Racial Profiling and the War on Drugs

War on Drugs“Rap’s Grateful Dead” Jay Z attended a rally with Al Sharpton protesting the George Zimmerman trial verdict on Saturday July 20. Later that week, he attacked the verdict as racist.

About the same time, conservative commentator Larry Elder was expressing his opinion on TV and in print that the case wasn’t about race, and he said of Sharpton, “I call Sharpton Rev. J. Edgar Sharpton, because you look at how the guy is still in power after all these years, and it’s through manipulation and intimidation.”

Judging by how many people Sharpton has been drawing to rallies in the days since Zimmerman was found not guilty, it appears he can also build a power base with his oratory. Or maybe he just picked the right issue. After all, 86 percent of blacks are dissatisfied with the verdict, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and a lot of them think Zimmerman profiled Martin.

It would appear that Elder and Jay-hova and other protest attendees probably don’t have much they can agree on, but, when it comes to the drug war and its affect on racial profiling, they might find some common ground.

In 2000, Elder appeared on BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley and said, “The problem of DWB–driving while black–is largely a function of the war on drugs. That’s the reason there are so many interactions between blacks and the cops. We should call off the war on drugs.”

Libertarian-minded and free-market conservatives have long been trying to end the war on drugs.

Free-market economist Milton Friedman was railing against the “War on Drugs” from the time President Nixon used the phrase in 1971. Among the seven arguments he made in the New York Times in 1998 was that it “filled the prisons”, caused the “destruction of inner cities”, and caused a “disproportionate imprisonment of blacks.”

William Buckley and Thomas Sowell have also advocated the legalization of drug use. In 1991, Buckley debated Rep. Charlie Rangel, one of the backers of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that established mandatory minimum sentences, and Rangel said, “We should not allow people to be able to distribute this poison without the fear that maybe they might be arrested and put in jail.”

After that bill passed, the United States’ rate of incarcerations exploded, more than doubling from 1986 to 2006, with the largest increase among African-Americans. One of those people who might have been arrested and put in jail is Jay Z.

Jay Z sold crack before he made it big and survived multiple brushes with death and police action without getting caught.

In the song “99 Problems”, Jay Z raps about an incident he feels he was racially profiled while running drugs:

So I…pull over to the side of the road
I heard “Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low?
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
“Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four”
“License and registration and step out of the car”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you I know a lot of you are”
I ain’t stepping out of shit all my papers legit
“Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked so are the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you gonna need a warrant for that

The drug war is a big factor in causing distrust between blacks and the police. A hugely disproportionate number of blacks are in jail for drug crimes. Dr. Boyce Watkins cites the figure that 62 percent of drug offenders in state prisons are African-American, and the NAACP puts that figure at 59 percent. According to the figures they cited, the ration of drug use by race is nowhere near the ratio of incarcerations.

When the numbers are skewed like this, it creates the perception that blacks are being profiled, and this does no good for police interacting with African-Americans or African-Americans who would be suspicious that a police officer might be engaging in profiling. The perceptions and misperceptions on both sides seep into other situations, such as the Trayvon Martin incident, and color our ideas about what happened.

The drug war heightens other problems such as violence caused by turf wars among dealers. For conservatives concerned about violence in Chicago, ending the drug war would probably decrease murders to some degree.

It goes without saying that drug use and addiction ruins many people’s lives. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to have crack and cocaine on sale in convenience stores. But there is an argument that the drug war might actually encourage users to seek harder drugs.

Milton Friedman arguing for drug legalization said, “The effect of drug criminalization is to drive people from mild drugs to strong drugs. Marijuana is a relatively heavy substance, and therefore it is relatively easy to interdict. Warriors on drugs have been more successful interdicting marijuana than, say, cocaine. So marijuana prices have gone up, there’s been an incentive to grow more potent marijuana, and people are driven from marijuana to heroin or cocaine.”

Every policy should be evaluated on the basis of costs and benefits. After fighting the drug war for decades, what do we have to show for it? Do the costs in money spent, prisoners locked up and deteriorating race relations justify the benefits? Is it really that hard for someone who wants to find drugs to find drugs, and could drug addicts be served better–and at a lower cost–by education and rehab programs than by imprisonment? (One important thing to consider here is that imprisonment is very expensive, so such an argument should be viewed as saving money and achieving better results rather than “coddling criminals.”)

At the very least, it might be worthwhile to reevaluate how much resources we put towards the policing of drugs even if no laws change.

With recreational marijuana now legalized in Colorado and Washington, we might have the opportunity to see how decriminalization policy works in practice.

The questions of racial disparities in the justice system and of drug policy have no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider alternative solutions.

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