It is Time to End the Insanity of our Nation’s Drug Laws

Back in the early 80s, when I was still in high school, I was asked if I wanted to sell drugs by two kids I knew who lived in the Brewster-Douglass Homes public housing projects. It was not the first time – nor would it be the last time – I was asked about getting into the drug game.

It would have been easy to become a drug dealer. I lived only two blocks from the Brewster-Douglass Homes, at the time, the largest, and one of the most dangerous, housing projects in the city of Detroit, a place where out-in-the-open drug dealing was easy to find and easy to get involved in.

Brewster-Douglass was actually two housing projects. The Brewster Homes, the nation's first federally funded public housing development for blacks, were completed in 1941. The Fredrick Douglass Homes were built between 1942 and 1952. The combined housing projects were five city blocks long and three city blocks wide. At their peak, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people lived in them.

During the 1970s, when I was growing up, the Brewster's as we called them, was one of the worst areas of concentrated poverty in the city of Detroit. Joblessness, single-parented households, welfare dependency, drug abuse, crime, and gun violence were major problems.

By the 1980s, when the crack epidemic hit the city of Detroit, the problems in the "projects" got even worse. But, crack seemed to be different from other drugs I had seen in the neighborhood such as heroin. Crack was cheaper, the high was very intense, and it seemed to be everywhere, wrecking the lives of individuals and their families, destroying the very fabric of the entire community with a force unseen before.

Few families, including my own, were untouched by crack.

Although I never sold drugs (and though I have seen people get high, I have never tried crack), I must admit: I was tempted to hustle!

Selling crack was a way to make quick money, and lots of it. I saw young men that I grew up with become, what I called at the time, "ghetto superstars." They drove fancy cars, wore thick gold chains and expensive leather sneakers (we call them gym shoes back in the "D"), and sported fur lined Max Julian coats. And, they had, I envied the most, all the "pretty" ladies.

It should come as no surprise that for many young black males growing up in the extreme poverty of the Brewster-Douglass projects, the lure of the drug trade was powerful and too hard to resist. With all the money to be made and women to be had, it is easy to see why so many young men become "street entrepreneurs."

Drug dealing was certainly glamorous; but, drug dealing was also extremely dangerous, generating unparalleled levels of gun violence and death.

Hence, on the one hand, the demand for crack was phenomenal and the profits from selling drugs were through the ceiling. On the other hand, as rival drug crews – such as, "Young Boy Incorporated," "Best Friends", "Pony Down", "Black Mafia Family" and "The Chambers Brothers" – fought over territory, the body count increased all over the motor-city, especially in the Brewster projects.

By the mid-1980s, widely exaggerated claims about the extreme potency of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and violent turf battles over drug markets in America's inner-cities caught the attention of then President Ronald Regan and members of Congress. A "War on Drugs" was declared and Congress passed the notorious 100 to 1 sentencing quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Sentencing policies, as a consequence of the war on drugs, resulted in a dramatic increase in the prison population.

For the last several decades, criminal justice and prison reform advocates have been pushing members of Congress to treat powder and crack cocaine the same. Under current federal law, 5 grams of crack cocaine will get you a 5 year minimum sentence. With powder cocaine, you need 100 times that amount to trigger a similar sentence.

As most people know, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity has had a major impact on people of color. Excessive and harsh, current drug laws have generated huge racial disparities in the U.S. prison population.

General speaking, the nation's prisons are bursting at the seams. According to The Sentencing Project, America leads the world in incarceration, with about 2.3 million people in prison and jail. The racial dimensions of the U.S. prison population are staggering. They report that about 6 out of 10 prisoners are people of color. Astonishingly, one in ten (10.4%) black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2008, as were 1 in 26 (3.8%) Latino males, compared to 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males, in the same age group.

As a result of the so-called "war on drugs, roughly three out of four people in prison for a drug offense are a racial or ethnic minority. For black males, one out of eight is in prison or jail on any given day.

Congress enacted these drug laws during the height of the so-called crack epidemic of the 1980s. Widely embraced by both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, over the years, efforts to change this outrageously insane 100 to 1 ratio have received stiff opposition, until now.

At last, a bit of sanity is emerging in the nation's Capital. On March 17, members of the Senate passed the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, a bill that will change the punishment for crack cocaine to 18 to 1.

Although the Senate bill is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough to eliminate the racial disparities that have been created by the nation's failed drug policies. The Senate bill still maintains a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

In order to become law, this bill must be reconciled with a House bill that made it out of committee last year. The bills are different. The House Judiciary committee version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act completely eliminates the sentencing disparity.

It is time to end the insanity of our nation's drug laws. There is no reason to treat powder and crack cocaine differently. They are the same drug! Please call your members of the Senate and encourage them to support the House's version of the Fairness in Sentencing Act.


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