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Every 25 Seconds: The Repercussions of the War on Drugs


Every 25 seconds someone in the United States is arrested for possessing drugs for their personal use; by the time you have finished reading this article approximately 21 more people are now in custody. This is the lasting effect of the War on Drugs. 

Officially declared in June of 1971 by President Richard Nixon, the War on Drugs aimed to halt the use, distribution, and trade of illegal substances. The demarche was a response to escalated drug usage in the 1960s which was due, in part, to the evolving countercultural movement. Declaring drugs as “public enemy number one,” Nixon attempted to make the use and sale of drugs less lucrative by drastically increasing the size, presence, and budget of existing federal drug control agencies—such as the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and the Office of Narcotics Intelligence—whilst simultaneously elongating prison sentences for drug crimes. He then created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)—with a starting budget of $75 million—in 1973 by combining the aforementioned agencies to consolidate the effort to combat drug smuggling into the United States. 

While the alleged goal of the initiative was to target and punish large kingpins for selling dangerous drugs, four out of five arrests made were for the simple possession of drugs (usually marijuana), and an overwhelming majority of the people arrested were Black. Over the next 50 years, this effort—which Nixon’s predecessors have continued and expanded on—has exponentially increased state and federal prison populations while drug use and abuse has not substantially decreased.

15 years after the War started, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was finalized by President Reagan. This Act, among other things, established long mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and shifted the goal of supervised release programs to punishment instead of rehabilitation. Mandatory minimums require that an offender serves a predetermined amount of time for a specific crime; in doing so, they deprive the judicial branch of discretion and instead give the power to the legislature, who determine what a sentence should be for a certain crime. This renders judges powerless as they are not allowed to adjust sentences based on mitigating circumstances. 

Mandatory minimum sentences are also racially-tinged. This is most prominent in the way the government combatted the cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. When cocaine emerged en masse in American markets, there were two types: powdered and crack. Powdered cocaine was primarily used by white people and crack cocaine was more often used by people of color. Although they are the same drug (just in different forms), the penalties associated with crack cocaine were far more extreme than those linked to powdered cocaine; the prison sentence for 5 grams of crack cocaine correlated with the prison sentence for 500 grams of powdered cocaine. This sentencing disparity was justified by claims that crack cocaine was more addictive than powdered cocaine and that it caused users to become violent. However, these claims were unfounded and a 1996 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found that the mental and physical effects of cocaine are similar regardless of the form.

The War on Drugs—which was really a war on people of color—created a tough-on-crime mentality and disabled the use of discretion, effectively allowing police and prosecutors to indulge in power trips considerably inflating an already overwhelmed prison complex. It forcefully shifted the structure of the American criminal justice system; punishment no longer had to fit a crime, it just had to be long.

As we have seen, however, via growing incarceration and crime rates, longer sentences do not stop crime or lead to the apprehension of more criminals, they just hold the same people as they age. And, something that has been repeatedly proven within the field of criminology is that age and crime have a negative correlation. Our selective application of the law is a form of oppression that has caused incarceration rates to skyrocket and has not made communities safer. Across the board, all races have similar drug usage rates however minorities are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

In 1995—just over 20 years after Nixon declared the War—a survey for the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education asked people to picture and describe a drug user, 95% of respondents described a Black person. That same year only 15% of drug users were Black. This societal view of the “typical drug user” has had a large impact on how U.S. law enforcement officials respond to the sale, use, and possession of drugs. It further proves how the entirety of the criminal justice system can be—and is—manipulated to target people of color. 

When a white person falls victim to addiction society blames an external factor, but when a person of color does it is a moral failing. White men can make a living on YouTube showing drug use while Black men serve prison sentences for the same acts. Regardless of age, race, socioeconomic standing, or religion, drug addiction is a disease, not a crime, and as such, incarceration does not fix it. 

As the negative economic, political, and social consequences of the War on Drugs have slowly come to the surface, states have gradually started to repeal strict drug laws. To date, 26 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. In December of 2020, Oregon decriminalized the possession of all drugs and expanded access to addiction and health services. A report conducted by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that this measure will decrease racial disparities in drug arrests by 95%.  

Since 1971 it is estimated that the War on Drugs has cost the United States one trillion dollars; it has also taken an infinite number of years from people’s lives. Today, it is estimated that 5% of Black people use illegal drugs yet they constitute 33% of the population incarcerated for that act. Looked at as a whole, 1 in 5 people in prison are serving time for a drug-related offense and 1.15 million people are on probation or parole for drug charges. While Oregon is making strides towards a more equitable future, the magnifying glass that the War on Drugs has placed on communities of color is still extremely prevalent; drugs don’t discriminate, but the justice system certainly does.

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