Crisis on the corner
Should we legalize drugs to save the hood?

By Larry Gabriel

Published: January 19, 2011
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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 ( 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

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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