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Joining the fight

Not your grandfather's NAACP


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution calling for an end to the War on Drugs in no uncertain terms a couple of weeks ago during its national convention in Los Angeles. 

"These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America," the resolution read.

In one move, the NAACP stepped into the fray of one of the most contentious issues affecting communities of color at a time when many question the relevance of the 102-year-old civil rights organization. The resolution cites evidence showing that African-Americans are 13 times more likely to go to jail for the same drug-related offense than their white counterparts. 

The resolution was no surprise to Neil Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who has been working with the NAACP over the past year helping to educate its leadership on the issue. Franklin, who put in 30 years working for the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, didn't go so far as to call law enforcement racist, but the statistics speak to his personal experiences while a part of the system.

"A lot of it is the law enforcement culture, the strategies that are used," Franklin says. "It's just easier to make arrests in minority communities even though we know from research that has been done by the federal government that whites and blacks have the same rate of use. The efforts in enforcement are to get the numbers that we're looking for and report to the feds and get funding. Open-air drug markets and open-air drug activities are in the cities. In suburban areas drug use is more indoors. You're going to get far fewer complaints from minority communities than from white communities. We in law enforcement are not going to go into gated communities or affluent white communities.

"If we did we would find ourselves working in the supply division, no longer working in patrol or as a detective. When you make arrests, barge into someone's home in minority communities, you're not going to get the complaint. You might get a phone call to the precinct; that's probably it. If you stop three Latino males and strip-search them on the corner, you might hear a few choice words. If you stop three young white males on the way home from school and strip-search them in one of those communities, you've got problems even if you find something.

"In the minority community, you get more bang for your buck. Blacks are convicted at a higher rate; blacks also receive longer prison sentences than whites. All the way through the criminal justice system you have these disparities."

The NAACP has a long history of successfully dealing with legal issues, from anti-lynching law to school segregation to the Voting Rights Act; the organization has been a conservative but effective force in the civil rights battle. Now the costly, failed War on Drugs that has had devastating effects on minority communities seems a noble cause.

I wondered how the vote went. Was it contentious and tight? Was it a landslide in favor of the resolution? What were the arguments against the measure? What steps and tactics will the organization take as it follows through on the resolution? I figured some of our local NAACP officials would want to discuss this "historic" initiative. I called the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the Detroit Chapter president, but he declined comment, referring me to interim executive director Donnell White. I called White and explained what I wanted to talk about to the woman who answered the telephone. He wasn't available but she put me through to his voice mail. Except his mailbox was full and I couldn't leave a message. I called again the next day and successfully left a voice mail for him although he didn't get back to me by deadline.

Maybe they're not ready to talk because the resolution has not yet been ratified by the board of directors. That will happen during a meeting in October. Then the organization will spell out its strategy. Whatever it is, the NAACP, with more than 1,200 chapters nationwide, should be a formidable partner in the fight to end the War on Drugs.

Anybody who thinks this is the wrong fight for the NAACP should take a peek at this note from the diary of H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon's chief of staff, referring to the launch of the war on drugs 40 years ago. 

"[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks," Haldeman wrote. "The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

That system turned out to be the War on Drugs, with marijuana being put in the same category as such drugs as heroin and morphine. Nixon's White House counsel, John Ehrlichman, verified the intention of the War on Drugs in a 1995 interview with author Dan Baum, author of Smoke and Mirrors: The war on drugs and the politics of failure.

"Look, we understood we couldn't make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure," Ehrlichman confessed. "We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn't resist it."

That irresistible urge has cost more than a trillion dollars, destroyed countless lives, and created a prison industry that is bursting at the seams. There is so much money in the system, from federal dollars to those taken from arrestees through forfeiture laws that law enforcement is loath to let it go. But the battle against the War on Drugs just got some major reinforcements from the NAACP.

"The significance here with the NAACP is that it's an old and established organization which is well-rooted and well-organized throughout the country," says Franklin. "This creates a very good network for getting information out and getting things done. I'm interested and excited about what happens from here. The one thing that would serve them well to push for is a proper discussion at the national level, out of Washington D.C., that's what really needs to happen. It's time for policymakers to properly address this issue."

These are things that would not have been addressed by your grandfather's NAACP.