The United States has been engaged in a so-called “War on Drugs” since President Richard Nixon announced it as part of his “law and order” presidency in 1971; nearly five decades later, it does not appear to be losing steam.
In the early years of the War on Drugs, the federal government and law enforcement took every effort to clean up the streets, primarily in large cities such as New York and Detroit. The campaign resulted in rapidly increasing rates of mass incarceration, which continues to disproportionately affect African American and Hispanic communities across the United States today. This was the goal of the Nixon administration’s anti-drug campaign, according to John Ehrlichman; Nixon’s former advisor admitted in 1994 that the real enemies were the anti-war left and African Americans fighting for their civil rights.
By associating these communities with certain drugs and subsequently criminalizing them, the desired result of limiting their power and influence on the wider American public soon emerged. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world; it accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, but more than a quarter of the world’s prison population. Similarly, while African Americans and Hispanics constitute approximately 32% of the US population, in 2015 they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in the United States.
Nevertheless, since the Obama administration, the federal government has attempted to decrease the number of inmates serving life sentences by steadily releasing inmates imprisoned for non-violent, drug-related crimes. In December 2018, Congress successfully enacted the First Step Act, which will release roughly 3,100 US inmates, including many convicted of drug offenses, from federal prisons. Nearly 1,700 further inmates had their sentences reduced after a provision in the law “retroactively recalculated sentences to reduce disparities between those who committed crimes involving crack versus powder cocaine”, according to Reuters. During the War on Drugs in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the majority of those convicted for crack offenses were racial and ethnic minorities; the enactment of this provision is in line with changing prison demographics, with the gap between the number of black to white prisoners steadily narrowing over the past decade.
Given these statistics, perhaps it is safe to say that the War on Drugs – at least in its traditional iteration – is over. However, in recent years, the conversation has shifted away from cocaine and towards cannabis, especially as more and more states push for legalization. Although still illegal on the federal level, cannabis has been decriminalized by fifteen states and legalized in another eleven states and Washington D.C. as of June 2019. However, according to Business Insider, the prohibition of cannabis in the United States has inherently racist and xenophobic origins, intended to first criminalize Mexican immigrants in the early twentieth century; by the mid-twentieth century, African Americans were also being targeted. Even the popularisation of the Spanish word “marijuana” was deliberate for law enforcement to emphasize the dangers of the drug when possessed and used by racial and ethnic minorities.
This disparity has persisted into the twenty-first century. In 2013, the ACLU reported that black people were four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis, despite both groups using the drug recreationally at a similar rate. Furthermore, in September 2019, the FBI released new crime statistics which revealed that the rates of cannabis-related arrests increased exponentially from previous years, despite the greater push towards legalization. In 2018, US police made over 1.6 million total drug arrests, which translates to one every 19 seconds.
As we draw closer and closer to the new decade, it is clear that the War on Drugs is still being fought in the United States, though in some ways, it does not look much like it did in the 1970s and 1980s. While cannabis-related arrests are on the rise, so is the number of Americans pushing for legalization and decriminalization across the United States. Furthermore, the discourse surrounding drug addiction is gradually changing from criminalization to rehabilitation, and the federal First Step Act is representative of a potential shift towards a less demonizing culture surrounding drug usage and addiction. However, the ongoing opioid crisis is a continual issue that affects several different demographics across American society.
Furthermore, in the last year, even vaping and e-cigarettes are in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s “crosshairs” due to an increase in bootleg vaping cartridges, according to a recent article in the National Interest entitled “The War On Drugs 2.0”. E-cigarette-related injuries, seizures and even deaths have also increased public fear surrounding vaping, which is evidently being treated in a similar way to more traditional drugs like cannabis and opioids by the DEA. As the types of drugs change, then, their continued criminalization by the United States government is persistent. The War on Drugs, soon to reach its half-century birthday, is far from over.