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President Nixon’s “war on drugs” began in the early 1970s to reduce the illegal drug trade in the United States, but instead tragically changed the lives of millions of Black and Latino people forever. Because of this war on drugs, Black and Latino people were and are still arrested more than their white counterparts for drug crimes.
To understand why the war on drugs came to be, we have to study how America has previously handled drug addiction. The first recorded drug epidemic occurred in the 1800s with opium, followed by morphine and heroin at the turn of the 20th century. This marked an increase in awareness of addictive drugs. As local governments began prohibiting drug dens (havens for drug usage), the first major drug-related racial tensions arose. Most people regarded opium as a drug smuggled by Asian immigrants, so they became victims of violent crimes. The Harrisons Narcotic Act of 1914 was the first federal policy to restrict the manufacturing and sales of certain drugs. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics advocated for longer minimum sentences and punitive drug policies, focusing on drug enforcement, not rehabilitation.
The Boggs Act of 1951 only gave parole to first-time offenders; the death penalty permissible for anyone selling heroin to a minor. While the majority of the public in the mid-1900’s were anti-drug, the ’60s marked the popularization of recreational drugs, such as marijuana, psychedelics, and hallucinogens. Another contributor to drug consumption during the1960’s was Vietnam veterans returning home. Many soldiers either came back with drug addictions or later developed them.. Following the marijuana and psychedelic epidemic was the cocaine and crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. In 1966, the Johnson administration enacted the Narcotics Addicts Rehabilitation Act, which specified that addiction is a mental illness even though drug use was still a crime. While the Act funded preventative and treatment programs, it was no match for America’s drug consumption. While this act did fund drug treatment and prevention programs, it was no match for the amount of drugs consumed by Americans.
President Nixon took a more aggressive stance on drugs than any other politician before him. In his first year as president (1969), Nixon started Operation Interception after he determined the Mexican government was not doing enough to stop the flow of marijuana to the U.S. This operation closed down the Mexican-American border, and searched all vehicles coming through. In the following weeks, border regions from Texas to California lost tens of millions of dollars and Nixon faced massive political pressure to end the Operation. After its end, The Boston Globe reported “almost no marijuana was seized” because Mexico’s drug traffickers switched to newer and safer air supply routes. In 1971, Nixon said, “America’s public enemy number one … is drug abuse… to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive”. In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which deals with drug smuggling, trafficking, and abuse.
By this point, every anti-drug policy had, at most, rearranged the international drug flow and trade but failed to eradicate drug use.. The next president, Gerald Ford, held similar viewpoints as Nixon – including mandatory minimum sentencing and the criminalization of drug addicts and Latino immigrants. Unlike his predecessor, the 39th President’s, Jimmy Carter, opinions on drugs differed from Nixon’s. In 1977, Carter called for an end to the war on drugs, stating, “penalties against possession of the drug should not be more damaging than the drug itself”. He opposed marijuana’s legalization, but endorsed more lenient sentences on its charges. During Carter’s presidency, cocaine use skyrocketed 700% over 6 years, suggesting complete public health and healthcare policy change was needed to hinder the drug epidemic. In 1981, during President Reagan continued trying to combat the rising use of drugs. This quote during his first year sums up his work on the war on drugs: “It’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers”. Reagan focused drug funds towards prohibition and eradication but increased the fund from 437 million dollars to 1.4 billion dollars. While he did give grants to treatment programs, they were insufficient to meet the overwhelming amount of drug abuse that was now in America
First Lady Nancy Reagan took on the project of drug abuse in young people, titled “Just Say No”. Despite the catchy slogan, the campaign did little to combat drug. In a study published by the Archives of General Psychiatry, it was revealed that around 81% of teens had access to drugs, while 42% actually try them. Many also question Reagan’s motivation in drug policy. One of Reagan’s colonels, Col. Oliver North, wrote in his diary about how 14 million dollars in drug money was funneled into secret operations, one of which was used to prosecute alleged Nicaraguan Sandinista drug traffickers.
