The Shifting Drug War

The pendulum is swinging back from stiff mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

Of course, state ballot initiatives affect only state law. One source of confusion over drug laws is the distinction between federal and state legislation. People who possess or sell drugs can usually be charged under either state or federal law. The U.S. attorney decides whether to pursue federal charges. State laws are enforced by local district attorneys.

Federal drug laws are generally more strict than state laws, with mandatory minimum sentences that can include life in prison. The federal government often decides to focus its resources on particular offenses, like the sale of crack cocaine; as a result, many of those convicted of crack possession are in federal prison. A large percentage of these offenders are black, even though studies consistently show that most cocaine users and sellers are white. However, penalties for the powder cocaine favored by whites are far less severe than those for the crack cocaine used in black neighborhoods, a continuing source of anger in the black community.

"We are totally disillusioned," says Emma Phillips, Colorado coordinator for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization challenging mandatory-sentencing laws. "We're trying to get enough people together to say this has to change."

Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
Anthony Camera
Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.

Phillips's son Elgin received a mandatory 25-year sentence after the police found a briefcase with more than 100 grams of crack cocaine in his car. Elgin has three children, and his absence has been painful for the family.

"It's not going to take my son 25 years to realize he was running with the wrong crowd," says Phillips. "He knows that. This tore up his home. His children are left without their father."

Belying the stereotype of crack users, Elgin Phillips came from a middle-class family and was running a barber shop in Park Hill when he was sent to federal prison four years ago. Now thirty years old, he calls his children every morning before they go to school.

"It's not like we're saying what our children did was right," says Phillips. "We're just saying give them a second chance."

The impact of the war on drugs on Colorado's black community has been stunning. One in every nineteen black men in Colorado is in prison, a rate that's twice the number for Hispanics and ten times the number for white men. In the state prison system, 43 percent of those behind bars for drug offenses are African-American, even though blacks make up just 3.8 percent of Colorado's population.

Drug-law reformers are hoping that the spread of state initiatives will pressure Congress to change federal law as well. To do that, they'll have to take on drug warriors such as representative Bob Barr of Georgia, who recently described the reform effort as "this subversive criminal movement." President George W. Bush has also opposed the reform movement, appointing drug hawks like former representative Asa Hutchinson to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration. (In one of the more bizarre twists to the ongoing drug war, last spring the Bush administration approved a $43 million grant to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to support eradication of the opium-poppy crop, something the government undoubtedly wishes it could undo.)

Supporters of the drug war insist that the laws have been successful at reducing drug use and crime in general.

"The notion that the war on drugs is lost is false," says Sue Rusche, executive director of National Families in Action, the largest private anti-drug group in the nation. "Drug use is about half what it was when it peaked in 1979. We reduced drug use by two-thirds among adolescents. I don't call that a failure."

Rusche is deeply suspicious of the effort to reform drug laws, because she believes the real goal of reformers is the outright legalization of all drugs.

"There's been so much deception on the part of these people," she says. "George Soros said in his autobiography he wanted to legalize drugs, but he realized the country wasn't there."

According to Rusche, the Drug Policy Foundation continually holds focus groups to "see how far the public is willing to go. They then frame the issue according to what they've learned in the focus groups."

She describes California's Proposition 36 as a successful effort to con the public. "It ostensibly mandates that addicts be put in treatment instead of jail. If you read between the lines, it legalized all drugs. The court's hands are tied."

National Families maintains an elaborate Web site filled with detailed criticisms of the drug reform movement, even posting lists of the people who made donations to support Proposition 36. The large donations from Soros and two other multimillionaires are highlighted. Rusche also encourages journalists to attend an annual retreat for the media that her group holds in Atlanta, noting that funds are available to cover expenses for some lucky scribes.

Who pays for all of this?

"We receive federal and state grants as well as other contributions," says Rusche.

Reformers are often accused of having a secret agenda to legalize all drugs. But while many of them think marijuana laws should be relaxed, few want to see heroin and cocaine for sale at the local 7-Eleven.

"The choice isn't between the status quo and decriminalization," says Christie Donner. "That's what I've been accused of by legislators. They miss the whole middle ground, which is where most of us are. We're not advocating for decriminalization."

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