The war on drug abuse in the US is now being dubbed as a war on people of color. Black or Latino teenagers might comprise a relatively small part of the growing army of drug addicts, but they tend to get convicted more, activists say.
According to a 2006 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans make up an estimated 15% of drug users, but they account for 37% of those arrested on drug charges.
They also form 59 per cent of the convicted and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
The U.S. has 260,000 people in state prisons on non-violent drug charges; 183,200 (more than 70 per cent of them) are Black or Latino.
New York itself is home to two prisons housing female inmates, Taconic and Bedford. Forty-eight percent of the women in Taconic are there for non-violent drug offenses. And 78 of the inmates are African American or Latino.
And in Bedford those booked under non-violent drug charges have been detained there for 15 years or more.
In California, of the 171,000 inmates jamming the state's wildly overcrowded prisons, 36,000 are non-violent drug offenders, points out Arianna Huffington.
In addition there is this problem of stiffer sentence for crack. To invite a five-year prison sentence, one should possess 500 grams of powder cocaine, but a mere five grams of crack could result in a similar sentence. And crack is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for a first time offence.
(While the powder is obtained from the cocoa paste, the crack is obtained by cooking the powder.)
The rationale for the difference in penalties is simply that the crack is more addictive and its users more violent-prone. But this has been disputed by many experts.
In fact 12 years ago a sentencing commission concluded that violence associated with the crack had more to do with the environment in which the drug trade was carried on.
The crack is usually sold in the open and violence-prone areas but the powder in more secure environs.
With the presidential elections approaching fast, activists are demanding a commitment from the Democratic contenders to abolish the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder. For Blacks are considered a major vote-bank of the Democrats.
Because of disenfranchisement statutes, large numbers of black men who were convicted of drug crimes are ineligible to vote.
A 2000 study found that 1.4 million African American men -- 13% of the total black male population -- were unable to vote in the 2000 election because of state laws barring felons access to the polls.
In Florida, one in three black men is permanently disqualified from voting. That might have made the difference between victory and defeat for George W. Bush, it is pointed out.
But so far no serious Democratic contender has committed himself or herself on the issue of abolishing the disparity.