If We Knew Better, We Would Do Better: Time to Release African Americans with Substance Use Disorders From Prison

Key Words: African Americans with substance use disorders

The title of this blog post, "If we knew better, we would do better," comes from late poet Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. This quote could easily be applied to the high imprisonment rates of African Americans with substance use disorders. Following the cocaine related death of All American college basketball player, Len Bias (University of Maryland), the US Congress intensified its war on drugs. This led to millions of Americans being arrested for possession of small amounts of drugs. Disproportionately, African Americans with Substance use disorders (approximately one million). As a part of the war on drugs, congress passed mandatory minimal sentences for possession of small amounts of cocaine. In some instances 20 to 30 years, in other instances, life sentences. These arrests were not based in Science. They were primarily based upon the stigma of cocaine and the betrayal of African Americans as the primary user of this drug. Today we now know that alcohol and tobacco do more damage to society than all illicit drugs combined.

At the time of this writing, the country is in the midst of a heroin epidemic. More Americans are dying from drug overdoses than gun violence. The face of addiction has now shifted from African Americans addicted to crack cocaine to white suburban youth addicted to heroin. Congress has responded to the current crisis by increasing the addictions treatment budget by a billion dollars. Cities and states are drafting more legislation that includes alternatives to incarceration. While our consciousness has awaken to the fact that addiction is an illness that needs to be treated, lets remember the millions incarcerated for non violent drug offenses. At the time of this post I just read an article that indicated that President Barack Obama pardoned 1000 persons in federal prisons for non violent drug offenses. While this is a good start it is not enough. Programs such as the National Alliance For The Empowerment of The Formerly incarcerated will grow in importance. There mission is to mobilize and organize ex-offenders to fight for their citizenship, expungement legislation, reduction of sentences for non violent drug offenses and to help those leaving prison successfully reenter society. According to the Director, Benneth Lee, "Laws created the war on drugs. If ex-offenders united, we could swing any election."

Benneth Lee Website: www.naefi.com