Organizations seek black voice in drug laws

Representatives meet to devise plan for changes

April 24, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amid the policy-makers and legal professionals who devise the tactics of the nation's "war on drugs," Tara Andrews thinks one voice hasn't been heard.

African-Americans as a group have been silent for too long, said Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, a Baltimore organization pushing the state to give nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of jail time.

Yesterday, representatives of 15 black professional organizations that formed the National African American Drug Policy Coalition in the fall met to devise a strategy for changing drug laws they say unfairly punish African-Americans.

Among the group's leaders is Kurt L. Schmoke, who while mayor of Baltimore in 1988, called drug addiction a public health problem and advocated decriminalizing drugs. The group includes doctors, attorneys, social workers, treatment specialists and judges who endorsed some of the same solutions Schmoke advocated nearly 20 years ago. Schmoke, who was unable to attend the conference, urged the group to be a catalyst in reforming drug policy.

The discussion yesterday was part of a weekend summit discussing such issues as the effect of drug policy on women and families, faith-based approaches to dealing with drug abuse, and how to prevent underage drinking.

Today they will wrap up the conference at the Marriott Metro Center with recommendations for policy changes.

The goal is to work in a handful of cities, including Baltimore, to urge judges to offer treatment rather than incarceration for drug crimes, while pushing policy-makers on a national level to change mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

"This is the second drug policy conference I've been to in two months, but this is the first one I've ever been to that was publicly and unapologetically for and by African-Americans," Andrews said. "People may say this is just another black group trying to do something for black folks, but I am encouraged that we have finally stepped up. We want to have a voice, and we want to have an impact on these policies."

Many of the participants at a town hall meeting yesterday said they were glad to finally see groups coming together for change.

Retired Montgomery County police Chief Clarence Edwards, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said his group has been trying to draw attention to these problems for years, with little success. "We joined together as a fraternal base to have a place to discuss these issues without fear of condemnation," he said. "Because, let's be real, on the enforcement end they don't want to talk about treatment. They want to know how many people did you lock up."

Although studies show that the majority of drug users are white, the nation's fight against illegal drugs focuses on street-level offenders in inner-city communities, said Julius Debro, a professor in the Society and Justice Program at the University of Washington. Blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated on drug crimes and on average receive longer sentences than whites, he said.

Others reflected on the past to explain today's problems.

"You cannot understand the implications of today's policies if you don't know history of drug policies in general," said Deborah Peterson Small, executive director of a New York-based group called Breaking the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs.

"The history of U.S. drug policy has always targeted racial minorities," she said. "We created these laws to control these groups of people."

As an example, she discussed cocaine, which was made illegal in the early 20th century amid paranoia that the drug made blacks violent, she said.

Transforming today's drug policies will take a long-term push, said Judge Arthur L. Burnett of Washington, D.C., the group's executive director. He said the next step is pushing lawmakers for change.

"I've heard people call us a stealth organization - no one really understands what we're about," he said. "They say it's a talk group. But we're not. We have muscle and we're making change happen."

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