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The 'war on drugs' was a war on people of color


In the spring of 1982, Susan Burton turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the death of her 5-year-old son, who had run into the street and was hit by a vehicle driven by an off-duty police officer. Over the course of the next 17 years, Burton was in and out of prison.

“Each time I left, I felt a little more broken,” she told me recently. What would have made a difference, she said, was “if there could have been a way to have therapy from traumatic childhood events, disappointments and many of the abuses I suffered long before I went to prison.”

Burton, who has chronicled her life story and how she healed in a book entitled Becoming Ms. Burton, was among the speakers on a recent panel examining California’s legalization of marijuana, the long history of racial disparities in the 'war on drugs' and how advocates are fighting for change.

California legalized marijuana in 2018 with the passage of Proposition 64. But this did not undo decades of harm in which Black and Latinx people have been arrested for marijuana possession at far higher rates than Whites. “There are clear racial disparities in California’s marijuana arrests and overall criminalization, and that wasn’t by chance — it was by design,” said Dr. Flojaune Cofer, senior director of policy at Public Health Advocates.

Cofer was speaking at a webinar entitled “Cannabis, Equity and Racial Justice,” which was organized by the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and Youth Forward. The focus of the webinar was to examine how the “war on drugs” has decimated communities of color, and how advocates are working to address the fallout in their communities by pushing for more changes in policy and law.

The other speakers included Jeannette Zanipatin, of the Drug Policy Alliance , Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Morning Star Gali of Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples, and Sarah-Michael Gaston of Youth Forward.

Research shows that the criminalization of communities of color for marijuana use was intentional. In a study that Cofer and her organization commissioned last year reviewing arrests in California from 1996 to 2016, Black people were four times more likely to be arrested than White people, despite similarities in drug use across all racial groups. The disparities between prosecutions of Latinx and African Americans compared to Whites was even more striking.

“It’s entirely attributable to racial bias in law enforcement. In fact, 90% of the cases that were prosecuted were for simple possession,” she said.

While it may be individuals who are prosecuted, the ripple effect is far greater, affecting entire families and communities, said Cofer. A felony conviction, which is 26% more likely for Latinx people and 500% more likely for Blacks than Whites statewide, “could potentially jeopardize their immigration status, their custody of their children, their employment, their housing, and their social services, even if that person didn’t spend time behind bars.”

To put it in perspective, possessing about a quarter of a cup of marijuana (31 grams) can lead to deportation for immigrants.

“Simple possession of marijuana was the fourth most common cause of deportation of any crime,” said Jeannette Zanipatin of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the country, or if you have a green card, a house, a business, children.”

A statewide victory

Zanipatin’s organization is among those that have been chipping away at laws that make substance use and possession of drugs a crime rather than a public health matter. And what happened recently in Oregon is a great example, she said, of how a state can help prevent the downward spiral that drug possession can cause.

Last November, Oregon passed Measure 110. Under the new law, when someone is found to be in non-commercial possession of any drug, authorities have the option of ordering a $100 fine or a health assessment by a recovery treatment center, instead of automatically arresting them for a crime. The health assessment will be funded by the state’s marijuana tax revenue.

The recovery treatment centers, explained Zanipatin, will also cover social supports, such as housing, food assistance or employment. The benefits in hard dollars, she said, translate to a cost of about $9,000 per year for services through the recovery centers versus $40,000 to incarcerate an individual.

“We’re really working at treating folks humanely and with dignity to get them the services that they need,” she said.

Caring and resources

That approach is what finally made a difference for Burton, who ultimately received therapy and support through a program in Santa Monica in 1997. “I felt seen, heard, there was compassion,” she said.

Now she has her own program called A New Way of Life Re-entry Project. It offers the kind of caring and resources that she did not have when she left prison.

“What I also want to say is that, as a Black woman in America who has been criminalized, I just have this level of gratitude for the ability to rise up out of that,” she said, “and to bring others along with me and to fight for the right just to be free and help others fight for their right just to be free, and have dignity, purpose and meaning in their lives.”

Here’s the recording of the webinar, and here are the slides.

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