The War on Drugs
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a ‘War on drugs’ and further increased funding for drug-control and drug-treatment organizations, efforts, and companies. The Nixon administration saw both anti-war liberals and black people as the public enemy, and by criminalizing ‘hippies’ with marijuana and black people with heroin, there was a public hatred for both.
A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman spoke: “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
In 1981 President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and thus marked the beginning of mass incarceration, largely because of Reagan’s expansion of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, first lady, Nancy Reagan, launched an anti-drug campaign, “Just Say No.” During the Reagan era, new laws and legislation were put in place to double down on drug-related crimes. Judges were forced to hand out life sentences for insignificant possession and minor drug sales.
Starting in the 1970s, the American government has invested over $1 trillion into the war on drugs and it has completely backfired. Drug use is still a major issue in the United States and the biggest outcome of the war on drugs was the mass incarceration of millions of black Americans and the proliferation of drug-related violence around the world.
The American public was taught to believe that drugs were bad and fried your brain. Drug dealers were portrayed as monsters and the reason major cities and communities were poor and failing. Yet the failing cities were due to minimal funding towards education and infrastructure, not drug usage. Black men were immediately portrayed as drug users and dealers, while white folks who were using and selling the same drugs were innocent and incarcerated at far lower rates.
While black folks were receiving life sentences for minor possessions, white men were publicly doing cocaine in their day offices, glorifying drug usage, and enduring no penalty. Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and Pineapple Express perpetuate this glorification and fail to acknowledge the over-incarceration and criminalization of equally innocent black, indigenous people of color.
Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in America has increased from 40,000 to over 2.2 million, increasing by over 700%. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population yet holds 21% of the world’s prisoners. 1 of 3 black boys born today will be sent to jail at some point in their lives, compared to 1 of 17 white boys.
The legalized marijuana industry is primarily run by white men and retail companies, an enterprise worth over $50 billion. The industry shows no signs of slowing down as marijuana has been legalized in 10 states and medicalized in 33.
In 2020, fancy dispensaries line cities like San Francisco and Denver, yet black men remain incarcerated for minor marijuana charges. The double standard is preposterous and overtly racist. Has marijuana fully been decriminalized in the United States if black, indigenous people of color are still being convicted and arrested for minor possession?
Marijuana legalization is a racial justice issue. It’s time our lawyers, judges, and lawmakers see it as one.