Many of today’s complaints against law enforcement, drug related violence, and widespread systemic racism all stem from one event, or rather a long series of events: the War on Drugs.
It all began in 1971 when President Richard Nixon stated that drug abuse was “public enemy number one”. He subsequently enforced no-knock searches and a mandatory minimum for drug offenders, leading to jails being filled with nonviolent marijuana and heroin users. Nixon’s aide and colleague John Ehrlichman later admits the inherent bias and racism behind the crackdowns: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” The War on Drugs specifically targeted the black and antiwar left communities, but as the years went on, the burden fell almost solely on black shoulders.
Human Rights Watch reported that although black people were already being arrested at a rate disproportionate to other races in the 1970’s (2x), as of 2010 this number has jumped to 5x. However, caucasians commit more drug related crimes. This is mainly because of unfair sentencing. Reagan signed off on the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act and made crack cocaine, a drug common amongst poor communities, carry a minimum sentence of 5 years for 5 grams. Powdered cocaine, a drug more often used by wealthier drug users, carried 5 years for 500 grams. This discrepancy was only recently amended by Barack Obama in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. Furthermore, today’s privatized jail system has ensured that more black men who commit drug-related misdemeanors (for example, carrying marijuana) are incarcerated than those who commit actual crimes. Police brutality is also a byproduct of the War on Drugs, with officers being improperly trained to deal with responsive arrestees to not being punished for racial bias and discrimination.
There must be a better way to attempt to decrease addiction rates. One way to fix this ineffective (<1% efficacy rate) and expensive (federal budget of $51 billion) system is through prevention rather than criminalization. In the 1980’s, Switzerland experienced one of the worst HIV/AIDS outbreaks in history, which was directly related to the growth of heroin use. High crime rates, specifically prostitution and theft, were committed by drug addicts looking for sustenance. Instead of overcriminalization and demonizing drug users into further shame and societal rejection, the Swiss government opened clinics where addicts could safely inject, but were also assigned social workers to give housing and secure jobs. This push led to a sharp decrease in crime and infection rates because addicts were given the resources necessary to recover and be reintegrated into society. Now, we can see the progress being slowly made to decriminalize marijuana.
Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have all legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and California, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Maine, and New Hampshire are all considering legalizing its recreational use. In my hometown, legislation passed in February and effective in March decriminalized marijuana if the carrier has less than four ounces, so instead of the carrier being charged with a misdemeanor, they have 90 days to attend a decision making class. Not only is decriminalization important because marijuana has several health benefits, but more importantly its legalization will prevent the gross amount of nonviolent users in the prison system. If marijuana were to be legalized nationwide, then stigma and incarceration for people of color will be removed, and we can finally take the first and hardest step towards amending the damage that the War on Drugs has done for several decades.
The effective and safe method of decreasing drug abuse is rehabilitation and help, not hard-line criminalization that ruins families, lives, and communities.