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Race An Issue In Drug-Reform Debate

Stan Simpson

April 18, 2009

I've been inundated.

Last week I innocently mentioned that I've evolved on this idea of legalizing marijuana. Apparently, I'm not moving fast enough for the drug-law reformers.

They want the full monty the legalization of pot, cocaine, heroin and the like.

I'd like to take a more measured approach, starting with more decriminalization of reefer and a better understanding of what the consequences are. For those of you who insist there'll be none and point to post-Prohibition reports, I am still not buying.

But I promised to play a role in advancing an honest conversation about this.

Cliff Thornton prodded me again this week. The executive director of Efficacy, a social change group advocating for drug law reforms, conceded to me that there probably would be some consequences.

"There's no magic drug policy," he said. "But at least you take the drugs out of the hands of the criminals."

Cool. Candid. I'm open to hearing more.

I understand that the war on drugs has failed. I understand that America spends $45 billion a year to lock up 7 million inmates, the large majority on some drug-related offense. I've written about the obscene racial disparity in Connecticut's prison systems 75 percent of the 19,000 inmates are black and Latino, yet blacks and Latinos make up only 22 percent of the state's population. The incarceration rates of African Americans and Latinos in Connecticut are among the highest in America. The bulk of the state's inmates are from our urban centers and they're in for some drug-related offense.

Race, no doubt, has been a factor in this failed drug war. Urban communities have been hit the hardest. There are two things that will bring this conversation about decriminalizing or legalizing street drugs to a full boil in Connecticut.

One is the failed economy. When jobs and programs are being cut, but the $700 million prison system continues to grow, people notice. The other thing that gets folks' attention is when the complexion of the people incarcerated changes.

The Sentencing Project in Washington released a study this week with a significant finding: The number of black inmates in prison on drug offenses decreased 22 percent from 1999 to 2005. In that same period, the number of whites in prison on drug-related offenses increased by 43 percent. There was no real change with the Latino numbers.

What's driving the shift, surmised Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project's executive director, is more police attention to cracking down on methamphetamines, a drug used predominantly by whites in the Midwest and West. Also, Mauer said, drug courts in urban communities are now diverting more offenders to treatment programs, instead of prison. Open-air street dealing might also be moving to less-conspicuous confines.

Connecticut, for now, is a heroin and cocaine state. "I expect that within the next two years, you'll see an explosion [of meth] here in Connecticut," Thornton said. "This report doesn't surprise me."

I've watched how suburban parents and police are coming to grips with an emerging heroin problem among teens. In most cases, there is empathy for these troubled kids from middle-class homes.

"The more it spreads to people with resources, with influence, it helps to open up that conversation," Mauer said.

For my new friends in the drug-reform movement for the record, I'm a beer guy let me humbly suggest this:

Take The Sentencing Project report and run with it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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