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The Enduring Criminality of the War on Drugs

America’s 1970’s “war on drugs” introduced by Richard Nixon and continued by Ronald Regan in the ’80s created deep and disproportionate outcomes for communities of color, and Black people bore and continue to bear the highest burden. In 2016, Dan Baum published an article in which he recalls a 1994 conversation with a former Nixon aide:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, 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. 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.”

John Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon, via Harpers.

This may have surprised some, but Black people across America knew for decades that the war on drugs was racialized terror that targeted their communities. If asked to picture a drug dealer, it’s unsurprising if the first image that comes to mind is a young, Black man. This is wholly evident in majority-white cast movies and shows where marijuana use is depicted. It’s no accident because this is how the war on drugs campaign was designed.


Urge your senators to support the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which will, if passed, decriminalize marijuana, expunge certain marijuana offenses from people’s records and “provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”

In an April COVID-19 press conference, Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States, suggested that the disproportionate rates of death among Black and Latinx communities were caused by higher rates of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol consumption. Not only did he fail to mention systemic racism as a cause for higher rates of death in Black and Brown communities, but he perpetuated the stereotype that Black and Brown people consume substances at higher rates (NYTimes).

The war on drugs was intended to criminalize and vilify Black people, making it possible to lock them away in prisons under a public safety guise. Because of this, Black people continue to undergo blatant discrimination at every level of the criminal justice system, including over-policed communities, more searches, more arrests, more convictions, longer sentences, extended probation periods, and are granted fewer appeals (Drug Policy Alliance).

Introduced in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York mandated draconian prison terms for possession or the sale of small amounts of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin for 15 years to life. (Drug Policy Alliance). The law was said to target “kingpins,” however, those overly convicted were Black, low-level, first-time, non-violent offenders though white people smoked and sold crack more than Black people (NPR). Mandatory minimums for low-level offenses were set by Congress, making it impossible for judges to have their say in the event they disagreed.

These laws not only ushered in the mass incarceration system we see today but the usage of the criminal justice system for drug abuse versus public health systems like cost-free rehabilitation clinics.

In 2018, Black men were incarcerated at 5.8 times the rate of white men, and Black women were incarcerated 1.8 times the rate of white women (U.S. Department of Justice). Black men’s prison sentences, on average, are 19.1% longer than white men who commit the same offense (USSC). Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prisons for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Furthermore, prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people than white people charged with the same offense (Drug Policy Alliance).

Science shows that drug abuse is a disease and should be treated as a health problem rather than a moral failure (NIH). Unlike the crack epidemic in the ’80s, which involved poor Black people, the opioid and heroin epidemic that’s killed mostly young, white, middle-class Americans in recent years is told in a more compassionate and solution-based way. A research study that analyzed 100 popular press articles from 2001-2011 found that white, suburban heroin users’ depictions were sympathetic while the descriptions of Black and Latino heroin users were “urbanized” and criminalized (NIH).

As the 2020 American presidential election approaches, millions of disenfranchised Black and Brown people cannot vote due to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Because of this, candidates running for office on any level should be advocates of the decriminalization of drugs, including marijuana. Black people who use marijuana are deemed thugs and low lives, while white people who use marijuana are considered progressive and cool.

Marijuana is legalized in 11 states and Washington D.C. and is legal for medicinal use in 33 states (Business Insider). With the legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington, majority-white venture capitalists have invested and gained billions of dollars in profit growing and selling the very substance millions of Black and Brown people are imprisoned for. Many states in the cannabis industry have laws that prevent individuals with marijuana adjacent offenses who are disproportionately Black and Brown people (Forbes).

What does it say about a country that has more prisons than schools? What does it say about a country with more people imprisoned in cages than anywhere else in the world? Rates of drug use are as high as they were forty-nine years ago when Nixon dubbed drug abuse “public enemy number one.”

We cannot trust that mass incarceration and the enduring criminality of Black lives will just go away. We must advocate for the decriminalization of drug possession, which is the primary cause of incarceration among Black and Brown people. Treatment centers should be available for everyone, especially those without means. We must continue to educate ourselves about the root of issues – not only the issues themselves – to help guide our building of essential programs and resources in communities that need them the most.


  • President Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan ushered in the “war on drugs” in the ’70s and ’80s, which has led to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people today.

  • In 2018, Black men were incarcerated 5.8 times the rate of white men, and Black women were incarcerated at a rate of 1.8 times the rate of white women.

  • The decriminalization and legalization of marijuana will help to end mass incarceration.
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