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OPINIONS

Just Say No to Racial Drug Policies

This past Sunday, the nation mourned another life lost to drugs. While autopsy results of Phillip Seymour Hoffman remain inconclusive, the circumstances of the actor’s death all point to a drug overdose. And when news of this came out, it was all too reminiscent of June 2009 when Michael Jackson’s death was the top story.

These are the tragic stories that tend to reignite the debate on drug policy, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, there are over 100 such drug overdose deaths per day. Why are drug overdose rates consistently increasing, and what can the government do about it?

These are the questions that the Obama administration has been attempting to answer in the construction of a drug policy strategy for the past four years. On April 24, the 2013 National Drug Control Strategy was released with plans to reduce drug use and “protect public health in America.” This comprehensive strategy first emphasizes prevention, but also includes efforts to create better access to treatment.

Obama’s policy is a far cry from a realization of Nixon’s envisioned “war on drugs” that criminalized drug use, increased sentencing penalties and inflated the size of federal drug control agencies. Public outrage and an extreme fear of drugs continued even through the ’80s and ’90s, with incarceration levels for nonviolent drug offenses increasing from 50,000 people to 400,000.

Despite conveying a valiant image of cracking down on crime, it is often forgotten that these historical drug prohibitions are rooted in racial sentiments. Since the nineteenth century, drug restrictions have largely been set in response to different waves of immigration. American legislators began to make linkages between drugs and the feared or rejected groups in society. Historically, anti-opium laws were associated with a large influx of Chinese immigrants, anti-cocaine laws were seen as a reaction towards the black population and anti-marijuana laws were linked with Mexican immigrant communities.

What is most troublesome, though, is that these prejudicial undertones are still a large part of the nation’s drug policy today. A journal article in Criminology states that prisons are full of “minority drug offenders…who in essence are being punished for the ‘crime’ of not accepting poverty or of being addicted to cocaine.” This is especially prominent in the 100-1 disparity in possession penalties for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine – someone with five grams of crack has the same five-year minimum sentence as a powder cocaine defendant with 100 times that amount.

Moreover, it is hard to dissociate these policy differences from the fact that 80 percent of those incarcerated for crack offenses are African Americans, while powder cocaine use is generally a drug of choice for the white upper-class.

Obama finally addressed this striking dichotomy in 2010 by signing in the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities to 18-1. While the schism has been reduced significantly, it is still a difference that is much too large to be overlooked.

The 2013 National Drug Control Strategy proclaims that “drug policy reform should be rooted in neuroscience – not political science.” So why are racially-driven drug policies of the past still influencing drug policies of the 21st century? The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that the effects of cocaine on the brain are identical in crack or powder form. If the principles that underlie the new drug policy are true, shouldn’t it be clear evidence that there is no logical basis for the policy differences?

Drug overdose deaths now surpass homicides and car accident fatalities in America. Every one of these deaths from drug overdoses – no matter the level of celebrity or media attention – is a tragic one. Most tragic of all is how preventable these deaths could be with adequate resources for treatment provided by the government.

The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a deeply saddening event and also a reminder that drugs do not discriminate between race, social class, gender or sexuality. So why should drug policy? A history of drug policy implemented with racial biases should not continue to have an influence on the drug policy today. These historical practices of criminalizing drug use and legislating harsh penalties that have carried through into policy today will not help people with their drug addictions. There is no better time than now to fix the systematic racism and lack of treatment options within our drug policy.

The 2013 Strategy was a step in the right direction, but the government must now live up to its promises by providing better treatment for everyone for drug addiction as a scientific substance abuse disorder, rather than criminalizing it differently based on the demographic that abuses it. Instead of blindly fighting a war on drugs, we must fight for government action on policy reform to combat the real problem – the influence of past racism on policies today.

Contact Aimee Trujillo at aimeet@stanford.edu.