectively grappling with substance abuse.

Read the commentary on Minnesota Public Radio.

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