The War on Drugs


Date published: Mon, 6 March 23

The war on drugs, much like the war on terrorism, the Cold War, etc., is an ideological war that has had tangible ramifications in the realm of social justice in the US. Since 1971, the US has spent over a trillion dollars enforcing drug policy. The war on drugs was launched by President Nixon, and given greater legitimacy under the Reagan administration.

Kassandra Frederique, executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells CNBC, “The drug war is a failed policy and the things that they said would happen–people would stop using drugs, communities would get back together, we’ld be safe, they’d get drugs off the street–these things didn’t happen.” 

A report published over 20 years ago in 1997 by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice argues that the drug war has contributed to racial injustices as the war on drugs targets disproportionately poor people and minorities. 

The war on drugs is directly related to the prison system. Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. There is ample research that shows that prosecutors are twice more likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black individuals as compared to white individuals. An example of a highly discriminatory legislation was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed in the 1980s by Congress. This policy instituted hard penalties for the use of crack cocaine, while the penalties for powder cocaine were ignored. Crack cocaine was known for being prevalent mostly amongst minority communities, while powder cocaine was used by white people. The discrepancy in this drug policy highlights the discriminatory framework of the war on drugs, perpetuating discrimination in the justice system. The Supreme Court in 1991 ruled that mandatory life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense was not cruel or unusual punishment. The attitude towards first-time offenses as such a normalized severe punishment are remnants of a justice system whose aim is not justice.  

In 1994, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, said in an interview, “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 them 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 in the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Ehrlichman’s interview shows exactly how mainstream society and how authorities viewed black people, and other minority communities. For non-citizens in the US now, which includes legal permanent residents, any drug violation can trigger automatic detention and deportation. A 2015 report by the Human Rights Watch found that deportations for drug possession offenses increased by 43% from 2007 to 2012. In 2013, simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation. Drug Policy Alliance says, “Irrational and racist logic rooted in the drug war falsely associates Latinx and Black immigrants with drug use and drug activity. As a result, the U.S. has created the largest immigrant exclusion, detention, and deportation structure in the world.” 

The war on drug has produced consequences to this day. This article contains just a sliver of the ramifications and disastrous effects of the war on drugs. In 1996, Congress imposed a lifetime ban on individuals convicted of a drug felony from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Disallowing former felony-convicted individuals from receiving these social services perpetuates difficulty for individuals to transition from the criminal legal system to communities and families. Formerly incarcerated individuals struggle with unemployment and food insecurity. Furthermore, the lifetime ban disproportionately affects people of color – drug law enforcement is concentrated in low-income minority communities, which results in higher convictions of Black and Latino individuals.  You can help by sending this letter to urge representatives to repeal the lifetime ban on individuals with a past felony drug conviction from receiving SNAP and TANF as part of the next Farm Bill.