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How Drug Laws Marginalize and Target People of Color

By: Marco Notaro

America’s drug policies have led to an explosion of our nation’s prison system. Largely as a result of the War on Drugs, since 1980 the US prison population has increased over 500% and the growth of mass incarceration has largely targeted poor minorities.1   Scholars like Michelle Alexander have argued that mass incarceration has created a racial caste system which keeps people of color in an inferior position and functions as a modern day version of Jim Crow. This system selectively targets and effects communities of color, incarcerates their members and uses the criminal status of those who are incarcerated as a result of these policies to legally discriminate and marginalize it’s members after their release from prison.

Despite studies by groups like the ACLU showing that whites and people of color use drugs at nearly the same rate, research consistently shows that people of color are disproportionately affected at every stage of the criminal justice process.2 A 2013 Open Buffalo study found that in Erie County, people of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug related offenses, and receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts.3 Drug use is often treated different depending on who the users are. An examination of the history of American drug policy shows that often a society is concerned less about a drug’s effects than who its user class is. Middle class white kids smoking marijuana are more likely to be treated as harmless miscreants who only need to have their parents called and their weed confiscated. When the same kids caught in poor communities of color are caught for the same offense, the matter is often treated more seriously and drastically more likely to result in an arrest.

Research by The Sentencing Project found that people of color make up only 37% of the American population yet account for almost 67% of the prison population.4 African American men are the greatest victims of our drug policy, as a result of such policies; nearly one in three African-American men born in the US will go to prison during their lifetime.5 Mass incarceration not only damages the individual incarcerated but also affects the families of the incarcerated, often removing one of the family’s breadwinners, further keeping poor families in poverty.

The devastating effects of incarceration and specifically felony convictions continue to be devastating after the incarcerated is released from prison. Status as a criminal and especially as a felon opens the incarcerated up to numerous forms of legalized discrimination which can permanently marginalize the individual after their release from prison. All but two states impose some kind of individual voting restriction as a result of a felony conviction with 12 states disenfranchising an individual’s voting rights even after a person has ended their prison sentence and is no longer on parole.6 The Sentencing Project found that 6.1 million African-Americans in this country, many arrested for non-violent drug offenses have been stripped of their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.7 In addition, since the 1996 reforms of welfare, 37 states impose some form of disqualification for drug felons on receiving food stamps or TANF benefits while a felony conviction also limits an individual’s ability to access public housing.8 Ex-offenders also often have to check a box disclosing their criminal records or felony convictions on applications for employment serving as a major barrier for re-entering the workforce.

All policies described in the last paragraph are in theory, colorblind and don’t by themselves discriminate on the basis of race but rather based on an individual’s status as a criminal. But given that America’s drug laws (which fuel mass incarceration) are applied in a manner which is inherently racist and discriminatory, such policies have the effect of disproportionately targeting and discriminating against people of color. Limiting individual’s ability to access public services or find employment after incarceration increases the likelihood of an individual re-offending. The result of these policies is a system which permanently marginalizes people of color by enabling a system of legalized discrimination and disenfranchisement.


[1] “Fact Sheet: Trends in US Corrections.” Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2016

[2] “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.” New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2013, 9; “Alarming Disparities: The Disproportionate Number of African American and Hispanic People in the Erie County Criminal Justice System.” Buffalo: Open Buffalo, November 2013, 1.

[3] “Alarming Disparities: The Disproportionate Number of African American and Hispanic People in the Erie County Criminal Justice System,” 3, 7, 8; The study found that in Erie County, African-Americans account for 13.9% of the population but 60% of the violent felony and drug felony arrests; Hispanics account for 4.7% of the population but 8.4% of the violent felony and 11.8% of the drug felony arrests. The same study found that African-Americans receive harsher sentences than whites. The portion of whites in prison is 26% lower than the percentage of whites sentenced, whereas the portion of African-Americans in prison is 23.9% greater than African-Americans sentenced. Specifically looking at druf felonies, the study found that Whites represent 27.3% of those arrested for drug felonies, but only 12.3% of those sentenced to prison for drug felonies. All data in the study was taken from the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services for 2007-2011.

[4] “Fact Sheet: Trends in US Corrections.” Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2016

[5] Ibid, 5

[6] Jean Chung, “Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer” Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2016

[7] Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon, “6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016” Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2016; The same study found that African Americans are four times as likely to be disenfranchised as the rest of the adult population. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.

[8] Maggie McCarthy, Gene Falk, Randy Alison Aussenberg and David H. Carpenter. “Drug Testing and Crime-Related Restrictions in TANF, SNAP, and Housing Assistance” Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2016


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