Following his declaration of a “War on Drugs” in 1971, President Richard Nixon astronomically increased the number of federal drug control agencies, and mandated mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. In 1985, only 2-6 percent of Americans polled saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem.” However, at the zenith of hysteria in 1989 when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was well underway and the dangers of the “crack addict” perpetuated throughout the media, 64% of Americans regarded drug abuse as “public enemy number one.”
However, today, with 2.4 million Americans incarcerated, a growing population has begun to see the War on Drugs not as a mode of drug control but rather as a method of social control that restricts minority populations in the United States.
Since the time of Hammurabi in 1754 BC, laws have been used as a means of social control. Historically, in the United States, drug laws specifically have been used to control, ostracize, and oppress minorities. In the 1870s, San Francisco banned the operation or visiting of opium dens because Chinese immigrants operated and used opium dens predominantly. A few years later, a federal law followed that prohibited “anyone of Chinese origin” to traffic Opium. At the turn of the 20th Century, media in the South began circulating stories of black men getting high on cocaine and consequently raping white women. In 1914, the New York Times even fell for the misplaced hysteria and published a news story alleging, “Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the ‘cocaine crazed Negro brain.’” The phrase “cocaine crazed Negro” exploded across nation and a crop anti-cocaine laws followed. In the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1920s, the first laws restricting marijuana use were directed at Mexican Americans and Mexican Immigrants. The civil rights movement of the 1960’s lead to Black rebellion and riots across the country. Refusing to attempt to change or even recognize the racial injustices that existed in the United States, right wing politicians blamed the black rebellions on drug abuse and many more harsher anti-drug laws were created.
In 1986 a federal law was passed that created a 100:1 sentencing ratio for crack to cocaine. For example, a person possessing five grams of crack is subject to a mandatory prison sentence of five years while a person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence. It is important to note that the two drugs are pharmacologically identical. The most distinguishing difference is that cocaine is associated with upper class whites while crack is a street drug used mostly in inner city neighborhoods by blacks. After this sentencing disparity law was passed, the argument that the War on Drugs is a method of controlling and restricting minority populations picked up a lot of steam.
When Nixon first declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971, there were 200,000 Americans incarcerated. 44 years later, in 2015, there are over 2.4 million Americans imprisoned in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails. Even though African Americans and Hispanics comprise approximately 25% of the population of the United States, these racial groups make up 58% of our nations prisoners. According to the Huffington Post, “One in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue.” Simply taking population into account, Hispanics and especially African Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Evidence for the argument that the War on Drugs is racist, is most noteworthy in drug sentencing disparities.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reported that “About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using illicit drugs. Five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These statistics are evidence to the argument that people of color are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites.
A prominent supporter of the argument that the War on Drugs is a method to restrict minorities, is Michelle Alexander. In her book The New Jim Crow (2010) , Michelle Alexander discusses the War on Drugs and its discrimination against and oppression of minorities. In her introduction she writes, “What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as justifications for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of education opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” This quote from Michelle Alexander illustrates the central aspects and evidence to the argument that the War on Drugs is a method of institutionalized discrimination against minorities.
For the same reasons that Martin Luther King Jr fought against Jim Crow laws in the 60s, individuals like Michelle Alexander and organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the NAACP are actively working today to change drug laws in the United States. In 2010, their actions proved effective when President Barack Obama changed the crack to cocaine sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. With a growing population of people regarding the War on Drugs as an institutionalized system of minority oppression and working to change this system, it seems that the United States is slowly shifting toward drug laws that will decrease racial sentencing disparities and incarceration rates.