Drug war or race war? Effects of illegal drug distribution in the African-American community

Denise Powell
San Francisco, California, USA

 

Bernard Noble and daughter
“Cajun cook got 13 years for two joints.”
The Clemency Report. Link 

I also don’t believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn’t do that kind of business. Somebody comes to them and says, “I have powders. If you up three, four-thousand-dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing.” So they can’t resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. But I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamnia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.1

This is a depiction of the infiltration of drugs into the African-American community by the New York Italian mob from screenwriter Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. The premise of character Don Giuseppe Zaluchi’s statement is that the more dangerous drugs will be distributed in the African-American community. In non-fictitious, twenty-first century America, the Zaluchi mindset of “unethical and soulless animals” contributes to the disastrous entrenchment of illegal drugs in the African-American community. There is a historical stigma associated with African-Americans being simultaneously used for profit and communally destroyed through illegal drug distribution.

Marijuana has a demonizing stereotype associated with the people who use it. After the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century, a large influx of Mexican immigrants residing in the United States were criminalized for their use of a plant called “marihuana.” In an effort to detain and deport Mexican immigrants, El Paso, Texas utilized methods once used to outlaw opium and control Chinese immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. Through a series of marijuana law hearings in the 1930s, men of color were further dehumanized by stereotypes claiming marijuana made them violent and solicit sex from Caucasian women. With this supportive “evidence,” the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 banned the sale and usage of marijuana.2 From then on, the criminalization of marijuana was an ongoing battle within and on communities of color.

In the 1960s, Mayor Carl B. Stokes, Safety Director George O’Conner, and Police Chief Lewis W. Coffey of Cleveland, Ohio were called to a meeting at the Calvary Presbyterian Church to converse with community members about possible solutions to the rising crime rate. At this meeting, sixteen-year-old John P. Nolan, the student council president at John Hay High School, stated the school system was at fault. He claimed that students learned extensively about drugs and weaponry but not enough educational skills and values. Furthermore, this insightful young man foresaw an issue that continues to be problematic today: the lack of concern for the illegal drug epidemic until it spreads to communities other than predominately African-American communities, stating, “Drugs used to be considered an inner-city thing. While narcotics were confined to the city, nothing was done about them. Then it spread to the suburbs…because nothing was done about it. Now suddenly money flows in for drug abuse centers.”3 Cue the sudden involvement of local and federal officials.

The current categorization of marijuana as Schedule I, the category of drug with the highest abuse potential and safety concerns, is due to the Controlled Substances Act passed in the 1970s. After the establishment of schedules for a variety of drugs, cannabis was supposed to be categorized Schedule I as a place holder until President Richard Nixon gave a final decision on its categorization. President Nixon’s Schafer Commission claimed marijuana was not dangerous enough to be Schedule I, and President Nixon refused to reconsider its scheduling.4 He then declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971 and, in 1986, National Security Directive 221 was signed, making it a national security priority.

Regardless of political differences, the plague of the illegal drug industry was an issue for both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, Representative Shirley Chisholm, in her bid for the 1972 Democratic president nomination, voted in favor of President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act in 1970. Similarly, African-American lawmakers in Congress agreed with President Nixon’s decision not to legalize marijuana. Criminalizing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana was a measure both Caucasian and African-American citizens were willing to take to rid their neighborhoods of distributors. A combination of economic deprivation, minority status, and lack of personal and social resources, however, put African-American citizens at a disadvantage regarding the violent structure of illegal drug control.

The American “War on Drugs” is a type of structural violence that punishes African-Americans for crimes that Caucasians commit equally or with greater frequency. Fitting Johan Galtung’s definition of “structural violence,” the “social institution harming people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs” is the American prison system’s disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans.5 Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHDA) states that African-Americans and Caucasians have similar drug usage rates, with the main difference being drug preference.6 The difference that allows for the high rates of incarceration in African-American communities is the environment and the perception of law and government officials of these communities.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, forty-nine-year-old Bernard Noble was arrested for riding his bike the wrong way on a one-way street. After arresting Noble, the police found 2.8 grams of marijuana after three prior drug convictions in 1991 and 2003 for marijuana and cocaine possession. At first, Noble was given a four-year sentence; however, the Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, Jr., appealed the four-year sentence. With the agreement of the Louisiana Supreme Court, this was upgraded to a higher sentence for a “habitual violator” – thirteen years and four months.7 Remember that study referring to the “school-to-prison pipeline” driven by unfairly incarcerated fathers? It is the inhumane treatment of people like Noble, who has seven children, including two with significant medical needs, that allows for the argument that drug laws are being used as structural violence against African-Americans. In 2018, Noble was finally released from prison after pressure from lawyers and advocates.8

The Iberian Peninsula
“April-June 2015: The Iberian Peninsula.” LibraryThing. Link

Years after the United Nations first recognized the need to combat the illegal drug industry, Portugal was the first country to completely decriminalize drugs with a focus on rehabilitating drug users. Although not guaranteed to work in America, Portugal’s approach may be seen as a potential framework for future American drug policy. Portugal’s position in the Iberian Peninsula sanctions it as a strategic international gateway for drug trafficking. Cocaine from South America, heroin from Spain, and marijuana from Morocco and other African countries are a few examples of the seized drugs destined for other countries.9,10