After Reagan came President George Bush Sr., whose famous slogan “Trade not Aid” became a popular defense against critics. “Trade not Aid” encouraged poverty-stricken countries to grow crops rather than illegal drugs, which sparked the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which Bush Sr. was very committed to. He also met with the leaders of Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia to sign the declaration of Cartagena in 1990, which provided framework to help the 4 countries better coordinate on international drug policy. The persecution and imprisonment of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega during the first Bush era sent a strong message to drug traffickers, who saw one of the world biggest drug dealers go away for 120 years.
President Bill Clinton continued to make drug policy more progressive. He supported the use of medical marijuana, and wanted to leave matters of recreational use to the individual state governments. He started Plan Columbia, which trained and equipped Colombian forces to combat drug lords in all the Andean countries, so the defeat of a drug lord in one country wouldn’t lead to that drug lord popping back up in a different country. Clinton started the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which offered resources to parents, teachers, and students battle drug use in their community. This program is often credited with lowering drug use rates between 1997 and 1998, and saw the average age of first time use go up. Drug use was down since its peak in the 70s, and drug related murders were down 48% since 1992. Clinton’s strategies were to target youth populations for education and prevention, get drug users off the street and into treatment, reduce the cost of drug abuse to the health and welfare system, and block drug trafficking at the southern border.
George W. Bush, president from 2001-2009, is one of the only presidents with a famous past of drug use. The fact that Bush jr. used cocaine, but received no repercussions, symbolized how rich white men often get away with a slap on the wrist at best, while poor minority populations receive harsher punishments. Succeeding Bush was Barack Obama, who, like Clinton, was more focused on rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment. Obama has shown support for needle exchange programs to lessen the rate of HIV/AIDS infections, and he has a long past of fighting the meth epidemic. Obama’s “Blueprint for Change” states that his plan to cut drug use is to expand the use of drug courts for first time, non-violent offenders, which is proven to work better than time in prison. He also aimed to reduce crime recidivism by offering ex-offender support by providing job training and substance abuse/mental health programs, and also wanted to tackle the sentencing disparity put in place by Nixon between crack and powder cocaine. While he is not the first president to use drugs, he was the first to be open and honest about it. His self-proclaimed use of marijuana (and some cocaine), marked a generational change in attitudes towards drugs. His candidness is thought to have helped Americans attitudes towards illicit drugs.
While Nixon started the official war on drugs to allegedly stop the raging drug epidemic, many question Nixon’s real motives. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s aides, claims Nixon wanted to break up and weaken his opposers, the liberal Americans and Black people. Ehrlichman delivered this statement during an interview: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing 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 on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did”. Tragically, Nixon’s greed and blatant disregard for human rights, life and liberty contributed to the mass incarceration of Black and Latino people. He destroyed the lives and communities of millions, and his greed continues to affect people today.
Few understand the reach of the war on drugs, and the effects it has on the Black and Latino communities. For example, Black people today experience the most discrimination in every part of the justice system, including most likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested by law enforcement, most likely to receive a conviction with longer sentences, and most likely to barred from voting and given a criminal record. Almost 80% of people in federal prison and 60% of those in state prisons for drug offenses are Black or Latino, despite Black and Latino people making up around 36% of the population. Prosecutors are more likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black Americans rather than white people with the same offense. Black and Latino people are also likely to receive longer sentences or longer minimum sentences than their white counterparts. Law enforcement is also more likely to kill Black people over any other ethnic group.
While many communities feel the impact of the war on drugs, immigrants experience it from a different perspective. For all naturalized citizens, any drug violation can trigger automatic deportation, often without the possibility to return. A drug violation can be as small as carrying marijuana. People with drug offenses get deported to their original countries, where they might not have any community or family left. Some can be people who were born in another country, then brought to America when they were young. In these cases, they are in countries where they may not even know the language. They may lack basic survival needs, such as access to food, housing, and health services, and can face serious threats to their security. Because they are usually barred from reentering the United States for life, thousands are tragically separated from their communities. Since 2007, 250,000 people have been deported on drug crimes, while deportation for drug offenses had increased 43% from 2007 to 2012. Simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense in 2013, and the most common cause of deportation for drug-related deportations. More than 13,000 immigrants experienced deportation during 2012 and 2013 for marijuana possession.
