By Ronald Fraser
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, commander-in-chief of Washington’s failed war on drugs, recently issued what looks a lot like a domestic version of Vermont Sen. George Aiken’s famous 1966 face-saving formula for exiting our lost war in Vietnam: Declare victory and get out. After more than 58,000 U.S. deaths, that is exactly what we did.
Now a timely American Civil Liberties Union report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” explains why Holder’s announcement is especially good news for African-Americans nationwide and in New York.
Sensing that the war on marijuana is also unwinnable – and after more than 8 million marijuana arrests in the last 10 years – Holder declared in August that his department will not challenge the statutes in Colorado and Washington State legalizing marijuana for recreational use or the laws that permit medical marijuana in 16 other states.
Black and white Americans both paid a dear price in Vietnam. But the war on drugs has taken a much larger toll on blacks than whites even as the rates of marijuana use among the two groups are roughly equal. In 2010, for example, 14 percent of blacks and 11.6 percent of whites reported using marijuana in the past year, but blacks were nearly four times more likely to be arrested.
America’s goal in Vietnam was to stop the spread of communism. From the start, Washington’s war on drugs specifically targeted American neighborhoods. In its first report, issued in 1989, the Office of National Drug Control Policy said, “To prevent people from using drugs, drug enforcement activities must make it increasingly difficult to engage in any drug activity with impunity. … Effective street-level enforcement means dramatically increasing the number of drug offenders arrested.”
The share of African-Americans who died in Vietnam, 12.5 percent, was about equal to their share of those of military age in the population, 13.5 percent. In America’s arrest-driven drug war, however, blacks have experienced a much higher casualty rate. Nationally, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
In 2010, black New Yorkers accounted for only 17 percent of the state’s population but were hit with 39 percent of the 103,698 arrests for marijuana possession. That is why New York’s African-Americans are cheering Holder’s de-escalation initiative.
The ACLU estimates that, nationally, enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 cost $3.6 billion. New York’s share was more than $678.5 million.
The ACLU recommends ending the war on marijuana and legalizing its use for persons over 21 through a system of taxation, licensing and regulation.
Is that where Holder – at last – is taking the federal government?
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project.