Los Angeles to Host Groundbreaking Event on People of Color & the War on Drugs

Press Release August 31, 2002
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Josie Wulsin at 212-548-0383

In recent weeks, media and civil rights leaders have paid renewed attention to the small town of Tulia, Texas, a town where 12% of the black population was arrested and prosecuted in 1999 on drug charges, solely on the word of one undercover cop. Now the U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into what looks like “deliberate racial profiling,” said New York Senator Charles Schumer, as quoted by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. While there was no evidence to support the charges, 14 people are still in jail, some serving life sentences.

The situation in Tulia is outrageous, but it is hardly unique. Documented cases of racial injustice take place regularly around the country in the name of the war on drugs.

Why are so many people of color in prison for drug offenses? How does the drug war affect access to employment? Public housing? Lack of money for education? Political representation? How are African American and Latino communities disproportionately targeted by our current drug policies? What can be done to reduce the harms these policies have caused to communities of color?

A groundbreaking event – Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs – will take place in Los Angeles, September 26-28 to address these and other important issues.

“You can’t talk about racism without talking about the war on drugs,” said Deborah Small, director of public policy and community outreach at event organizer Drug Policy Alliance, who is organizing the event. “Virtually every drug war policy – from racial profiling to prosecutions to length of sentencing – is disproportionately carried out against minorities.”

Hundreds of religious leaders, elected officials, police officers and community organizers are expected to attend this first-of-its-kind conference, which will address a variety of issues, including:

Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing – Because of mandatory drug sentences, the U.S. locks up more people on drug charges than all of western Europe incarcerates for all criminal offenses. Despite roughly equal rates of drug use across races, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement. Among those incarcerated in state prisons for drug felonies in the U.S., Blacks comprise 57% and Latinos account for 22%. In New York State, 94% of all people in prison on drug charges are Black or Latino. In California and New York, more Black and Latino men are sent to prison each year than graduate from state colleges and universities.

Voter Disenfranchisement – Almost 1.4 million African American males, or 14% of the adult black male population, are currently disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project. Black men represent more than 36% of the total disenfranchised male population in the U.S., although they make up less than 15% of American males. In addition, because prisoners are counted by the national census as residents of the towns in which they are imprisoned, rather than their hometowns, many urban communities of color end up with diminished political power and government funding.

Spread of HIV / AIDS – According to the Centers for Disease Control, AIDS is the leading cause of death among African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44. More than 60% of these deaths are associated, either directly or indirectly, with injection drug use. More than 110,000 African Americans had drug-related AIDS, or had already died from drug-related AIDS, by the end of 1997. Among injecting drug users, African Americans are four times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with HIV. AIDS is also the leading cause of death among Latinos aged 25 to 44. Over half of these deaths are drug-related. More than 54,000 Latinos had injection- related HIV, or had already died from drug-related AIDS, by the end of 1997.

“It’s time for us to reexamine our attachment to these failed drug policies,” said Small. “The ‘war on drugs’ has become a war on communities of color. We can develop effective alternatives to the problems of substance abuse and crime that don’t require incarcerating a growing percentage of our loved ones. Together we can reclaim our children, our communities and our political power to make change happen.”


WHAT: Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs

WHEN: Thursday September 26 – Saturday September 28

WHERE: Hyatt Regency Los Angeles at Macy’s Plaza

711 South Hope Street

ATTENTION MEDIA: Pre-conference interviews with experts on a variety of topics can be arranged by calling Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 or Josie Wulsin at 212-548-0383. Press tickets to the conference are also available.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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