The Drug War’s Losers Are Overwhelmingly Black and Latino Males
Aaron Morrison, writing for the Associated Press, reminds us of who the drug war’s losers are:
Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Today, with the U.S. mired in a deadly opioid epidemic that did not abate during the coronavirus pandemic’s worst days, it is questionable whether anyone won the war.
Yet the loser is clear: Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities. A key weapon was the imposition of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing. Decades later those harsh federal and state penalties led to an increase in the prison industrial complex that saw millions of people, primarily of color, locked up and shut out of the American dream.
Policy Before and After Nixon
Although Nixon declared the war on drugs on June 17, 1971, the U.S. already had lots of practice imposing drug prohibitions that had racially skewed impacts. The arrival of Chinese migrants in the 1800s saw the rise of criminalizing opium that migrants brought with them. Cannabis went from being called “reefer” to “marijuana,” as a way to associate the plant with Mexican migrants arriving in the U.S. in the 1930s.
By the time Nixon sought reelection amid the anti-Vietnam War and Black power movements, criminalizing heroin was a way to target activists and hippies. One of Nixon’s domestic policy aides, John Ehrlichman, admitted as much about the war on drugs in a 22-year-old interview published by Harper’s Magazine in 2016.
Experts say Nixon’s successors, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, leveraged drug war policies in the following decades to their own political advantage, cementing the drug war’s legacy. The explosion of the U.S. incarceration rate, the expansion of public and private prison systems and the militarization of local police forces are all outgrowths of the drug war.
Federal policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, were mirrored in state legislatures. Lawmakers also adopted felony disenfranchisement, while also imposing employment and other social barriers for people caught in drug sweeps.
Between 1984 and 1989, crack was associated with a doubling of homicides of Black males aged 14 to 17. The use of crack rose sharply in 1985, and peaked in 1989, before quickly declining in the early 1990s, according to a Harvard study.
Drug sales and use were concentrated in cities, particularly those with large Black and Latino populations, although there were spikes in use among white populations, too. By the year 2000, the correlation between crack cocaine and violence faded amid waning profits from street sales.
For this reason, domestic anti-drug policies were widely accepted, mostly because the use of illicit drugs like crack cocaine accompanied an alarming spike in homicides and other violent crimes nationwide. Those policies had the backing of Black clergy and the Congressional Black Caucus, the group of African-American lawmakers whose constituents demanded solutions and resources to stem the violent heroin and crack scourges.
Prison Policy Identifies the Drug War’s Losers
Between 1975 and 2019, the U.S. prison population jumped from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans. Among them, about 1 in 5 people were incarcerated with a drug offense listed as their most serious crime.
The racial disparities reveal the uneven toll on the drug war’s losers. Following the passage of stiffer penalties for crack cocaine and other drugs, the Black incarceration rate in America exploded from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000. In the same timespan, the rate for the Latino population grew from 208 per 100,000 people to 615, while the white incarceration rate grew from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.
Often, a drug offense conviction in combination with a violent gun offense carried much steeper penalties. At the heights of the war on drugs, federal law allowed violent drug offenders to be prosecuted in gang conspiracy cases, which often pinned homicides on groups of defendants, sometimes irrespective of who pulled the trigger.
These cases resulted in sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, a punishment disproportionately doled out to Black and Latino gang defendants.
Media Impact on the Drug War’s Losers
Another major player in creating hysteria around drug use during the crack era: the media. On June 17, 1986, 15 years to the day after Nixon declared the drug war, NBA draftee Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced heart attack on the University of Maryland campus.
Coverage was frenzied and coupled with racist depictions of crack addiction in mostly Black and Latino communities. Within weeks of Bias’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives drafted the Anti-Abuse Act of 1986.
The law, passed and signed by Reagan that October, imposed mandatory federal sentences of 20 years to life in prison for violating drug laws. The law also made possession and sale of crack rocks harsher than that of powder cocaine.
Reform to Stop the Creation of the Drug War’s Losers
The deleterious impacts of the drug war have, for years, drawn calls for reform and abolition from mostly left-leaning elected officials and social justice advocates. Many of them say that in order to begin to unwind or undo the war on drugs, all narcotics must be decriminalized or legalized, with science-based regulation. Drug abuse prevention advocates, however, claim that broad drug legalization poses more risks to Americans than it would any benefits.
Provisional data released in December from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show overdose deaths from illicit drug use continued to rise amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. And according to the latest Drug Enforcement Administration narcotics threat assessment released in March, the availability of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and cocaine remained high or plateaued last year. Domestic and transnational drug trade organizations generate tens of billions of dollars in illicit proceeds from sales annually in the U.S., the DEA said.