The War on Drugs is a Racist Policy

Disclaimer: Non-academic and biased sources. This is not a research paper, but an adaptation of a commentary I wrote for school in early 2016 calling attention to the racial context of American drug offenses legislation.

Photo credit Bill Track 50

War, 1971

In June of 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. He heavily demonized drugs and made it a public priority to eliminate drug culture from American society, calling it “public enemy number one”. Yet, at the time of the War’s conception, average drug use in the United States had already been steadily declining for several years (Porter): the campaign was designed to create an illusion of security and progress for the American people than it was to actually solve an urgent problem. The War was not just a white lie, though — to uphold this illusion, millions of black Americans have been marginalized since the campaign began in what is the modern analogue of Jim Crow legislation. To kick things off, let me give you a damning quote from John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief:

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.

By the numbers

Okay, so let’s dig a little deeper. Average drug use had been declining in the US for several years, but this was mostly due to a declining demand among middle-class whites; other data suggests that among poorer urban black communities, drug use had remained relatively constant — and the policy strategists who designed the War knew this.

When adjusted for income, black and white populations showed nearly identical rates of drug use at 7.4% and 7.2% respectively (“Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs”). In other words, drug abuse is not a symptom of race, but of poverty. Despite this, studies have shown that arrest and sentencing practices are heavily biased against black Americans: Blacks are 13 times more likely to be sent to state or federal prison on drug charges than whites, comprising 62.6% of all drug offense prison admissions — while comprising only 13% of regular drug users in America (whites make up 72%)(Boyd). Overall, there are 7.7 times as many black males in the US prison system as there are white males, and among youths aged 18–19, this number is even higher at 8.8. In total, one in ten black males aged 18–29 is in prison (Nunn). Black communities were targeted disproportionately. But, as long as Nixon’s and his successors’ administrations could consistently say that offending criminals were being put away — almost 90% of whom were black (Nunn) — they would continue to garner bipartisan support. An uninformed and uncompassionate public would not bat an eye.

A case study on crack cocaine

The incarceration disparity is partially driven by drug legislation which is engineered specifically against black communities. The premier example of this is “crack” cocaine, which is a neutralized, freebase form of cocaine (as opposed to “powder” cocaine, which is cocaine salt). Crack is cheaper to produce and has historically been far more prevalent in poorer black communities, while white communities have been more likely to use powder cocaine. Total cocaine use statistics are nearly identical across racial demographics (“Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs”). Crack cocaine is pharmacologically the same drug as powder cocaine, with the only practical difference being route of administration (smoked versus insufflated, respectively) — but sentencing for crack cocaine possession was arbitrarily 100 times as severe as powder cocaine possession on a per weight basis. And I don’t think I need to tell you that our police force and courts don’t go easy on black Americans in 2017, let alone in 1971.

This inconsistency in sentencing was not an accident, by the way: John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s policy advisor who I quoted above, speaks of the administration’s knowledge that certain drugs were more common in black communities than white communities, and intentionally created such sentencing disparities to target black communities as such.

Police profiling and generational crime

Targeted drug legislation is not the only factor in the incarceration discrepancy. The mass incarceration also reflects illegitimate profiling and harassment by police and the perpetuation of gang culture, in which jail time is commonplace and almost expected. To make matters worse, drug possession convictions, which are often felonies, prevent many black adults from voting, from obtaining financial aid for education, and from reliably finding employment. Convicted individuals often return to illicit activity as a source of income or as a method of coping, resulting in a staggering recidivism rate of 81 percent amongst black males within five years of release from prison (“Percent of Released Prisoners Returning to Incarceration”), further widening the gap.

And how do you expect kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods, to parents who have substance problems and no stable employment, if they’re present at all, to stay in school, to stay away from gangs, to break the cycle? When our governmental institutions are screwing our most marginalized youth into generational poverty and crime, don’t tell me it’s the drugs’ fault.

Closing thoughts

The War on Drugs was started under a guise of security and progress, but it was a really a political move to draw support from an uninformed public. This great illusion has drained $1.5 trillion tax dollars from public services to date, with even greater economic costs (GDP loss) as a result of shutting black males out of the labor force (Shulman). It has upheld systemic injustices that are reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, and in modern context, it is unacceptable that those with the privilege to live comfortably under this illusion continue to do so at the expense of already disadvantaged black communities. Continuing to place this burden on these communities, as if their people were somehow inherently inferior, is not only backwards, but inhumanely destructive.

Don’t let the fact that the “War on Drugs” isn’t a media sensation any longer stop you from entering this conversation. Don’t forget that in our modern white America opioid crisis (which is also hugely problematic but another topic for another time), our black communities are still suffering the consequences of a politico-racially motivated policy which has been the greatest failure of our time. It’s time for the United States to adopt honest drug policies that focus on preventative education and rehabilitation. Without them, racism in this country can never die.


Boyd, Graham. “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Nunn, Kenneth B. “The Drug War as Race War.” Race, Racism and the Law. Race, Racism and the Law, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

“Percent of Released Prisoners Returning to Incarceration.” Crime in America. N.p., 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Porter, Eduardo. “Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 July 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

“Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.” Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, May 2000. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Shulman, Joshua. “Institutionalized Racism and the War on Drugs.” The Huffington Post., 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.