Activist Attacks Drug Enforcement Policies
In her speech,“Racism and the War on Drugs,” Small questioned the logic behind what she described as indiscriminate outlawing of drug use.
Small, who serves as director of public policy and community outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization, began her speech by describing how violence stemming from the illegal drug market had affected her personally.
Shortly after Small graduated from college, two of her family members were killed by drug-related violence, she told the audience.
“My brother, who was 21 at the time, was beaten to death in Atlanta, Georgia and my father was shot eight months later,” Small said. “When you have a loved one who dies in that way, the police don’t try to solve the crime.”
Small said that although drug use was relatively consistent across racial groups, a disproportionate number of those arrested or convicted for drug use “are poor people or people of color.”
“If our drug enforcement were really about drugs, you would expect people to be arrested proportionally,” she said. “But 94 percent of people arrested in New York are black or Latino and, in California, it’s 60 percent.”
Small said that drug policy in America has always been tinged with racism.
“Marijuana laws began in response to Mexicans in the southwest using that drug,” she said.
Instead of the current system of incarcerating drug offenders, Small advocated policies aimed at “harm reduction” rather than prohibition.
She cited drunk driving laws and labelling regulations aimed at the liquor industry as examples of successful “harm reduction” policies.
Small frequently compared the contemporary debate about drug laws to discussions about prohibition during the early 20th century.
“The problems of alcohol prohibition were worse than the problems associated with alcohol itself,” Small said.
Small also criticized policy-makers who take a purely punitive approach to drug policy.
After enumerating several sanctions used against drug offenders—the “three-strikes” rule, eviction from public housing, and loss of the ability to receive student loans or welfare—Small said that current policies punish drug users rather than promote recovery.
“With all the barriers we put in front of a person trying to reintegrate into society, should we be surprised that so many people who are released from jail end up going back there?” she said.
Small also took issue with the government’s recent anti-drug campaign— which included commercials that ran during the Super Bowl—that implied that drug users supported terrorist networks.
“Lots of petroleum dollars end up supporting terrorism, too,” Small said. “Is it people’s use of the drugs that’s supporting terrorism or is it the fact that drugs are illegal?” she said.
The talk, sponsored by several student organizations including Harvard Students for Prison Reform (HSPR), is part of a week of events leading up to a conference on prison reform this Saturday.