3 Troubling Stories That Prove Trump's War on Drugs Is Targeting People of Color

People who had their lives ripped apart by America’s racist war on drugs share their stories.

This is a photo of Trump.

Image via Getty/Drew Angerer

This is a photo of Trump.

Since launching the War on Drugs in the 1970s, America has flooded police into Black and brown neighborhoods, enacting laws that result in harsh sentencing for drug crimes. Drug war policies were racist from the start, leading to an explosion of Black and Latinx individuals in America’s prisons. Under President Obama, some of the harshest disparities in drug sentencing were being reversed. Now the Trump Administration is going in the opposite direction— ramping up drug war policies like mandatory minimum sentences and instructing prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties for drug possession. This sort of draconian drug enforcement devastates communities of color, but does absolutely nothing to reduce rates of drug use or sales.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called for prosecutors to return to mandatory minimums, which mandate years or even life in prison for possession of minute drug quantities. This means that under federal law you can be sentenced to five years for possessing any amount of marijuana for a first nonviolent offense, and ten years for a second. A first conviction for trafficking a small amount of drugs such as cocaine or heroine can land you with a 40 year sentence, and a second offense can mean life in prison. Trump's proposed budget increases funding for the Drug Enforcement Agency by $150 million while cutting financing for substance abuse services by $109 million.

Incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the past four decades since the drug war began. Today, the US houses more prisoners per capita than any country in the world: America makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s total population, but holds nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. It has been repeatedly established that white and Black Americans use and sell drugs at the same rates; yet African Americans make up nearly half of those convicted of drug crimes, despite being just 13 percent of the general population. In New York City, around 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession are people of color, and just 8 percent are white.

Stories of those who have had their lives ripped apart by America’s punitive approach to drug enforcement reveal what is at stake as Trump unleashes a new drug war.

In 2012, Arlan “Showly” Moss was arrested for selling a gram of MDMA (worth $40) and sentenced to five years in prison. The 31-year-old musician then served two and a half years, much of which he spent in maximum security prisons.

“My son wasn’t able to visit me because a majority of the facilities I was in were too far and his mother didn’t have a car,” Showly recounts. “So I didn’t see my son for two years.”

Showly grew up in a housing project in Bridgeport, where he saw men in his family in and out of prison for drug sales. Serving time seemed “normal” to him. When Showly was twelve, his older brother was sentenced to eight years for selling a $40 bag of cocaine. Showly was 17 when he first sold drugs; he had a job at Walmart, and saw how much more money his friends were making as dealers.

“You see people with nine-to-five jobs, but you don’t see any progression in their lives. You see them coming back to the same project apartment... barely making ends meet,” Showly recalls. “Sometimes it feels to you that the only way that you can make a progression in your life or strive for something greater is to break the rules.”

Prosecutors are twice as likely to seek a mandatory minimum sentence for Black defendants as white defendants when they are charged with the same offense.

58-year-old Elizabeth Owens, a community organizer with VOCAL-NY, combats the impacts of the drug war in the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. Elizabeth, who describes herself as a “gay, Black woman who has been on drugs, been homeless, and had Hepatitis C,” first used heroin when she was twelve-years-old. It’s now been six years since she used.

During her struggle with drugs, Elizabeth was arrested several times and served short stints in jail. But, she says, being incarcerated did nothing to address the mental illness from which her drug use stemmed, and left her even more destabilized than before she went to jail. Criminalization only made it harder for Elizabeth to find housing, work, and healthcare.

“I want you to know how hard it is out on the streets, how scary it is for women,” Elizabeth says. “To be stigmatized and treated like a piece of crap instead of treating people like a human being.”

Elizabeth believes that drug users should be at the forefront of efforts to combat harmful drug use. She says that solutions to substance abuse should build upon the community support systems drug users already establish for one another, such as sharing food and clothing on the streets, rather than relying on stigma and criminalization.

“I’m busy trying to remove the stigma,” Elizabeth explains. “I’m not a throwaway. When people say, ‘how long have you been clean?’ that’s an insult. I was never dirty. I made bad decisions.”

As a result of the drug war, the women’s prison population has spiked by over 700 percent in the past three decades. Black women comprise 44 percent of the women’s jail population, but only 13 percent of the general US women’s population.

New York City native Ebony Underwood has lived with her father behind bars for almost three decades. In 1988, William Underwood was arrested on charges stemming from drug sales when he was a teenager. Under draconian federal sentencing guidelines enacted in 1987, William was sentenced to life without parole. William had not sold drugs in decades, never been convicted of a felony, and since started a family and successful career as a music producer. According to his attorney, all the laws under which he was sentenced have since been overturned for being overly punitive, but Ebony’s family has not been able to free her father.

Ebony was fourteen-years-old when her dad was locked up. “It was completely devastating. It turned me upside down,” Ebony says. “When you incarcerate an individual you incarcerate their entire family.”

Because he was sentenced to federal prison, Ebony’s dad was regularly moved across the country, making visits costly and time consuming. No consideration was given to where Ebony or her family lived.

Today, Ebony advocates for children with incarcerated parents, building We Got Us Now, a platform for resources and support for children with parents behind bars. “There’s so many aspects of this that impacts innocent families that I want to bring light to,” Ebony says. “Though we are innocent in this, we too are directly impacted by the mass incarceration of our parents.”

Across the US, 10 million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. One in nine Black children has a parent behind bars, compared to one in 57 white children.

“We build the power of people impacted by the War on Drugs in New York,” explains Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a community organizing and advocacy organization. Most of the organization’s members, such as Elizabeth Owens, are low-income people of color who have firsthand experience with the devastation of drug criminalization.

The organization supports ending legal prohibition of all drugs and taking a public health approach to support those who struggle with harmful drug use. “Full legalization gives us the opportunity to keep people safer so that people who are going to use know what they’re doing, and it also removes the criminal aspect of drug use,” argues Alyssa. In the shorter term, the question asked in drug policy conversations should be how to help people rather than punish them, according to Alyssa. More time in jail doesn’t help people who are struggling with addiction.

“For the last 40 years we’ve had a war on drugs that was very fast paced, that was very tough, with a lot of money—and what has been the result? There’s been absolutely zero decline in the rate of drug use in this country,” Alyssa says. “We’ve tried these tactics and they don’t work. They harm communities, and it’s time to embrace another way.”

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