The War on Drugs

  • What is the war on drugs?

  • How is the war on drugs seen as a driver of mass incarceration?

  • How has the war on drugs contributed to the criminalization of communities of color in the US?

  • How have views about drug use changed in response to the opioid crisis? 

We will explore these questions through a discussion, reading and video.

  • Warm Up

  • Video: The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail

  • Reading and Study Guide: The War on Drugs


The War on Drugs



President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, an attempt to reduce the illegal use of drugs. Instead of using harm reduction strategies, as Nixon’s health officials advocated, the president favored an approach that criminalized drug use. The war has expanded in the decades since its launch, and has not only failed to reduce drug use, but also to decrease the transmission of drug-related diseases, drug overdoses, and drug violence.


The war on drugs resulted in an explosion in the prison population. In 2016, 47% of federal prisoners were serving time for drug offenses and the number of people held in jails, state and federal prisons for drug offenses increased from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016. This is more people than were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980. A disproportionate number are men of color.


No policy has contributed more to the criminalization of communities of color in the United States than the war on drugs, according to Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In a 2017 interview, she said:


“Through the war on drugs and the ‘get tough’ movement, millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes—the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored—branded criminals and felons, and then are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.”


Despite several studies that show that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same ratespolicing and sentencing disparities are striking for drug offenses. Blacks make up 13% of the population of the U.S., but  31% of those arrested for drug law violations. Across New York City, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white people and Hispanics were arrested at five times the rate of whites, according to a  2018 New York Times investigation. Even in neighborhoods where people called the police to complain about marijuana at the same rate, arrests were higher in black neighborhoods. While rates of calls for complaints about marijuana were similar from residents in Greenpoint, which is 4% black and Canarsie, which is 85% black, arrests in Canarsie were at a rate 4 times higher than in Greenpoint.


When it comes to disparities in sentencing for drug violations, one of the best examples is the 1986 Anti-Abuse Drug Act, which set a 100-to-1 minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. According to this law, anyone charged with distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine would be sentenced to 5 years in prison without parole. For powder cocaine, the minimum sentence was for 500 grams.


Today, the U.S. finds itself facing the worst drug crisis in its history. Drug overdoses are at a record high and the trend appears to be worsening. In 2016, the U.S. accounted for 4% of the world’s population, but 27% of its drug overdose deaths. Over 63,600 people died from accidental overdoses, and two-thirds of these cases involved opioids. Drug overdoses now outnumber gun homicides.


Those who have recently been released from jail or prison have an especially high risk of opioid overdose. Different studies have found that the risk of death from an overdose was several times higher among people within the first two weeks of release from prison than among similar demographic groups in the general population.


Unlike previous drug epidemics, which affected mainly urban minorities, the opioid epidemic cuts across all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. It has strongly impacted white and suburban middle class families. Ninety percent of first time heroin users in the decade from 2004 to 2013 were white.

As the face of drug addiction has changed, so too have the responses. Whereas a punitive, zero tolerance war on drugs was declared in response to the crack epidemic, the opioid crisis has been met with calls for a kinder and gentler approach that treats addiction as a health crisis as opposed to a criminal justice


Appply a concept to the case study

How is the war on drugs a form of structural violence? Define both and give clear and specific examples from the text above. Write one paragraph.