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Drugs, Incarceration, and Communities of Color

Teenagers mostly hear about the consequences of drugs and alcohol from their worried parents, counselors, or teachers, usually in the context of partying, drunk driving, and other health and safety issues. But this summer, my interest in social justice led me to seek an internship with a group that works to bring about positive change on the South and West Sides of Chicago. It was here that I came to realize that drug use is not just a health and wellness issue-- but also a social justice one. I wrote this article after doing background research for one of my projects at GameChanger Chicago and realizing that this is an issue that more Americans need to be acquainted with, and fast. 

In America, more than 50% of our incarcerations are due the possession of marijuana (Drug Policy), though we've legalized alcohol and nicotine-- drugs that take a much bigger toll on a person's health. However, the demographics within that incarceration percentage are greatly unequal. The vast amount of people of color incarcerated for drug possession in no way reflects the overall possession and usage of any drug, but the focus the police has on urban neighborhoods, and perhaps their tendency to racially profile.

Alcohol - a staple in many of our lives - has severe health consequences. Though it’s legal, heightened consumption can lead to alcohol dependence and addiction— and exhibits horrid withdrawal symptoms. Cannabis, on a relative basis, is much harder to form a dependence on, and has marginally less detrimental effects to your liver and blood than alcohol does. However, it still has worse effects on users and communities, though in a much different way than many other legal drugs. 

Many may say that the reason so many people of color are incarcerated is because their drug transactions are often out in the open, where police can catch them. And argue that detaining those who are threats to the community is beneficial— removing people detrimental to the community to an extent is crucial to maintaining a healthy community. Prisons can stabilize communities, let the environment reset— and for the most part, why wouldn’t we want a crime-ridden neighborhood?

The focus on urban poor and on incarceration has massively increased the volume of people in prison, and has severely affected communities of color. If one were to break down the demographics of drug dealers in certain cities, then 13% of drug dealers are African American, 17% would be from various Latino groups, and about 65% are white (Drug Policy). Despite that, more than half of those imprisoned for drug sales and possession are people of color. The Human Rights Watch even found that black men are sentenced on drug charges 13 times more often than white men (Effects of Incarceration on Communities of Color). Due to the focus on the urban poor, many upper-class whites appear to use and sell drugs with relative impunity, while people who were forced into crime due to economic pressure are likely to be incarcerated. 

Consequentially, instead of creating and promoting a healthy community by removing the detrimental elements of that society, the rampant incarceration due to minor drug-related charges has completely stripped the communities of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and aunts and uncles. The absence of bread winners and caretakers in family units has led to a downward spiral into increasing poverty, lack of education and has just propagated the cycle of crime and incarceration all over again.

On top of that, severe lack of mental health facilities, funding and support in these environments, continues to inadvertently promote a life of crime. Many prisoners return home just as bad, and sometimes even worse, than they were before. The undeniable fact is that once incarcerated these people  face a lifetime of mostly irreversible and permanent setbacks. 

Eventually, weed-possession incarcerations give way to lifelong consequences, which are dire. First, released prisoners lose many social benefits— public housing access, welfare benefits, college loans and grants, the right to vote, as well as the right to live or work in some areas. Not having access to these privileges directly prevents these people from recovering from their wrongdoings and returning to the “straight and narrow path”— which leads them to returning to the same detrimental lifestyle as before. (Human Rights Watch).

There is no question that weed drastically affects communities of color— but the debate lies in how and why. As a community, we have to create solutions to stop the vicious cycle— to prevent impoverished neighborhoods from worsening, to aid those with mental illness both in and out of prison, and to begin to provide those released from prison with the resources they need to get back on their feet. 

Whether it be legalizing marijuana in all 50 states, decreasing the stigma around the urban poor, or drastically changing the way law enforcement treats cannabis in respect to other, more harmful drugs-- we have to be aware that ignoring this issue has severe consequences-- not only for the people who live in these communities, but for the nation as a whole. The only attention these blighted neighborhoods seem to get is when the violence within them spikes up dramatically, or spills out into their surrounding more affluent neighborhoods. However, violence is only a symptom of the underlying disease. It is time that we look at the laws and law enforcement practices that hold back large groups of American people from ever achieving the American dream.

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