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The War on Drugs Unfairly Targets Minorities


It is not an uncommon belief that America’s War on Drugs has failed.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate by far of any country in the industrialized world. More than half of federal arrests are for drug charges, and 4 in 5 of those arrests were for mere possession, not distribution (Zakaria).

When President Nixon enacted stronger anti-drug policies which started what is known as the U.S. “War on Drugs,” the policies “aimed at eliminating the use of drugs in the United States focused both on strict penal solutions (prison time) and, to a lesser extent, treatment” (Compton’s by Brittanica). I believe that punitive measures for drug use are not effective in treating the problem. However, the war on drugs has been a particular failure because those punitive measures are disproportionately and unfairly aimed at African-Americans.

The Drug Policy Alliance is an organization “committed to identifying and promoting health-centered alternatives to harmful, punitive drug laws.” On their website, the Drug Policy Alliance’s opines about the War on Drugs: “All that imprisoning millions of people for nonviolent drug offenses has done is bankrupt us financially and morally, turning people with debilitating addictions into people with debilitating convictions.”

It continues, “Since the 1970s, drug war practices have led to the conviction and marginalization of millions of Americans—disproportionately poor people and people of color—while failing utterly to reduce problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths.”

According to an article titled “Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma” by Michael Torny in the New Republic, “Almost half of the federal and state prison population is black, and in 2003 over a third of blacks new to prison were convicted on drug charges.”

The Sentencing Project reported in 2005 that “African Americans males are incarcerated at more than six times the rate of white males and Hispanic males more than double the rate.”

In a 2000 report and again in 2009, Human Rights Watch found that, “Contrary to public belief, the higher arrest rates of black drug offenders do not reflect higher rates of drug law violations. Whites, in fact, commit more drug crimes than blacks. But the war on drugs has been waged in ways that have had the foreseeable consequence of disproportionately targeting black drug offenders.”

It states that the reason for this disparity is because “drug law enforcement resources have been concentrated in low-income, predominantly minority urban areas,” and therefore, “drug offending whites have been disproportionately free from arrest compared to blacks.”

In 2011, a global commission on drug policy issued a report signed by George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. It concluded that, “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.”

The commission’s recommendation was to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” (Zakaria)

Of course, we all should know that there has been a history of racism against the African-American minority population in the United States, with our history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and civil rights violations. It should not be surprising that racial and ethnic minorities are still persecuted by an imperfect law-enforcement and judicial system that unfairly targets and mistreats them.

I would expect that even if our public officials recognized the importance of shifting our War on Drugs’ focus from criminalization to treatment and took action to do so, the results would be that the treatment would disproportionately help white America compared to minority America – and that black and Hispanic drug offenders would still be disproportionately hurt by remaining criminalization efforts.

Even though our country has made large strides with regard to civil rights and non-discrimination over the decades, discrimination still finds ways to exist on individual and institutional levels. This persisting discrimination is partly due to many citizens’ still-intolerant opinions, and also due to the ethnic and socio-economic demographics of the majority of public officials and how the policies they enact affect the population at large.

According to Fareed Zakaria, “Bipartisan forces have created the trend that we see. Conservatives and liberals love to sound tough on crime, and both sides agreed in the 1990s to a wide range of new federal infractions, many of them carrying mandatory sentences for time in state or federal prison. And as always in American politics, there is the money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.”

Zakaria continues, “Partly as a result, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year; a prisoner costs it $45,006 a year.”

Because of the strong political and business interests invested in this trend, it seems that there will be resistance to reversing the trend. However, there are people on both sides of the political and ideological spectrum who recognize the need to decriminalize drugs. Just like any issue, if enough people educate themselves about the need for change and speak up about it, there is a possibility we can elect public officials who will change policies accordingly.

I’m not saying it won’t be very hard work, though.

  1. “drug abuse.” Compton’s by Britannica. Britannica Online for Kids. 2013. Web. 17 July 2013.
  2. Chambliss, William. “Obama’s Drug Problem.” The Huffington Post. 26 Jan 2013. Web. 17 Jul 2013.
  3. “Injustice and the War on Drugs in America.” Drug Policy Alliance.  2013. Web. 17 Jul 2013.
  4. “Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States” Human Rights Watch. 19 Jun 2013. Web. 17 Jul 2013.
  5. “United States – Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.”  Human Rights Watch.  2000.  Web.  17 Jul 2013.
  6. Zakaria, Fareed.  “Incarceration Nation.” TIME.  2 Apr 2012. Web. 17 Jul 2013.



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Filed under: Uncategorized · Tags: African Americans, race, war on drugs

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