Racial disparities in drug war remain a concern

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 05:34 PM

The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham continued its discussion about racial disparities in arrests for low-level drug crimes at its monthly roundtable luncheon Thursday at Shepherds House United Methodist Church on Driver Street.

Last month, they watched a documentary about the impact of the U.S. drug war, called “The House I Live In.” At this meeting, attorney Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice gave a presentation breaking down arrests for marijuana possession across North Carolina. While the rate of use is roughly the same for whites and blacks, he said, African-American are disproportionately arrested.

It’s time for the United States to think about doing something different than the current drug war, he said. Atkinson said he is a casualty of the drug war as a “person formerly incarcerated.” Because of his felony criminal record, even though he is an attorney, he cannot vote, Atkinson said, because of what he did in his youth.

A moral voice, a faith-based perspective, is missing from the conversation, he said. Look at the people serving time for drugs, Atkinson said, pointing out state statistics of 53 percent for blacks and 28 percent for whites, though their usage rates are similar. Because North Carolina treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, their opportunities are truncated at that moment, he said, and can drive them to the underground economy of drugs.

Rather than criminalizing kids, Atkinson suggested, resources could be diverted to public health for treatment and prevention.

Nia Wilson, a community organizer from SpiritHouse in Durham, said she works on the prevention side. She asked everyone in the room to close their eyes and think of a time when they felt safe. Answers repeated home and family. When looking at community issues, ask if people have families and homes, she said. Look for ways to reduce reliance on law enforcement, Wilson said.

Atkinson said that the community must think about how to use precious law enforcement resources, and whether prosecuting low-level drug crimes is the best route. For more about his work, visit www.southerncoalition.org.