In Opinions: Yes, the War on Drugs disproportionately targets minorities

Illustration by Olivia Madrzyk | The Signal

When you think of the longest wars in U.S. history, you’d typically think of armed conflict. 

Topping that list is the Afghanistan War and, by extension, the War on Terror. The almost 20-year war defined our entire generation. Most, technically all, of our age group has never known peace. We have never known a nation that is not at war with somebody, and why that is happening is another discussion for another day. 

But when you look at passive wars, wars without guns, there is one that sticks out the most. At the time of this writing, the War on Drugs has lasted 49 years, nine months and 23 days. It is easily one of the longest wars in world history. 

And despite lasting so incredibly long, its central purpose, goal and mission have not changed: target, engage and arrest minorities in the U.S., focusing on Black men. 

Between the 1970s and 2016, U.S. prison rates increased by 500%, leading to the U.S. having the highest tracked imprisonment rates. In 2018, of all federal prisoners in the US, 33% were Black, 30% were white and 23% were Hispanic.

The numbers seem relatively close, right? When you consider only 12% of the US population was Black during the same study period, there are red flags. And it’s not just imprisonment rates that are incredibly racist.

A 2015 report by the US Department of Justice found that Black drivers in Missouri were over twice as likely to be searched during vehicle stops but were found in possession of contraband around 30% less often than white drivers.

A 1995 United States government study found that from 1991 to 1993, 16% of those who sold drugs were Black, but 49% of those arrested for doing so were Black. Despite all of this information, the government has not changed its stance despite all of these studies. And this is because the United States government is using this to oppress minorities in this continue. 

But this isn’t even speculation: John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s aide on domestic affairs, was the man credited with pitching the plan to the President. In a 1996 interview, Ehrlichman explained what it was like in the room where it happened. 

“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?” Ehrlichman began.

“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,” Ehrlichman explained in the interview.

The Nixon administration lied to the American public “night after night” about these drugs’ dangers and who was using them.

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did,” Ehrlichman further explained. 

And it is not just Republican Administrations that are engaging in this. Take Bill Clinton’s Administration. The 1994 Crime Bill, which current president Joe Biden wrote, is known for targeting minorities, especially regarding crime. 

Specifically, towards drug legislation, the bill introduced the ‘Three Strikes Law.’ Which by its name seems harmless until you know what’s going on. It required a mandatory life sentence for any felony violent crime conviction after two other prior convictions. Again, this seems straightforward, but it includes serious drug offenses per Section 3559 of Title 18 U.S. Code.

Not to mention there is a direct implication for college students. The law had a clause that removed the approval of Pell Grants for low-income inmates in federal prison. 

So that means if you are an 18-year-old who got caught with weed by a federal agent, you now have a more challenging time paying for college. Keeping you stuck in the situations that likely brought you arrested in the first place.

Not to mention Bill Clinton cut many programs that help poor minority communities, such as public housing. Unfortunately, because many of our parents grew up being fed this false information, the lies persist in American society. And even then, it has focused on the same drugs from the 70s. 

Marijuana, heroin and meth are still the central focus, yet there are far more dangerous and legal drugs. 

Tobacco, alcohol and opioids are all very legal and very deadly. Opioids alone killed 81,230 people during the 2020 fiscal year. For comparison, that’s more than how many people died in the Hiroshima atomic bombing, not including those who died of radiation poisoning.

The War on Drugs is functionally the U.S. government’s biggest failure, spanning nearly five decades, all to put a group of peaceful Americans into prisons.