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"We have created an American gulag," declared former drug czar Barry
McCaffrey in 1996, describing the widespread and accelerating
incarceration of drug offenders.

Unfortunately, the American drug gulag has grown even larger since
then. And it is a phenomenon that has a human and financial cost.

In 1990, the entire federal prison system held a total of 56,989 inmates
for all offenses combined. By the time McCaffrey made his observation
in '96, there were 55,000 drug offenders in federal prisons. In 2000,
federal prisons held almost 130,000 inmates, of which 75,000 were drug

Who are we sending to the drug gulag and why? The answer may be

Many federal prisoners are first-time offenders. According to the
federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 46 percent of drug offenders
convicted in federal courts in 1999 were first-time offenders. Of
these, 91 percent were sentenced to 49.2 months on average.

There is also a strong and growing federal focus on marijuana, even
though more-dangerous drugs are becoming cheaper to attain. In 1997,
nearly 19 percent of federal drug offenders were serving time for
marijuana. In 1999, 30 percent of the drug offenders convicted in
federal courts were marijuana offenders. In 1999, more than 90 percent
of such offenders were sentenced to an average of 33.8 months in federal

For their part, the individual states hold more than a quarter of a
million drug offenders in prisons, 21 percent of the total 1,206,400
state prison inmates. Frequently these are low-level, minor offenders:
possession offenders account for more than 27 percent of all drug
offenders in state prisons; more than 10 percent of all drug offenders
in state prisons were convicted of marijuana offenses.

The state of Florida, with the third-largest state prison system in the
United States according to BJS, had an inmate population of 72,406 at
the end of 2001. Nearly 18 percent of them are drug offenders.

The road to the American drug gulag begins with an arrest. In 2000, the
FBI reports there were 1,579,566 arrests for drug offenses nationally --
the third year in a row of 1.5 million-plus drug arrests, up from just
over 1 million in 1990. Marijuana arrests numbered 734,497 in 2000, of
which 646,042 were simple possession. These statistics don't include
the quickie civil citations that some states allow. These are real
arrests, each of which takes up at least a few hours of a police
officer's, or a DEA agent's, time.

To compare: Nationally, in 2000, there were 625,132 arrests for all
violent crimes, and 1,620,928 arrests for all property crimes. The FBI
notes that annually, less than half of all violent crimes are "cleared"
- -- that is, an offender is arrested and charged with the crime, though
not necessarily convicted -- and only 16.7 percent of property crimes.

Meanwhile, heroin and cocaine are available nationwide at lower prices
and higher purity than ever before. Abuse indicators such as overdose
deaths and emergency-room episodes are also at record highs.

The farther along the road to the drug gulag we go, the more racist the
system appears. The Household Survey reports that 77 percent of drug
users are white, 12 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic.
Further, research from the National Institute of Justice indicates that
most drug users usually buy their drugs from people of their own

And there are almost equal numbers of white and African-American felony
drug defendants in state courts. Yet, on conviction, African-American
drug defendants are much more likely than whites to be sentenced to

As a result, within the drug gulag the racial divide is stark: African-
Americans comprise 57.8 percent of drug offenders in state prisons and
40 percent of federal drug prisoners; whites, 23 percent of state drug
prisoners and 24 percent of federal drug prisoners; and Hispanics, 17.2
percent of state drug prisoners and 33 percent of federal drug

In Florida's prison system, 24 percent of drug offenders are white, 73.4
percent are black. Unfortunately, Florida doesn't provide an estimate
of the number of Hispanic offenders -- something the feds and most
states started doing only relatively recently.

How did the drug gulag grow so quickly? Much of the growth is the result
of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws give judges no leeway
in sentencing, and are simply based on the type and quantity of drugs
involved in the offense.

Recoiling from the fact that their hands are tied, some senior judges on
the federal bench now refuse to accept drug cases to protest these
rules. There is growing resistance to these laws among the public as
well, but until they change, the gulag continues to grow.

Beyond the human cost, this American drug gulag is expensive to
operate. The federal Bureau of Prisons is currently spending $3 billion
a year just to incarcerate drug offenders. Even so, prison construction
lags terribly behind demand: BJS reports that the federal prison system
is 31 percent over its maximum capacity. Federal authorities have to
build one new medium-size prison per month just to keep a bad situation
from getting worse as the numbers, and the cost, continue to grow.

Financing of the drug gulag also perpetuates its growth, because states
are forced to make treacherous budget choices. In many states, spending
on prisons far outstrips spending on education. According to a new
report by the Justice Policy Institute, "Cellblocks or Classrooms?" from
1985 to 2000 state corrections spending grew six times faster than state
spending on higher education -- state spending on corrections grew 166
percent during that period versus a 24 percent increase for the states'
overall budgets.

Florida's performance here was better than the national average:
Corrections spending in Florida grew at only 21/2 times the rate of
higher education spending between 1985 and 2000. In 2000, the state of
Florida spent $3.022 billion from its general fund on higher education,
and $1.554 billion on corrections. That year, nearly as many African-
American men were in the state prison system as were enrolled in
Florida's colleges and universities (37,000 vs. 37,437 ).

Concerns like these are starting to slow the growth of the American
gulag, at least at the state level. A number of states are
experimenting with alternatives to incarceration. In 1989, Miami-Dade
County started the first drug court in the nation; today, there are
nearly 800 drug courts around the country. Rules vary from state to
state, as do success rates, but typically they provide supervised
treatment for low-level, nonviolent offenders who would otherwise have
been sent to jail or prison.

In 2000, voters in California approved a broad treatment-alternative
program, modeled after another successful program in Arizona, which was
also enacted by a ballot measure. California is now reportedly reducing
the rate at which drug offenders are being incarcerated. A similar
treatment-alternative proposal is on the ballot in Ohio. Another
proposal in Florida was held up by the state Supreme Court until after
the deadline for 2002; it may appear on the 2004 ballot.

Treatment-alternative plans are beneficial to those who qualify, but the
treatment needs of those inside the drug gulag go largely unmet. Only
14 percent of drug- and alcohol-involved offenders at the state level
enter treatment after admission to prison, and 31 percent report
participation in some other substance-abuse program. Only 12 percent of
federal offenders receive treatment for substance abuse during their
current sentence, while 26 percent participate in other substance-abuse
programs while in prison.

Treatment in prisons is important because most inmates eventually leave
the gulag. Our failure to provide treatment and other rehabilitation
programs contributes greatly to high recidivism rates for former drug
prisoners: 66 percent of drug offenders released from state prison are
re-arrested within three years of release -- 41 percent on another drug
charge. Again, the gulag fuels its own growth.

What can be done?

Repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws and providing treatment for
inmates with alcohol and other drug dependence is vital to slowing the
growth of the American drug gulag. But drug users shouldn't need to get
arrested in order to get treatment.

The more basic question is whether the criminal-justice system is the
appropriate mechanism to deal with adult drug use, especially marijuana
use. The drug war has raged for decades, yet kids today report that
marijuana is easier to obtain than beer or cigarettes.

Perhaps it's time that we consider whether regulating that market,
rather than prohibiting it, would provide greater protection for
families and society.

Doug McVay
Editor, Drug War Facts
Research Director/Projects Coordinator
Common Sense for Drug Policy
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