The War on Drugs: A War on Common Sense, Racial and Social Justice, and Coexistence
In 1998 Rachael Leigh Cook was featured in the This Is Your Brain on Drugs TV ad for the Partnership for a Drug Free America. That ad was truly shocking, driving home the destruction of families and lives due to heroin use. In 2017, Ms. Cook created a new PSA for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). This remake, found at was to me far more chilling in its message – broadening the scope and focus from heroin use to facts about the politics, institutional racism and mass incarceration in the name of the “War on Drugs” that destroys lives, yet still most often goes unchallenged. To understand why the problems have persisted and at times worsened, we need to examine the backstory of “The War on Drugs”, which is also the war on the impoverished, on culture and on race.
Many currently illegal drugs were in use for hundreds and thousands of years for medical, religious/spiritual purposes as well as no doubt, recreational use. I was quickly educated by DPA articles found on their site and used in this article. These excellent articles address many critical questions including – why are some drugs legal and others illegal? There can be no doubt that to the largest degree, it is a matter of political and social control: throughout the centuries as political or racial or ethnic groups fell out of favor or were demonized by those in power, so were the drugs associated with that group. It was not until 1971, however, that that bastion of truth, honesty and justice Richard Milhous Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. With the advent of this phase of the drug war, as in times past and present, came legal changes that punished, demonized, and ostracized, though without a basis in science. This brought about the birth of many evils – mandatory sentencing, no-knock warrants and the placement of marijuana on the most restrictive category of drugs. Why did the drug war escalate at this point in history? Undoubtedly there are a number of possible answers, including that this was a backlash against the liberal attitudes of the 1960s. Clearly it was not about science, however, for although in 1972 the committee Nixon appointed to study the effects of marijuana voted unanimously to recommend decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use, Nixon rejected the recommendation.
In the ensuing four years, eleven states decriminalized marijuana, and a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization. In 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce for personal use. This was forty years ago, and we were on the right track! So what the hell happened? New science touting dangerous and highly detrimental effects? No, it was just Ronnie (and Mommie).
DPA articles note that the presidency of Ronald Reagan marked an escalation of the drug war and a resulting “long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration”. In 1981 Nancy Reagan promoted a “Just Say No” (to drugs) campaign. Many people still recall (and many still ridicule) the program to this day. In concert, in the mid to late 1980s a Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, founded the D.A.R.E. drug education program. Though it became popular nationwide, there was no evidence that it was effective. (I recall attending a rally just to play with the “drug dogs”). DPA articles note that the obsessive preoccupation with an imaginary “drug epidemic” did manage to cause real harm in many areas, including by limiting the growth of programs such as syringe access, which were needed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. The hysteria finally resulted in extreme penalties for drug crimes, and caused a corresponding rapid expansion of prison populations. Between 1985 and 1989, the percentage of Americans who saw drug abuse as the nation’s number one problem rose from 2.6|PERCENT| to 64|PERCENT|.
In 1989 the George H.W. Bush Administration escalated yet again – this time in a televised statement, holding a bag of crack that he claimed undercover agents bought in a park adjacent to the White House. Later, this was debunked; it turned out that federal agents had lured someone to the park so that the president could say it was bought in front of the White House. Bush pledged a billion dollars for the drug war because “we need more jails, more prisons, more courts, and more prosecutors.” (Nope, not more defense professionals, folks).
Recently, an examination of wrongful incarceration and the extreme escalation of our prison populations caused many to point a sharp finger at Bill Clinton, who “grew” the war on drugs, though he had early on advocated for treatment and not incarceration. Clinton’s rejection of a US Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences is to this day a point of anger and disgust when race based sentencing is being discussed.
The DPA credits the Obama administration with allowing marijuana legalization laws to proceed. They further note that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against mass incarceration and mandatory minimum drug laws. President Obama spoke out against the 100 to 1 crack/powder sentencing discrepancy; and Congress reduced it to 18 to 1 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Obama spoke about his own drug use and in an interview with The New Yorker, noted that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, and spoke about racial disparities in arrests for marijuana. Not everyone felt Obama did enough to end the war on drugs, though, or to remove marijuana from the “Schedule I” controlled substance category under federal law.
In the current administration of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions we are already aware that there will most likely be no logic to any decisions made regarding either drugs or wrongful incarceration, or growth of prison populations. Indeed, Jeff Sessions seems determined to take us back to the Nixon era or worse. Sessions’ orders to carry out tougher drug crime prosecutions seem as bizarre and out of touch as those tweeted by POTUS. Federal prosecutors must now seek the maximum penalty for drug offenses. In a memo to federal prosecutors written May 10, 2017 and made public May 12, 2017, Sessions purported that the change “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” Help us all.
We are lucky to have organizations like the DPA, who are fighting hard to safeguard the progress made in recent years, with legalization of marijuana and sensible, non-racist legal policies. We need to support them, as they are often on the front lines when we cannot be. As long as drugs and drug “crimes” are dealt with as a political tool and a racial weapon, only the activist voters and justice oriented organizations of this country can be trusted to create and maintain change. Only ads like this will reach the people of this country who are jaded by the political manipulation and lies which are currently affecting nearly every aspect of our daily lives. And reach the people we absolutely must, if we are ever going to break the cycle of racist, classist, politically motivated drug sentencing and incarceration schemes. There must be an appeal to the will and power of the people, educated by science, to create and maintain drug and prison policies that are fair and just, not political, racist or classist.