Last Wednesday, neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart looked out at the rows of people gathered at Barnes and Noble in uptown Manhattan. Hart, Columbia University’s first African-American tenured science professor, was telling his audience the United States arrests 1.5 million people for drugs yearly. He acknowledged the obvious truth: “This is the Upper West Side. The people being arrested most often are not”—he paused for emphasis—“from this neighborhood.”
Hart, a Miami native and the author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, recently told WNYC, “More than 50 percent of the guys who I grew up with spent time in jail on some drug-related charge.”
New federal data shows that black Americans are no more likely to use marijuana than white Americans. So why are they nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana possession charges? This bizarre disparity in arrests, the New York Times points out, has gotten progressively worse over the past decade. We know that the disease of addiction doesn’t discriminate; unfortunately, it’s become clear that our country’s law enforcement does.
This is a grave problem that needs to be addressed by our legislators. As if it weren’t problematic enough that low-level drug arrests funnel hundreds of thousands of people out of their lives and into the criminal justice system, discriminatory arrest practices also prey on underserved minorities. These are the people who need treatment – not jail – the most. Plus, nearly six in ten incarcerated drug offenders have absolutely no history of violence. These aren’t thugs and hit men; they’re your neighbors, friends, and family members. They may even be you.
Nick Smith, a young black man recently profiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is merely one example: a hard-working father whose life was derailed by a marijuana possession charge. He served three months in jail, lost his driver’s license, and spent more than $10,000 in fines. The salt in Nick’s wounds? He wasn’t even offered access to valuable services that could have actually improved his life—such as education, assessment of his drug use, and referral to treatment.
In many states, marijuana laws are already lagging far behind public opinion. Most of us agree, for example, that there’s no reason for non-violent drug offenders of any race to be arrested or incarcerated—and yet marijuana possession remains a criminal offense in 35 states, and half of all drug arrests are on marijuana-related charges. The new findings about racial discrimination in arrests should serve as the last straw. It’s time to address this broken system so that people like Nick Smith aren’t victims of unnecessarily harsh laws and unfair racial profiling.
Perhaps even more challenging than our country’s prejudice is its demand for drugs, and the addiction epidemic that is much more than a racial problem. More than 23 million Americans are using drugs or alcohol at a problematic level, and 20 million of them don’t receive treatment. Still, 94,000 Americans are in federal prison for drug offenses—why? Prison is neither better nor even cheaper than life-saving treatment services. We need to support alternatives to incarceration and advocate the decriminalization of drugs like marijuana. Most importantly, our government’s primary concern should be to increase substance abuse education, prevention, and treatment services for all Americans.
President and CEO
If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1-800-378-4435.
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