Washington, DC Has Long Served as Center Stage for the Modern Drug War

Rep. Andy Harris’s (R-MD) recent appropriations rider to block marijuana decriminalization in Washington, DC is by no means the first instance of federal overreach into efforts surrounding drug policy reform in the District of Columbia. In fact, the District of Columbia has served as center stage for the policies which have served to define the modern drug war.

For most of its history, District residents lived under the jurisdiction of laws that they had no ability to make or to change. Prior to the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973, the US Congress set all policy in the District of Columbia. In fact, mandatory minimum sentencing and no-knock search policy were first established in the District by white southern politicians, who attained prominent committee positions in Congress by virtue of seniority obtained by mass disenfranchisement.

Since World War II, the District has served as the proverbial proving ground for the some of the most radical tactics and invasive tools of the drug war. These tools have always been extraordinarily uneven in their implementation and use, even within the District. The first high-profile application of mandatory minimums in the District came in the 1954 prosecution of “Catfish” Turner and his associates, all of whom were African American. Because three of Turner’s co-conspirators had prior convictions, they were all subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

In post-trial commentary, the two U.S. Attorneys who prosecuted the case remarked to Washington Post at the time, “As it turns out, this group [the Turner ring]consisted primarily of Negroes…” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Wadden; he went on to add, “the narcotic traffic…knows no racial or geographic boundaries. We have found addiction and peddling among various racial groups and in many parts of Washington.” Clearly, the demographics of the illicit drug market have always been diverse, unfortunately the targets of counter-narcotics efforts do not reflect the same diversity.

– Read the entire article at AlterNet.