The 1980s in Portugal were similar to the 1930s American “Reefer Madness” phase. The Portuguese government decided to counteract a sudden growth in drug use with television advertisements that equated drugs with crime and madness. Portugal approached its drug abuse problem in the 1980s by increasing conviction sentences and spending on investigations and prosecutions. Portugal hit rock bottom when they became the nation with the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European nations in 1999 with approximately one percent of its citizens classified as heroin addicts. In a final effort to challenge the coping mechanism that got so many of its citizens through daily life, Portugal chose to completely decriminalize personal drug use in 2001.11

Supporting an unhealthy habit often leads to criminal behavior such as illegal drug sales. American prisons are full, but the rate of illegal drug abuse has not been lowered. Portugal now treats the issues of people like Noble as a public health initiative. Elisabete Moutinho, a clinical psychologist for the drug outreach programs at Portugal’s Ministry of Health, states:

“We want these people in the system, unafraid, able to come to us if they are in need. And in turn we test them for diseases, treat them when they are sick. This is a better outcome for them than taking them to the hospital or the morgue. And it is a better outcome for the country.”12

If drug users are caught, they must be seen by the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which has three members – a lawyer/judge, physician, and a psychologist/social worker. This administrative body can recommend treatment, fine the drug user, or simply do nothing. Portugal has alleviated many of the issues that have plagued the United States for decades because of their ability to treat the issue of rampant drug use as a public health issue. The healthcare community in America has the opportunity to be this needed change on a clinical, policy, and grassroots level for our own country.

 

End Notes

  1. “The Godfather: Quotes.” IMDB. http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0068646/quotes?qt=qt0361895
  2. Burnett, Malik & Reiman, Amanda. “How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?” Drug Policy Alliance. October 9, 2014. http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/how-did-marijuana-become-illegal-first-place
  3. “Officials Discuss Rising Crime Rate.” Call and Post (1962-1982); March 6, 1971; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Cleveland Call and Post pg. 8A
  4. “How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?”
  5. Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research. 1969. 6 (3): 167-191.
  6. “For the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2011.” SAMHDA. March 25, 2015. http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/quicktables/quickconfig.do?34481-0001_all
  7. Wynton Yates, “Community members rally for man serving 13 years for marijuana charge,” Eyewitness News, March 7, 2015.
  8. “Cajun cook got 13 years for two joints.” The Clemency Report. http://clemencyreport.org/bernard-noble-named-as-no-4-louisiana-prisoner-deserving-freedom/
  9. “GETTNG A FIX.”
  10. “April-June 2015: The Iberian Peninsula.” LibraryThing. http://www.librarything.com/topic/189380
  11. Ibid.
  12. “GETTNG A FIX.”

 

Bibliography

  1. “April-June 2015: The Iberian Peninsula.” LibraryThing. http://www.librarything.com/topic/189380
  2. Burnett, Malik & Reiman, Amanda. “How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?” Drug Policy Alliance. October 9, 2014. http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/how-did-marijuana-become-illegal-first-place
  3. “Cajun cook got 13 years for two joints.” The Clemency Report. http://clemencyreport.org/bernard-noble-named-as-no-4-louisiana-prisoner-deserving-freedom/
  4. Christopher Ingraham, “White people are more likely to deal drugs, but black people are more likely to get arrested for it,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2014.
  5. “CRIME in the United States 2012.” The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded homicide/expanded_homicide_data_table_1_murder_victims_by_race_and_sex_2012.xls
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  11. Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research. 1969. 6 (3): 167-191.
  12. “Gunman Shoots Seven, Kills Four, Cops Say Dope Did It.” Call and Post (162-1982); December 23, 1972; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Cleveland Call and Post pg. 1A
  13. Haskins Anna. “Unintended Consequences: Effects of Paternal Incarceration on Child School Readiness and Later Special Education Placement.” Sociological Science. April 2014; 1: 141-158. http://www.sociologicalscience.com/download/volume%201/april/unintended-consequences-effects-of-paternal-incarceration.pdf
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  15. LaFraniere, Sharon. “Barry Arrested on Cocaine Charges in Undercover FBI, Police Operation.” The Washington Post. January 19, 1990. Pg. A01
  16. Mann, Brian. “Timeline: Black America’s surprising 40-year support for the Drug War.” Prison Time. August 12, 2013. http://prisontime.org/2013/08/12/timeline-black-support-for-the-war-on-drugs/
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  27. Wynton Yates, “Community members rally for man serving 13 years for marijuana charge,” Eyewitness News, March 7, 2015.

 


 

DENISE POWELL is a seventh-generation Mississippian, medical student (resident as of May 2019), and journalist. She is currently a United Health Foundation/National Medical Fellowships Diverse Medical Scholar and has interned and written for ABC News, Good Morning America, and CNN News. She hopes to work with underrepresented communities and those who don’t have adequate access to healthcare. Denise enjoys learning the stories of others, improving policy on a grassroots level, and hitting up low-key music venues.

 

Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Ethics