By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Richard Nixon’s 1971 “War on Drugs” was a bad idea with bad results. After four decades of intensive law enforcement efforts to rid the country of illegal drugs, violent traffickers still endanger life in our cities, a steady stream of drug offenders still pours into our jails and prisons, and tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana still cross our borders unimpeded.
The cost to taxpayers? We’ve spent about a trillion dollars on the War on Drugs.
The cost to civil liberties? With the exception of the reaction to 9/11, the War on Drugs has been the driving force behind the most dramatic erosion of Fourth Amendment rights in our nation’s history.
The cost to civil rights? Through its structure and built-in prejudices, the War on Drugs has targeted minority communities, incarcerating a generation of African-American men at an alarming rate.
Nixon’s “War on Drugs” may have seemed new in 1971, but it was mostly just another name and a bigger budget for a failed drug policy that dates back to 1914. In that year, the Harrison Act became the first of scores of federal and state laws criminalizing the possession and sale of drugs for personal use.
But criminalization, before and after 1971, didn’t solve the drug problem. This issue has been studied from every imaginable angle and through every ideological prism, but experts -- including current U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske -- agree that illegal drugs are about as easy to get now as they have ever been.
Not only has criminalization failed to make drugs less available, it has spawned a micro-economy that, absent the rules and regulations of the legitimate market, is fueled by violence.
Prohibition serves as a good example of how criminalization breeds crime. When the Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed, it was not because Americans wanted to drink again--they never stopped-- but because the black market created by Prohibition had ushered in the most violent era in American history.
The War on Drugs has significantly damaged the Fourth Amendment, creating what Justice Thurgood Marshall once called the "drug exception to the Constitution." In support of the War on Drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the power of police to stop and search our automobiles. Once considered private places, cars may now be randomly stopped for administrative searches or DUI checkpoints, and otherwise pulled over for most tenuous of reasons. The War on Drugs is also responsible for a sharp increase in the warrantless drug testing of employees and for the civil forfeiture laws that take away the cars, boats and other possessions of persons accused of crimes.
Perhaps most devastatingly, the War on Drugs has also led to an unprecedented explosion of racially triggered incarceration. Despite the fact that the vast majority of drug users are white, most of those arrested and imprisoned are people of color. In the end, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 10 times greater than whites.
Some of these disparities are the result of the subtle but deeply rooted racial prejudice in our criminal justice system, while others are legislated into the structure of the system itself. There is, for example, an enormous difference between the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine despite the fact that there is no pharmacological difference between the two. Most users of powder cocaine, which carries a lighter sentence, are white, while crack cocaine, with its much harsher sentences for use or distribution, is largely preferred by African-Americans.
The racial disparity in prosecuting and sentencing drug users has contributed significantly to the over-representation of African-Americans in prison. Which leads to yet another problem: Thirteen percent of all African-American males in this country are now disenfranchised as a result of felonies, many of which are due to drug possession convictions. In Virginia alone, it is estimated that 25% of African-American men have lost the right to vote.
The deeply destructive effects of the War on Drugs on the African-American community are even recognized by the conservative Cato Institute, which recently ran a piece on this very subject (pdf).
A person far more cynical than I once wrote that the definition of government is an entity that deals with failed programs by allocating more money for them. The trillion dollars spent on the War on Drugs since 1971 has resulted in no reduction in drug use, a precipitous decline in privacy rights, an increase in violent crime, and a whole new Jim Crow era. Still, the government spends more money on it every day.
So, no happy birthday wishes from me, “War on Drugs.”
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