40 Years Later, The War on Drugs Must End

By Laura Kacere

This month commemorates the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs,” marking a concurrent increase in the number of Americans in U.S. prisons. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the War on Drugs, while costing the country roughly a trillion dollars over since its inception, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the U.S.  Drug use has actually risen (thirteen-fold since 1980), and the costs associated with it, including the prosecuting and incarcerating of drug offenders, has increased along with it. But not only is the War on Drugs not cost effective, it is and has from the beginning been a racist, sexist, and classist war.

The facts behind this so-called “war” and the accompanying rates of incarceration are staggering: there are currently 2.3 million Americans behind bars, a 500% increase in the last three decades.  According to Drug Policy Alliance, drug use and selling occurs at the same rate across racial and ethnic groups, yet people of color are dramatically disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons – three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are people of color. According to a 2006 report by the ACLU, African Americans make up an estimated 15% of drug users, but they account for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

Due to the passage of mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and federal sentencing guidelines, people are more likely to be convicted and have longer sentences. This has had a large effect on the socioeconomic and racial makeup of our prisons. For example, federal sentencing guidelines dictate that judges impose the same five-year prison sentence for possession of five grams of crack as for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Because 80% of convicted crack users are black, this outrageous disparity has helped to fill U.S. prisons with millions of black low-level users. With stronger sentencing laws surrounding certain drugs, racism is implicit in the War on Drugs.

Women are overrepresented among low level nonviolent drug offenders.  Women make up only 7% of today’s prison population, yet the number of all women in prison in the last 30 years has increased by 400%; women of color by 800%. More than two-thirds of women in prison are mothers, 70% of which were convicted of committing a nonviolent crime. The majority of women in prison have less than a high school diploma, many suffer from mental illnesses, others from alcohol and drug dependencies. Over half of all women in prison have experienced some form of sexual violence prior to entering the prison system.

This so-called War on Drugs, with its heavy focus on incarceration, has valued punitive punishment over a rehabilitative response to drug addiction, and has chosen to view drug use as a moral failure and a crime rather than an addiction and a response to the factors that may lead to drug use. Rather than address important societal issues like homelessness, illiteracy, mental illness, sexual abuse, poverty and unemployment, the War on Drugs has created a society that prefers the “quick fix” of locking people behind bars in isolation, serving only to make invisible the factors that lead to crime and in effect making them worse while preventing any further discussion on them.

Declared in 1971 and followed by the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration two years later, the War on Drugs is an absolute failure on the part of our “criminal justice” system.  It has not curbed drug use, has further buried our country in debt, and has led to a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence on the poor communities of this country. The numbers keep rising as more human beings are locked in prison cells each day. The rise of the prison industrial complex, which refers to the rapid expansion of U.S. prisons and inmate populations in conjunction with political and private interests, has been linked directly to the War on Drugs.

“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely destroy us,” President Richard Nixon told Congress in a special message on June 17, 1971.  We can now see that it has not been the “drug menace,” but rather this so-called war that has destroyed us.  On this 40 year anniversary, let us remember those that have had to spend their lives in prison cells and their families, helplessly watching from the outside.

On Friday, various anti-drug war groups will be holding vigils in Washington, San Francisco and other cities to remember the drug war’s many victims. See Students for Sensible Drug Policies for more info on vigils and a National Day of Action.

Statistics from U.S. Department of Justice and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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