Montreal, January 15, 2009 • No 263


Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.






by Bradley Doucet


          On November 4, 2008, a historic event unfolded as the people of the United States of America elected their first ever African-American president. In a nation which explicitly enshrined the blessings of liberty in its founding documents yet denied those same blessings to some because of the colour of their skin, first through outright slavery and later through officially sanctioned segregation, it is truly momentous that a black man is about to rise to the highest public office. All the naysayers within the US and around the world who think little progress has been made on the issue of race in America will have a harder time maintaining their pessimistic points of view from here on in.


          And yet, there remains one important way in which African-Americans are systematically discriminated against to great negative effect, trumping any concerns about remaining income disparities with whites (which Thomas Sowell shows are grossly exaggerated): the rate at which blacks are arrested and incarcerated in that monumentally irrational policy known as the War on Drugs.

Just the Facts

          Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is a group of active and retired police officers in the United States who have come to the conclusion, after fighting the Drug War themselves, that it does not and cannot work. Among LEAP's many criticisms of this failed prohibitionist policy is its disproportionate targeting of African Americans. In a May 2008 press release, the group reported on studies showing that "black men are, on average, 11.8 times more likely to serve prison time for drug offenses than white men, and black women are 4.8 times more likely to serve time than white women." Now, by itself, this tells us nothing; after all, it could, in theory, be the case that black men simply use drugs 11.8 times more than white men, and therefore quite naturally get caught, convicted, and incarcerated 11.8 times more as a result.

          In fact, as the same press release states, only 13.5% of American drug users are black―virtually the same proportion of American society as a whole that is black. Yet "37% of those arrested for drug violations are black, 42% of federal prison inmates serving time for drug violations are black, and 60% of drug offenders in state prisons are black." At every stage―arrests, convictions, and sentencing―blacks are discriminated against. Lives are ruined and communities are destroyed, all in the name of outlawing voluntary exchanges and the ingestion of some, but not all, psychoactive drugs.

          If the above figures don't move you, consider the following statement by Lt. Jack Cole from LEAP's 12-minute promotional video End Prohibition Now: "In South Africa in 1993, under Apartheid, they incarcerated 851 black males per 100,000. In the United States in 2004, under prohibition, we incarcerate at the rate of 4,919 black males per 100,000." Is there any way to escape the conclusion that the War on Drugs is, among its other injustices, a glaring instance of institutionalized racism?

W.W.O.D.? (What Will Obama Do?)

          Will Barack Obama, the soon-to-be first black president of the United States of America, the great hope of liberal Bush-bashers everywhere, the man who gave such an eloquent speech on the issue of race in America and who has (like so many other politicians of late) admitted to using illegal narcotics himself in his youth, finally put a long-awaited end to the racist War on Drugs?

"Is there any way to escape the conclusion that the War on Drugs is, among its other injustices, a glaring instance of institutionalized racism?"

          In a word: no. According to a December 23, 2008 Esquire article by John H. Richardson, when Obama's transition team asked the public in early December to submit questions about the top problems facing America and then vote on them, the number one question was, "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?" Although Obama has called the Drug War "an utter failure," the one-line answer from the Obama team was, "President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana." The article goes on to bemoan the fact that two of Obama's top people, Rahm Emanuel and Vice President Elect Joe Biden, are enthusiastic drug warriors. Nonetheless, the author of the article still appears guardedly optimistic, a fact which prompted a blogger to write a sarcastic reply worthy of The Onion entitled, "Obama to Decriminalize Marijuana, Claims Really High Person."

          Still, there are rumblings of some far smaller changes that I can believe in. A recent AlterNet article by Alexander Zaitchik entitled "If Obama Is Pro-Science and Honest, He'll Put the Kibosh on the Drug War" points out that Obama has talked recently about ending the federal syringe-exchange program ban and reforming distorted cocaine-sentencing laws. There is also hope that Obama will either repeal or instruct federal prosecutors to ignore the blanket federal prohibition of marijuana at least as it interferes with the medical marijuana efforts of individual states. This is all very small potatoes, but as Debra J. Saunders wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Only when business groups, labor unions and others denounce the drug war as costly and feckless, and demand an end to laws that empower drug cartels, will Washington pols even consider withdrawing in the war on drugs." In an age of up-to-the-minute polling, politicians who lead are few and far between, so public condemnation of the failure of drug prohibition will have to grow even more than it already has before any of the poll-watchers will seriously address this abysmal policy.

The Cops of the World

          To give credit where credit is due, the idea for this article came to me while reading a message from the Marc Emery Bulletin Group on Facebook the day after the US election. Emery, whom I interviewed for Le Qu้b้cois Libre in April 2008, is facing possible extradition to the US and up to life imprisonment for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet, a so-called crime for which the Canadian government has steadfastly refused to prosecute him. (His extradition hearing has been rescheduled for June 2009. See for more on his plight and to learn what you can do to help.)

          Emery was writing, the day after the election, to encourage Americans to lobby their President Elect to legalize marijuana, and to do it sooner rather than later. If Obama does not do it now, Emery wrote, with the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, it is unlikely that he will do it later. After serving two terms in office without legalizing pot, "6,800,000 Americans, over two million of those African-Americans, will be arrested for marijuana at last year's rates."

          Unfortunately, with escalating drug violence along the US-Mexico border, "Obama has said his administration will target transnational gangs, violence, drugs and organized crime and step up U.S. security efforts to stem the flow of gang-related crime and narcotrafficking, as well as formulate regional strategic cooperation on personal security issues," according to a recent article in the Washington Times. "He has supported the continuation and expansion of the Merida Initiative to roll back rampant violence, corruption, and drug and arms trafficking throughout the region and has committed to combating the cartels." Of course, if he were serious about ending the violence caused by prohibition, he would simply end prohibition.

          As Barack Obama's inaugural address approaches, there is certainly reason to celebrate the advance of race relations in America, but the battle is far from won as long as the racist War on Drugs endures. If Obama will not end drug prohibition, will he then voluntarily do the jail time his drug use would have cost him if he had been caught and convicted like millions of average Joes? Will any of the other politicians who have admitted to taking drugs? Will any reporter stop fawning long enough to ask Obama this tough question? Until the American people demand an end to this kind of hypocrisy, it looks like business as usual for the man who made "change" his personal slogan.