Coloring the War on Drugs: Arrest Disparities in Black, Brown, and White

Abstract

Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) data, this study examines racial disparities in arrests for drug offending. Of the total 8984 NLSY97 participants, the study sample was restricted to the 4868 respondents who had ever reported using drugs (black = 1191, Hispanic = 980, white = 2697). The study questions are as follows: (1) Are there racial disparities in arrests for drug use, after controlling for incidence of drug use as well as other socio-demographic variables? (2) Are there racial disparities in arrests for drug dealing, after controlling for incidence of drug dealing as well as other socio-demographic variables? Compared with whites, blacks were more likely to be arrested for drug offending, even after controlling for incidence and other socio-demographic variables. Several socio-demographic variables, particularly gender, were also associated with arrests for drug offending. Bans on racial profiling and other legislative and policy changes are considered as potential strategies to ameliorate drug enforcement disparities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Henceforth, the term “race” and its derivatives are used to refer to both race and ethnicity.

  2. 2.

    This distinction between extent and nature is borrowed from Mitchell and Caudy (2015).

  3. 3.

    Studies conducted by Beckett et al. (2005, 2006) in Seattle suggest that the effect of a drug transaction’s location on the likelihood of arrest, while present, is minimal. Racial disparities persist even when controlling for location type (Beckett et al. 2006), perhaps because Whites who sell drugs in public are less likely to be perceived as drug dealers by law enforcement (Beckett et al. 2005).

  4. 4.

    Relative to drug users who do not sell, those convicted of dealing drugs are more likely to be incarcerated (Mauer 2009) and receive significantly longer sentences (Bureau of Justice Statistics n.d.). In 2006, the average sentence for drug dealing was 5 years, compared with three years and 1 month for drug use (Bureau of Justice Statistics n.d.).

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Correspondence to Kyunghee Lee.

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Koch, D.W., Lee, J. & Lee, K. Coloring the War on Drugs: Arrest Disparities in Black, Brown, and White. Race Soc Probl 8, 313–325 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-016-9185-6

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Keywords

  • Racial disparity
  • Arrest for drug offending
  • Drug use
  • Drug dealing
  • Differential drug offending theory
  • Biased drug enforcement theory
  • Socio-demographic variable