The Racial Ramifications of the “War on Drugs”
Beginning with the Johnson administrating and crystallizing in 1971 when Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” the United States, in an attempt to curtail crime, has embarked on a feverish campaign to eradicate illegal drug use both domestically and abroad. These policies have had far reaching impacts on our criminal justice system, they have shifted billions of dollars of commerce into the hands of criminals, and have fundamentally altered the way Americans interact with the police; most disturbingly, they have systematically perpetuated and strengthened a racially stratified class system in the United States.
The war on drugs was initially concerned with the enforcement of heroin and cocaine laws in African American Communities. 7 The anti-drug abuse act of 1986 established a 100 to 1 ratio in sentencing guidelines between powder cocaine and cocaine base.8 Crack rock, which is primarily used by African Americans, is considered “cocaine base.” This act essentially resulted in African Americans being sentenced 100 times more harshly than their white counterparts.* In recent years, marijuana has become the main front in the war on drugs. Although state and nationwide polling continue to show growing support for the legalization of marijuana, marijuana arrests have dramatically increased and now account for over half of all drug arrests. 1 Studies have found that African Americans and Caucasians report approximately equal use of marijuana1,3, though African Americans are between 3 to 36 times more likely to get arrested for a marijuana related offense depending on which county they live in. 1 A study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee found that African Americans accounted for over 9 out of 10 drug arrests between 2009 and 2011.2 More than half of these arrests were for marijuana related offences, many of them being simple possession charges.
The disparities do not stop after arrests. Studies show that after being charged with a crime, African American’s are more likely to be found guilty, more likely to be sent to prison, and they tend to get longer sentences than their white counterparts.2 Also, white defendants who provided “substantial assistance” to the prosecution are 23% less likely to be incarcerated, while black defendants in similar situations received only a 13% reduction.5 This is a product of widespread systemic racism that may no longer be institutionalized, but permeates every aspect of our society.
The culmination of bad policies, pervasive prejudices and social stigma is creating a desperate situation for African American communities across the nation. With alarming numbers of young men taken away from their families, stripped of their voting rights and offered few educational and job opportunities, much of the progress made during the civil-rights movement is sliding back into a new Jim Crow-esque reality. One study found that one out of three African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under some form of criminal justice supervision.5 Whether they are in prison or jail, on parole, or probation, these young men carry a cultural stigma which affects their access to education, employment and social services. With abysmally few education and employment opportunities, more and more young men are turning to the illicit drug trade for income, which further compounds the problem. The mass incarceration of young black men is leading to the breakdown of the African American family unit. Characteristics that are valued in a prison setting are disseminating from prisons to neighborhoods creating a new culture of incarceration which is becoming the modern archetype for the African American man.
When we begin to dissect the data compiled by groups like the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance a picture comes into focus that may not be shocking in its parts, but taken as a whole has serious implications for the reality of our nation’s racial disparities. African Americans are clearly bearing an un-proportional burden for an endlessly bloodthirsty war on drugs; A war that has not only failed to reduce the amount of drug use in our country, but has dramatically increased prison populations with non-violent offenders, empowered drug cartels and terrorist organizations abroad, and has created a one trillion4 dollar burden for taxpayers. By every perceivable metric this war has been an utter failure.
If this argument was not compelling enough, perhaps this video may better put things into perspective.
*The “fair sentencing act”, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, reduced the disparity to 18 to 1 and eliminated sentencing guidelines for simple procession. 9 Though this was certainly a step in the right direction, legal distinctions between crack rock and powder cocaine still present racially biased guidelines that are discriminatory towards African Americans.