The Lasting Effects of the War on Drugs

The war on drugs has been a massive failure from a civil rights perspective. In fact, the toll on minorities and the poor is so incalculable that it may be decades before the full scope of injustice is properly put into perspective. Launched in 1971, the war on drugs is a massive global campaign led by the United States government that involves federal agencies, the military, the courts and local police forces. While the aim of the war on drugs has been to abolish the illegal drug trade, the main fruit of this campaign has been disproportionate incarceration rates among minorities and the poor.

What makes the war on drugs so inherently discriminatory? First, a person is arrested for drug possession in the United States every 25 seconds. It adds up to more than 1.25 million people hauled into jails for drug possession each year. In fact, drug possession accounts for more arrests than any other crime in the country. It’s known that drug usage among black and white Americans is essentially equal. However, black adults are 2.5 more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white adults.

Black Americans are more likely to be “busted” for drug crimes because they are more likely to commit these crimes out in public than white Americans. While drug use in certain neighborhoods is prosecuted due to visibility, it remains a well-protected secret in suburban spreads guarded by hedgerows. We know that black Americans are roughly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges. They also make up more than 30 percent of drug arrests even though they account for just over 12 percent of the nation’s drug users. Within the federal prison system, nearly 80 percent of prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses are black or Latino.

Could anyone have predicted this? Revelations made in the 50 years since the beginning of the war on drugs indicate that the negative repercussions of this crusade against substance use may have been by design. John Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon, revealed in a 1994 interview that the Nixon White House saw the war on drugs as a masked policy for targeting black Americans. While the administration knew that making it “illegal to be black” was impossible, criminalizing drug usage could be a way to unfairly target black communities as a form of disrupting them. The war on drugs was also seen by the administration as a way to disrupt the “hippies” of the day who protested the Vietnam War. The “big reveal” hasn’t been enough to spur major policy changes to undo the damage of the war on drugs.

Mass incarceration, broken neighborhoods and billions diverted to the costs of prosecuting and jailing offenders have done nothing to curb drug use in the United States. In fact, the nation’s overdose rates make a strong case for the fact that the war on drugs has only led to wider drug use in the United States. The war on drugs has done little more than perpetuate the destruction of low-income communities by diverting funds and resources away from education and social programs that have the potential to keep kids away from drugs. While the decriminalization of marijuana is a step toward dismantling the war on drugs, much work still needs to be done to focus on rehabilitation and community-building efforts to replace and undo the “war” efforts that have been tossed at what breaks down to a societal problem in need of person-focused solutions.

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