Students for Sensible Drug Policy hosted a panel last night in an effort to call attention to disproportionate effects of the United States’s War on Drugs on minority groups.

The panel last night featured several drug policy and law enforcement experts who talked about current United States drug policies and possible solutions for the violence surrounding drug-related crimes. About 50 students attended the panel called “Minority Oppression Aggravated by the War on Drugs” that was held in the Hussey Room of the Michigan League.

Jenali Jefferson, a visiting professor from the University of Kansas School of Law, discussed how African Americans and Hispanics are unfairly hurt by the War on Drugs.

“Blacks are only 24 percent of the defenders in drug-related cases, but they are 35 percent of those convicted under mandatory minimum sentences,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson added that in their lifetime, 1 in 9 African American males are arrested for drug-related crimes.

University Law Prof. Sam Gross explained that the reason for this imbalance in racial representation in prisons due to drug crimes is because of how police are trained to look for drug criminals.

“When someone is driving by on the highway, what can you identify about them? The make of their car, … a license plate, and … maybe the driver’s race,” Gross said. “And that’s how police choose who to search.”

Matt Lassiter, an associate professor of history and urban and regional planning at the University, said some scholars and policy makers argue that the War on Drugs is less of a reaction to concern over drug-related crime and more of a continuation of racist policies.

“There actually is a debate on whether or not the War on Drugs should be considered a ‘frontlash’ instead of a backlash as the last remnant of segregation and the era of Jim Crow,” Lassiter said.

The panelists agreed that the War on Drugs has not only been unfair and especially harsh on minorities, but that it also is extremely expensive and a large pressure on federal and state budgets.

Lassiter talked about how prosecuting and jailing perpetrators of drug crimes takes up a significant portion of government budgets.

“The state of California spends more on incarceration than higher education.” Lassiter said. “And (the United States) has more people in prisons for drug-related crimes than the European Union does as a whole, and they have 100 million more people than we do.”

Cliff Thornton, an expert on drug policy and a leader of the Green Party, added that the way law enforcement approaches drug crimes is also damaging to those arrested for drug-related crimes.

“In 2005, the criminal justice system changed the way they were reporting these crimes. In some cases, almost 80 percent of the people there were there for drug-related crimes,” Thornton said. “So you have the prostitute who is selling herself for drugs, and you have the cop who is there for the prostitution, and the cop who is there for the drugs, and they’ll be fighting over her. It’s insane.”

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