Drug offenses follow people around for life and continue to affect our youth today. They make the offender a second class citizen, as most drug offenses won’t let you have custody or voting rights, licensing, student aid, employment, public housing, and other government assistance. Statistics show 1 out of 13 Black people of voting age cannot vote due to the disenfranchisement of felons. 1 out of 9 Black children have a parent incarcerated, compared to 1 out of 38 Latino children and 1 out of 57 white children. The Higher Education Act, passed in 1988, delays or denies federal financial aid to drug offenders of either felonies or misdemeanors. A drug offense belonging to one person can get a whole family evicted from family housing. 32 states ban anyone with drug offenses from collecting food stamps. This enforces the cycle of drug use, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. If you can’t get a job, you can’t get federal assistance, but you still need money and drugs seem to be the easiest way to provide for yourself and your family. Young people also face the most arrests for drugs, even though arresting teens over drugs stunts their education and their new criminal record hurts future job prospects, again enforcing the cycles of poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse.
The war on drugs didn’t make neighborhoods a safer place to live and violated the rights and safety of thousands of people. Most drug-related violence stems from drug prohibition, not drug use. When people stop getting the drugs they want, they turn to violence to get it back, leading to spikes in violent crimes in lower class communities, which is why it’s important to treat drug abuse so people don’t feel the need to commit violent crimes to get drugs. A loss of constitutional rights stemmed from drug-related law enforcement, such as the DEA. Militarized police forces would storm accused houses unannounced and without warrant, into both guilty and innocent homes. Prosecutors can seize private property without due process. The war on drugs also had a huge impact on Latin America. Contrary to popular belief, the war on drugs and U.S foreign drug policy has not decreased drug activity in Latin America. It instead led to a bloodbath, with 600,000 people killed in prohibition violence in Mexico during 2006 alone. U.S drug policy has only empowered organized crime, corrupt government, stimulated violence, assaulted the environment, and has displaced or endangered tens of thousands of people.
While most people acknowledge drug use effects public health, few realize to what extent. For example, a common method of consuming drugs is by syringe injection into the bloodstream. Syringes are often reused or shared, and are responsible for hundreds of thousands of HIV/AIDS infections among drug users, their sexual partners, and their children every year. The United States is also one of the only western countries who refuse to fund free syringe programs and safe injection sites to slow down the spread of infectious disease. Offering these programs keep hundreds of thousands safe from HIV/AIDS.
While all these numbers and statistics seem depressing, there are ways to lighten the load put on the backs of these marginalized people. By decriminalizing drug possession and relying on rehabilitation instead of punitive punishment, we can remove a major cause of the disproportionate incarceration of people of color and treat the 24.6 million drug users in the U.S. Along with treating those with addiction and lowering the re-offending rate, we could lessen the impact of mass incarceration on minorities, while also helping improve police-community relations. We should end policies that result in disproportionate arrests of marginalized people, including, rolling back harsh minimum sentencing, allowing special circumstances to influence the sentence, and eliminate sentence disparities. Ending policies that exclude drug offenders from key rights and opportunities allow for drug offenders to get on the right path after treatment, by getting an adequate education, job, and public assistance if needed. Adopting pre-plea deal diversion programs that allow people with minor drug charges to take part in another program without having to enter a guilty plea would also decrease prison populations and increase rehabilitation rates. These programs are especially helpful to immigrants since a guilty plea often triggers federal immigration consequences, including deportation.
While the war on drugs was a war on people, things are changing. Many states offer alternatives to prison for low-level drug offenses, and states such as Washington and California have legalized marijuana. New York City now offers safe injection sites, with safe needles to decrease on HIV/AIDS infections. Although the war on drugs was almost all tragedy, we now have a better idea on how to handle drug addiction.
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