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Black Leaders Urge Obama to End War on Drugs

Michelle Phipps-Evans | 4/10/2013, 9 p.m.
African-American leaders hosted a press conference to urge President Barack Obama to end the war on drugs, on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

"What's the real War on Drugs all about?" asked Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, the only think tank in the U.S., led by formerly incarcerated individuals. "When you launch a war, there's an enemy. There's a choice to criminalize addiction, which the American Medical Association has diagnosed as a disease."

Forty-two years after President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs to halt drug trafficking in the United States, Daniels said the policy has disproportionately targeted people of color.

It was a decision to use "zero tolerance," paramilitary policing strategies, "get tough" laws and mandatory sentencing to pacify "out of control" Black communities, rather than focus on social, racial and economic justice, Daniels said.

According to IBW's research, African Americans comprise an estimated 15 percent of drug users and account for 27 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

The press conference was convened on the heels of the Good Friday silent march and rally led by the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Northwest to increase awareness of the disproportionate arrest rates of African Americans. Daniels is hopeful that the increased public pressure on the "state of emergency in black America," will encourage President Obama to move on the "manifesto," the collaborative will present in June.

The group wants the president to intensify efforts to eliminate disparities in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine; to issue an Executive Order terminating the War on Drugs and replace it with an initiative that treats drug addiction as a public health concern; to issue an Executive Order ending the use of incarcerated persons as prison labor; to publicly support decriminalization of the possession of small quantities of marijuana; and to form a presidential commission to initiate a national dialogue on the regulation and taxation of drugs.

In terms of paying a debt to society, Courtney Stewart, chair of the nonprofit, the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, said there are many different categories of crime that shouldn't be lumped together.

"Nobody's saying that crime isn't a problem in our community," said Stewart, 50. "But we have to look at the broader issue of crime in understanding that not all are the same. Some people are only associated with others, and they all get put together. Many were previously incarcerated for non-violent and minor offenses yet face tremendous difficulties in rebuilding their lives."