Fighting one front of war

Report: Study suggests that effort to fight drugs disproportionately targets blacks.

June 17, 2000

THE NATION'S war on drugs has been selective. While police arrest an increasingly large number of blacks on drug charges, they have failed to catch and convict white drug dealers.

Blacks are punished far more often than whites on drug charges nationwide. In Maryland, an astounding 90 percent of those serving time on drug charges are black, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. This disparity would seem fair if nine of 10 drug sellers were black, but they aren't. A survey cited in the Human Rights Watch report found that 82 percent of admitted drug sellers were white.

Part of the disparity is easily explained. Drug dealing became painfully brazen in black communities in the 1980s and 1990s. Low-level dealers are highly visible and, therefore, easy for police to spot and arrest. Some of this was portrayed poignantly in the recent HBO miniseries "The Corner." The drug trade in these neighborhoods often has been violent as rival dealers compete for a piece of the illegal economy.

Police are grabbing the low-lying fruit. To be sure, they cannot ignore street-corner drug dealing. Communities are crying for police to stop a practice that is making life miserable for decent, hard-working people. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected largely on his pledge to close drug markets, so enforcement is necessary.

But the report makes a strong argument that police haven't cracked down on drug dealing and use by whites.

In white neighborhoods, the report says, "drugs are more likely to be sold indoors, in bars, clubs and private homes."

If this is a war on drugs, law enforcement has been fighting only half the battle, failing to penetrate large segments of enemy territory.

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