The War On Drugs And Race

President Nixon launched the War on Drugs campaign in the 1970s and its legacy that still exists today. The campaign attempted to bring attention and awareness to the impact drugs have had on the American people. Arguably, benefits such as Nixon’s signing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 has helped officials classify and regulate dangerous drugs. The campaign helped people gain education on side effects of drugs like LSD and Heroin and take them more seriously.

Nixon criminalized drugs like Marijuana, which many believe brought harmful stereotypes to the Hippie or anti-war left population. Additionally, Nixon’s harsh punishment for drugs like Heroin and Crack Cocaine crippled the black community in the 70s and created stereotypes and harsh jail sentences for Black people. Criminalizing drugs like Heroin and Crack Cocaine was not just created to penalize Black Americans, as an overdose from these drugs can be fatal. Nixon believed drug use, especially when done by the youth, was a social rebellion, negatively impacting and weakening America. Some believe Nixon had underlying motives for his campaigns, including targeting Black people and the “anti-war left.” John Ehrlichman, called “the Watergate conspirator” spoke out about Nixon’s alleged race and antiwar left discrimination. CNN states he candidly admitted:

“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 know we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or be Black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with Marijuana and the Black people 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 drugs? Of course we did.”

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Drug Laws, Sentencing, And Disparities

A modern effect and a strong example of drug laws, race, and sentencing includes those surrounding crack and powder Cocaine. According to Vox, the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act, “created a 100 to 1 disparity between the amount of Crack Cocaine that triggers a federal mandatory minimum sentence versus powder Cocaine.” This means 5 grams of crack equated to a 5 year sentence, where 500 grams of powder Cocaine would warrant the same sentence. In 2019, officials noticed 81% of convicted Crack offenders were Black. Many believe it is because powder Cocaine was associated with White populations where Crack Cocaine was with Black populations.

Unjust Consequences From The War On Drugs Campaign

Recently, several media outlets have questioned if the War on Drugs has done any good. A recent CNBC report suggested the War on Drugs may have been less effective than planned in response to the recent surge of American drug use in the last 50 years. With the rising number of Opioid overdoses, and drug abuse related to COVID-19 mental and emotional health challenges, America has recently spent over a trillion dollars fighting drug addiction. This has led many to believe the War on Drugs campaign has not done much over the years for the American people. For Black people (as well as those in the LatinX community impacted by racial stereotypes), the disproportionate number of arrests and racial stereotypes remain visible.

Blacks comprised 43% and Whites 55% of persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts; Black people account for 53.5% and Whites for 33.3% of persons admitted to state prisons for new convictions for drug offenses.[/highlight]

A human rights news article penned 2 years ago mentioned that the U.N. believes that states should face the racial discrimination in enforcement of drug laws. They further acknowledged African American people endure more consequences noting how people of African descent are disproportionately affected by drug policies and drug laws.  The result has left many, “barred from a wide range of employment, educational, social security and other benefits.” This does not include police brutality, some Black people’s mistrust of police officers, racial profiling, and discrimination some medical professionals have toward Black people when prescribing medications. Disparities in prescribed Opioids occur as some doctors feel Black patients are physically stronger than White patients, accounting for why 29% of Black patients are less likely to be prescribed. Other media outlets have reported Black people do not use drugs any more than their White counterparts, but suffer more frequent, longer, and harsher prison sentences for doing so.

Reworking A Trickle Down Effect

Not only did strict drug laws from the War on Drugs target Black offenders, but it aided in creating harmful stereotypes surrounding Black populations. Those most impacted by prison sentences and racial stereotypes were Black people who engaged in drug use and distribution. As a result of harmful stereotyping, more Black people have been incarcerated for drug possession and distribution percentage wise compared to their White counterparts.

Despite such aims for drug control and drug education, Black and LatinX American populations are still extremely impacted by the War on Drugs and its side effects. This issue remains topical and controversial, and there isn’t a simple answer. Some have examined and proposed drug reform by reducing drug trafficking sentences to misdemeanors. Others have proposed treating drug-related crimes and use as a public health concern to lessen strict jail time. As for the direction in the future, changes must be made as well as maintaining awareness and sensitivity to this ongoing problem.

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Krystina Murray

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  • Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

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