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Is the War on Drugs Racism in Disguise?

An interesting and provocative article in the Charleston City Paper makes the case, in rather strong terms, that our current war on drugs amounts to a modern form of racism. Specifically, the author says it uses unnecessary laws as a way to segregate and incarcerate a huge sector of the Latino and African American community.

There’s an interesting parallel drawn between automobile accidents and drug use. The author points out that car accidents account for more deaths than drug abuse. Both are freely chosen, but dangerous activities. And then there are the statistics on race and incarceration rates – enforcement of drug laws seem to be unequally applied based on race and economic circumstances. Those in the inner cities are far more likely to get arrested for drug possession or sale, while suburban whites are less likely.

The difficulty in these arguments is twofold. First, driving isn’t an addictive, self-reinforcing activity. There is no withdrawal, and people do not turn to driving to escape the difficulties in their lives. Anyone familiar with addiction would immediately understand the analogy fails. The element of choice quickly disappears as addiction progresses.

And this brings up another objection. If drugs are motivating crime, then keeping drug use illegal should reduce subsequent crimes. The economic difference would explain why someone who is impoverished would turn to selling drugs or other crimes to support a habit when someone of greater means wouldn’t have to. Of course, that’s a gross generalization as well. The drug culture does even more than this – it takes someone away from the path that leads to steady, legal employment.

The objection to legalization then becomes an argument about consequences. There’s an assumption that backing off of enforcement would make the problems associated with drug use go away or reduce the collateral damage. But there is another option. Drug addiction can be treated. The dial doesn’t have to be turned all the way from illegal to legal. An approach can be adopted that lessens the harsh punishments in favor of more treatment – but only if that treatment can be shown to be effective.

The article is worth reading to get the Libertarian perspective and evaluate the arguments for full legalization. The racism argument has some merit as well.

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