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Crisis on the corner

Should we legalize drugs to save the hood?

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The War on Drugs has been fought from corner to corner in black communities across the United States. Although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the general population, 40 percent of drug offenders in federal prisons and 45 percent of offenders in state prisons are black.

It's not that blacks make up 40 or 45 percent of American drug users. A study of New York drug arrests from 1997 to 2006 by sociologist Harry Levine and drug policy activist Deborah Small found that 18-to-25-year-old whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to smoke marijuana, yet blacks were five times and Hispanics three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Similar statistics can be found in all kinds of studies out there. All of it leads to black and brown communities where young men committing victimless offenses get criminal records, get sent to jail, lose their families, and enter a system wherein a life of crime is more likely than getting an education and a job.

So it's amazing that the drug war and civil rights haven't been more closely tied together the way linguist and conservative political pundit John McWhorter links them in a recent column for the The New Republic's website titled "Getting Darnell Off the Corners: Why America Should Ride the Anti-Drug-War Wave."

I don't know what that guy on the corner is named, Pookie or Tyrone or whatever, but McWhorter wrote "... with no War on Drugs there would be, within one generation, no 'black problem' in the United States. Poverty in general, yes. An education problem in general — probably. But the idea that black America had a particular crisis would rapidly become history, requiring explanation to young people. The end of the War on Drugs is, in fact, what all people genuinely concerned with black uplift should be focused on. ..."

And, in fact, he says all drugs should be legalized. Some civil rights groups have nibbled at the edges of the drug war, sometimes suggesting that marijuana is not as bad as other drugs. The California NAACP went that route last year when it came out in support of Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana in the state. Proposition 19 lost by a 53.5 to 46.5 percent vote in November. But California NAACP President Alice Huffman threw down the gauntlet in saying marijuana law reform is a civil rights issue.

Neil Franklin, president of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who worked with Huffman in creating the NAACP policy, casts some wisdom on the roiling waters of drug policy debate.

"We went to a prison here in Baltimore with a section for juveniles; it's a high school in prison for them," says Franklin, an African-American with more than 30 years policing experience in Maryland. "We did a workshop with 12. I think 10 were there for drug violations. We asked them what your neighborhood would be like if drugs were legal tomorrow. The number one answer was that they would have no money. There would pretty much be no money in their households. The drug market provides more money into those communities than anything else. The second answer was that the police would no longer harass us if drugs were legal in the community."

The kids focused in on two important issues: economics and police-community relations. Legalizing drugs would cut the economic legs out from under the drug business because legal drugs would be cheaper and easily obtainable. Drug dealers would no longer be able to finance terrorizing neighborhoods, and drug addicts would be a public health issue not a law enforcement problem. Regarding community relations, growing up without an adversarial relationship with the police goes a long way in creating citizens who would rather cooperate with law enforcement than fight it.

Despite the failure of the drug war to reduce the use of illicit drugs, support for prohibition remains strong among many African-Americans. Carl Taylor, a sociology professor at Michigan State University who focuses on crime and other urban issues, takes a hard line against legalization. "I contend strongly that illegal drugs, legal drugs and alcohol are truly the barbed wire around the neck of the black community. I see not one serious plus in my life experiences professionally or personally from illicit narcotics. ... I don't agree with McWhorter. I don't think he knows what he's talking about. If you put the black market out of business, the fellas out on the street are still going to find deeper and better drugs. Just because I don't know what to do doesn't mean you do something that you've got to be out your mind to do from where I'm sitting. The ignorance of very distorted socialization, the racism, the discrimination is not going to go away, the failure of the family structure, interactions. ..."

Indeed, McWhorter's article tends to gloss over the details of how legalizing drugs will work to "magically" fix race relations, nor does he tell us what job "Darnell" will get when he no longer has drug money fueling his lifestyle. In an e-mail last week, McWhorter told me, "It won't be easy and the jobs won't often be upwardly mobile middle-class jobs. The issue here is very specific: Whatever Darnell does instead, anything at all, is better than selling drugs on the corners. That's what matters. But for starters, the Darnells would start doing vocational training at community colleges. The economy will not be this bad forever. We know Darnell can do this because his brother Eugene already does. Eventually the Darnells would install cable, fix heaters, be bail bondsmen, be real estate inspectors, work on boats, work for UPS, be security guards, be hospital assistants. That is, they would do what Eugene has always done."

But these are tough economic times. Where will the money for job training and job creation come from? Activists have an easy answer for that one: the War on Drugs. The group DrugSense (drugsense.org) keeps a running tally with its "Drug War Clock 2011," and Monday afternoon showed that federal and state governments have spent nearly $2 billion so far in 2011; we spent around $40 billion on the War on Drugs in 2010.

To some, that might be money well spent. But a 1994 study by the RAND Drug Policy Institute found that "treatment is 10 times more effective than interdiction in reducing the use of cocaine." It also found that "every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers more than $7 in societal costs, and that additional domestic law enforcement costs 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs." And that doesn't even take into account potential revenues from taxing drug sales and payroll taxes from employed citizens.

Regardless of which tactic you support, prohibition or legalization, the goal is the same. "We pretty much desire to do exactly what the War on Drugs seeks, to reduce crime, disease, death and addiction," Franklin says. "We aim to do it through legalization, regulation and control of drugs rather than prohibition. It's quite obvious to us that the efforts are ineffective; they have failed and it's time for a different approach."

It certainly seems like it's a conversation worth having without histrionics. Go ahead, talk about it. It's therapeutic.

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