If you think the war on terrorism is going badly – and our intelligence agencies warn that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself – take a look at the war on drugs.

It has been twenty-five years since Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs. Our prison population has quadrupled since then. A multi-billion dollar prison-industrial complex has sprouted up to house all those sentenced for dealing or using illicit drugs. Instead of building schools, states are building prisons. Billions more has been spent at the borders, and in efforts to eradicate drug cartels from Colombia to Afghanistan. And yet today, experts report that drugs cheaper and more potent than ever are easily available across the country.

In a stunning study for the Chicago Tribune, Darnell Little reports on a drug war that has lost its way. And even as politicians posture tough on drugs and crime, those closer to the effort realize it is time to change strategies. As Tim Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, summarized: "There was a thought back in the 1980s …that if you just lock these people away that somehow that's going to solve everything," Evans said. "Hasn't worked. And I believe now the pendulum is swinging away from lock 'em up and throw away the key back toward trying to find a rational way of solving this problem."

But the casualties in this war have been steadily piling up, and, in stunning disproportion, they have a very different makeup than the nation’s drug users do.

Most drug users are not black or latino, they are white. As Little reports, a 2003 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Survey Research Laboratory found that rates of illicit drug use in Illinois were in fact essentially equal across racial groups. Nationally, similar results were found by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Why do we think that people who use illegal drugs are minorities? Because minorities are the ones who end up being prosecuted and going to prison.

The reality is very stark – and simply shameful. If they use illicit drugs, blacks are more likely to be arrested for possession and sale of drugs. They are more likely to be prosecuted if arrested, more likely to be incarcerated if prosecuted, and more likely to get stiffer punishment if sentenced.

The statistics that Little arrays from federal sources detail this reality. African Americans make up 13% of illicit drug users, but 32% of those arrested, and over half of those incarcerated in state prisons.

In Illinois, where policing is aggressive in Chicago and passive in the suburbs, the racial disparities are even worse. 70% of illicit drug users are white, but nearly two-thirds of those incarcerated are black.

The numbers count lost lives. Young men predominantly sent to jails that are colleges in crime. They earn a record that shadows them, and gain knowledge of crime that condemns them. Young families are torn asunder.

Go to college, and you’re in a virtual free drug zone. Go to work in the inner city, and you’re in a free fire zone.

Why the racial discrepancies? Much of it is simple race – the prejudices that still distort too much of our lives. Some of it is related circumstance. Much of the urban drug trafficking takes place in open air markets controlled by street gangs. The area around the markets becomes plagued by crime and drug violence. Citizens demand the police crack down. In the suburbs and college campuses, the trafficking tends to be private, done person to person in the dorm room, the frat house, the suburban living room. There’s less concentrated crime and violence, and, despite all the posturing about the drug war, the public tends to be relaxed about enforcement.

Legislators have passed laws calling for more severe sentencing for sales around schools, churches, public parks and public housing. Studies show that virtually the entire inner city neighborhoods are covered by those laws, whereas far less of the more spread out suburbs is affected. And, there is the obscene disparity between sentencing for cocaine – the drug of the affluent – and crack cocaine – the drug of the street.

The fight against al Qaeda went wrong as soon as the administration called it a war, invaded Iraq, and scorned the alliances and police and intelligence work vital to countering stateless terrorists. The effort to relieve the blight against drugs went wrong when Reagan called it a war, summoned military force against poppy fields from Peru to Afghanistan and unleashed the police in our cities, scorning the treatment vital to those who are addicted, and the education and jobs vital to giving the young hope and a way out. Judge Evans says we’re beginning to learn that, but as we’ve learned in Iraq, changing course won’t be easy.