While protests continue throughout the U.S. in response to George Floyd’s death, is now the time to take a look at the racial origins of the War on Drugs?
For weeks, protests and riots have occurred in response to the death of George Floyd, following footage of a policeman, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
In response to Floyd’s death, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe have taken to the streets, huge corporations have pledged millions to the black community, and virtually every celebrity under the sun has come out in support of Black Lives Matter and similar groups that are dedicated to helping minority communities.
These protests show that there’s a wealth of political and social energy coming from every nook and cranny in society in order to stand up against racial injustices facing minorities — with much of this focus is being directed toward law enforcement. Understandably, the majority of these efforts are centered around police brutality, with Black Lives Matter activists calling for states to “defund the police” or to shift funding from police forces and toward community programs.
Though there is one other area of law enforcement that intersects with racial injustices, the criminal justice system and the over-reliance on imprisonment over health-focused rehabilitation programs. That area is the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs was largely architected by a man named Harry J. Anslinger, who was the first commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s (that would eventually become the DEA). Anslinger’s livelihood depended on demonizing certain drugs and trying to minimize the use of those drugs through law enforcement. As a result, Anslinger utilized his political prowess and connections in news media to demonize marijuana and those that consumed it. At the time, marijuana use was synonymous with jazz clubs and the African Americans who frequented them — and as such, the war on weed became a war on minorities.
From that point on, in the near-century that has passed since the early phases of the war on drugs, a disproportionate amount of minorities received criminal records and jail time for the crime of smoking cannabis — and many of the ramifications of this can still be seen today. Minorities remain more likely to be imprisoned for their cannabis use, despite using the drug at the same rate as other demographics who aren’t being arrested nearly as much, and as a result, will face difficulties being approved for loans and getting employed.
As such, legalizing cannabis would help to achieve many of the goals being espoused by Black Lives Matter and protestors throughout the U.S.
By legalizing cannabis, you reduce the number of African Americans in prison, you can expunge the records of those with non-violent drug-related charges which makes it easier for those individuals to be employed, and finally, you can also remove an enormous component of policing.
Drug Policy Alliance, a group that calls for the end of the War on Drugs, estimates that the United States spends $51 billion annually on these initiatives.
When discussing ways to defund the police, ending the War on Drugs seems to be one of the most straightforward ways of doing so, while also reducing the number of interactions between law enforcement and citizens. This is a sentiment shared by the Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who said last week: “I think we have the possibility now [to end the war on drugs], given all the protests that we have seen.”
African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same levels, yet you’re four times more likely to go to jail using marijuana if you are a person of color, if you’re black as opposed to if you’re white.
Eric Holder, Former Attorney General of the United States
The Former AG continued; “think about the crack epidemic and how we dealt with it there. We made it a criminal justice problem, we prosecuted people, we put people in jail,” he said. “Now we’re dealing with the opioid situation and now we’ve declared it — and I think correctly so and I’m not saying this is wrong — but we declared it a public health problem. Two different bodies of people — people perceived as being involved in crack, the use of crack and the use of opioids. It’s a racial component there.”
“I’d like to be able to take out of the system those kinds of determinations and to put law enforcement in places that are needed. But we tend to, again, because of implicit biases, deploy law enforcement to a much greater degree in African American communities and communities of color, which results in disparity when it comes to arrest rates.”
“If I could change anything, I’d want to take all of that stuff out of the system,” he said. “I think we have the possibility now, given all the protests that we have seen.”
There is undoubtedly a huge groundswell of support for reforms to policing and law enforcement, and many of these reforms are being led by a focus on racial justice. Could this energy be harnessed in order to tackle the Drug War and its disparate effect on minorities?