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Sunday 9 June 2019


In the joint

As the cannabis business booms, the injustice of America’s war on drugs goes on

By Chris Newell and Peter Hoskin

The Land of the Free is also the Land of the Unfree. Over two million people are currently locked up in American prisons, which equates to 655 out of every 100,000 members of the population. That’s a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world. By comparison, the UK (or at least the English and Welsh parts of it) has a rate of 139 per 100,000:

It didn’t used to be this way. In 1980, there were just over half-a-million prisoners in US prisons. Over the subsequent 27 years, that total rose by 330 per cent:

Among the causes for this rise was the “war on drugs” that President Nixon instigated with a 1971 press conference but that was fully prosecuted by President Reagan in the 1980s and continued, with varying enthusiasm, by presidents since. About 100,000 – or a full 44 per cent – of the inmates in federal prisons and jails are currently there because of drug-related offences:

As the above graphic shows, the rates of incarceration do vary between different types of prison. In state prisons, which form the bulk of the US penal system, drug-related offences account for only 15 per cent of inmates, whereas violent offences account for 55 per cent. But the overall average is still considerable: one in every five Americans behind bars is there because of drugs.

Aside from its sheer scale, the most striking thing about the war on drugs is its unevenness. Some types are drug crime are picked on more than others:

And the same goes for some types of drug:

But the most worrying form of inequality is that between races. If you compare the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to that year’s US Census, you’ll find that the proportion of black people claiming to have used illicit drugs in the previous year is 9 per cent higher than the proportion of white people. Yet the arrest rate for drug abuse violations is 47 per cent higher for black people than for white:

Not all of these arrests will lead to convictions, but some will. Then comes the prison sentence. Then comes another form of sentence. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated black men is 35 per cent, while for formerly incarcerated black women it’s 44 per cent. As with every war, there are casualties.