According to Juanita Diaz-Cotto, a professor of sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Area studies at Binghamton University, the effects of the war on drugs can be analyzed from many perspectives.
In a talk on Feb. 28, Diaz-Cotto spoke about the war on drugs and its impact on poor communities and communities of color. The event was part of the SA Spotlight series, which is run by the Student Association Programming Board and presents research from faculty at the University.
Diaz-Cotto has been teaching at BU since 1990. This semester, she is teaching LACS 300: Latin American Women and LACS 380N: The U.S. War on Drugs and Latin America.
To begin her presentation, Diaz-Cotto outlined a basic history of the war on drugs, a term which refers to an initiative adopted by the United States government to stop drug use and drug-related crimes.
The crackdown began under President Richard Nixon in 1971, and continued until 2012, when the federal government published an updated version of its drug policy. During this era, lawmakers established mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and established the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a video shown during the talk, mandatory minimums for drug crimes led to an increase in U.S. prison populations in the 1990s, from roughly 200,000 in 1971 to over 2 million today.
Diaz-Cotto discussed the effects of criminalizing drugs, which she said led to the prosecution of low-level, often nonviolent drug dealers and addicts, rather than the powerful dealers, networks and drug rings that often are the perpetrators of crime and violence.
“I think it’s really important for people to not have the mentality when we hear about addiction and people selling drugs of us and them,” Diaz-Cotto said. “That most of us use at least one drug. If it’s not caffeine, it could be tobacco, or some medication that they give us that might be legally prescribed, but that there’s not the us and them.”
Diaz-Cotto said the war on drugs has also caused at-risk communities, including poor white individuals and people of color, to be unfairly targeted — something she says can be seen in laws that lay down stricter penalties for crack cocaine, a cheaper drug more likely to be used by lower-class Americans, than powder cocaine.
“Usually when we talk about crime, we talk about crimes committed by the poor,” Diaz-Cotto said. “In your lifetime, you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of corporate crimes. Price fixing, polluting the air, land and water, the housing market collapse, the discrimination that they’re talking about now in terms of housing in different neighborhoods, the redistricting of areas so that people cannot vote. You hear about those, but nothing happens to those people.”
Nuri Harper, first-year graduate student studying pharmaceutical sciences, is a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international grass-roots organization that encourages students to fight for the decriminalization of drugs and the implementation of comprehensive drug policies. Harper said he attends events like this one to gain perspective on the challenges facing his organization and learn about the issues surrounding harsh drug laws.
“I hope people just try to actually get involved, to make drug legalization a top priority,” Harper said. “I know that in this current political climate, there’s so many things, there’s so much constant political action involving gun control and women’s rights, and I think drug policy deserves a space too.”
Sephora Saint-Armand, an undeclared freshman, said she helped organize the event and was interested in studying the relationship between criminal charges and social groups.
“I’m very interested, when it comes to crime, and the different ways that we conceive crime to be, and how that relates to the different socio-economic groups and people of color,” Saint-Armand said. “Crime is one of the ways that we continue to perpetuate racist policies and oppress and marginalize people of color in this country and on a transnational scale.”