War on Drugs: Who are the Winners, Who Lost?

War on Drugs Man Arrested
Photo: depositphotos.com

As a tactic used to stifle the rights of minorities, the War on Drugs “has a very high price, and there are winners and losers. Right now, the losers are the American People,” (FFH&S). With all of the evidence showing that it is a better idea to decriminalize drugs, the United States continues to wage a War on Drugs. This war has had disastrous consequences for minority populations such as African Americans, who have been racially profiled as drug dealers and users, and have been thrown into jail and prison at an alarming rate. The War on Drugs has also helped to carry on harmful racial stereotypes through media representation, especially in “cop docs”.

While the War on Drugs may have originally had good intentions, it has had outright disturbing consequences in terms of the imprisonment, violence in poor urban communities and the overall treatment of African Americans (and other minorities). According to Michelle Alexander “there are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began”

Now the logical explanation for this could be that crime rates have gone up in urban areas, where more African Americans live, and therefore that is why more African Americans are being put under correctional control. However statistics show that while “crime rates have fluctuated over the last few years—they are currently at historical lows—imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact.”

President Nixon was the first person to declare the war on drugs in 1971. He described drug abuse as “public enemy number one”. He created the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODP) which tried to raise money for treatment rather than law enforcement (“Thirty Years of America’s Drug War”). As the war on drugs grew overtime it began to benefit law enforcement rather than people who need help with drug addictions and problems. Incarceration rates started skyrocketing during Ronald Regan’s presidency. One reason for this is that most people behind bars were arrested for nonviolent drug offenses.  In fact the number of people in prison increased by 350,000 from 1980 to 1997 (“A Brief History of the Drug War”). These large numbers account for some of the millions of innocent people arrested for minor drug crimes since the war on drugs has begun. As time progressed, the drug war expanded and many political figures followed Nixon’s lead, finding out new ways to segregate people similar to the Jim Crow laws. However, today discrimination techniques rely on the racialization of crime and racial biases of law enforcement. The War on Drugs was a long, planned out attack: not something that started overnight.  This means that the implications it had on African-Americans was not only foreseen, but also possibly intentional.  Ronald Reagan and his political friends knew the racist outcomes that would be achieved by the War on Drugs and continued to wage it anyway.

John Ehrlichman, who served as President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, tells that African Americans are the primary targets in this war even though most drug dealers are actually white. This is due to the fact that people believe crime is associated with race and poverty. The media and the Supreme Court support the image of the black drug dealer which strengthens stereotypes and racial bias. The stereotypes that law enforcement have influence who they target and how harsh sentences are. Statistics show that, “In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone. Less than 20% was for the sale or manufacture of a drug”(Drug War Today”). This shows that so many people are arrested for minor charges. Police officers prejudice towards different races such as blacks is the main reason for this overwhelming number of people incarcerated.

People are automatically labeled a felon once they are arrested and convicted of a crime. Once labeled a felon, they are discriminated against their entire life. They lose their right to vote and their right to be a part of a jury. Being a felon makes it impossible for them to get a job, get an education loan, and receive any government assistance in housing or other programs. Job applications require people to indicate whether or not they have been convicted of felony. All of these factors make it impossible for them to live a normal life. They will forever be labeled as second class citizen with no right to even vote in the election.

With imprisonment rates greater than any other country in the world, the Drug War, though started shortly after the civil rights movement, continues to be a growing concern in the United States of America. Though the first laws were passed against drugs as early as 1914, it was only after people of color gained rights that white supremacists in the United States government began to pass laws that would not only make it easier to arrest and convict people of color, but make sure that those people would have a “social death” after conviction, leaving them with no rights or opportunities (Bauer).



About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.


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