National Data on 1980-2007 Cases Show Huge Disparities
March 2, 2009
Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been color-blind. Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders.
Jamie Fellner, senior counsel to the US Program at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) - Blacks have been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than whites for nearly three decades, even though they engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.  Using data obtained from the FBI, the report reveals the extent and persistence of racial disparities in US drug-law enforcement. The data also show that most drug arrests are for nothing more serious than possession.

The 20-page report, "Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States,"  says that adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007, the last year for which complete data were available. About one in three of the more than 25.4 million adult drug arrestees during that period was African American.

"Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been color-blind," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's US Program and author of the report. "Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders."

The report also says that arrests for drug possession have greatly exceeded arrests for drug sales every year since 1980. Indeed, the proportion of drug arrests for possession has been increasing, amounting to 80 percent or more annually since 1999. Marijuana possession accounts for a large proportion of drug arrests: in the years 2000 through 2007, the proportion of all drug arrests that was for marijuana possession ranged from 37.7 percent to 42.1 percent. The report today is the latest by Human Rights Watch exploring human rights violations, including racial discrimination, in the context of the "war on drugs".

"Hauling hundreds of thousands of people down to the station house each year because they have some weed or a rock of crack cocaine in their pocket has had little impact on drug use," said Fellner. "But the stigma of a drug arrest, especially if followed by a conviction, limits employment, education and housing opportunities. A more effective, less destructive drug policy would prioritize treatment, education, and positive social investments in poor communities over arrest and incarceration."