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A War on Drugs or a War on Race?

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Recently British Columbia, a province in Canada, in its efforts to combat the opioid crisis, allowed possession of 2.5g of illicit substances. This has been the latest addition in the paradigm change in drug legislation across the world. It was not the same reality some 50 years ago when Richard Nixon’s government announced The War on Drugs back in the 1970s.


During those days drug use and related crime were on the rise. In response, the federal government declared a war on drugs, enacting harsh laws and increasing funding for law enforcement. This moral crusade however was brought to its staggering halt when John Ehrlichman, domestic political advisor of Richard Nixon, admitted in an interview, conducted in 1994, that the America’s War on Drugs was a racially motivated campaign against African Americans and people who were anti-war.


There are arguments saying Nixon had good natured intentions and that the aim was to rehabilitate and that Ehrlichman was bitter after Watergate, but it is a fact that the drug war disproportionately hurt black Americans.


As of now, more than 1.5 million drug arrests are made by police everyday of which 550,000 are for cannabis-related offences. Most often people of colour are disproportionately affected by drug enforcement and sentencing systems, and almost 500,000 individuals are imprisoned for no other reason than breaking a drug law.


The enforcement of these laws has had a disproportionate impact on communities of colour, particularly African Americans. Research shows that African Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white Americans, yet they are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.


This disparity in enforcement has led to mass incarceration and torn apart communities of colour. They are found guilty, given harsh sentences, and a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.


In addition to the racial disparities in enforcement, the War on Drugs has contributed to the systemic racism and discrimination that African Americans face in many areas of life, including employment, housing, and education.


The collateral consequences of a criminal record, including difficulty finding a job, losing the right to vote, and being barred from certain forms of public assistance, have made it difficult for many people of colour to reintegrate into society after serving their sentences. States like Texas and Florida also suspend driver's licences for drug offences that have nothing to do with driving.


Many instances of using law enforcement to tackle drug abuse might seem neutral in terms of its racial implications but disparate treatment has been institutionalised in the American system, because even though laws might seem fair, they have discriminatory impact which has been structurally embedded in police department’s, attorneys’ office, courts of America.


Moreover, the War on Drugs has also perpetuated stereotypes about communities of colour, portraying them as violent and criminal, which has fuelled negative attitudes and bias. This has further reinforced the systemic racism that African Americans face and hindered progress towards true racial equality in the United States.


In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the criminal justice system and address the racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws. The need of this hour is to look at the issue of drug abuse not through a criminal lens rather through the lenses of public health. Steps, wherein states are legalizing marijuana, are taken in the right direction reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses, and in fact there are arguments in favour of decriminalization of all drugs.


In conclusion, the War on Drugs has had a devastating impact on race relations in the United States. It has perpetuated systemic racism and discrimination and torn apart communities of colour. Reforms are needed to address the racial disparities in the enforcement of drug laws as right now can we really ask that have there been enough reparations made to the African-American community?


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