The war on drugs: America’s secret racist war today

When former U.S. President Richard Nixon officially declared his crusade against drugs, notoriously referred to as his so-called “War on Drugs,” on June 17, 1971, America’s police-prison-profit industrial complex could at best prognosticate and at worst balefully pray for the downstream disproportionate impact criminalization of narcotics would have on certain communities from then until now.

If there is one thing that has been made unassailably clear to us in the decades following, it is that not only has the War on Drugs been a complete and utter failure, but also that this one-sided, longitudinal attack has incurred colossal, unquantifiable damages to countless marginalized populations of people, namely those who are the most disenfranchised, disempowered, and least able to self-advocate.

No matter how you slice this travesty of a “noble” war, three incontrovertible truths remain: the government, police, private businesses, and prisons have all profited off the backs of limitlessly suffering victims who have been vilified, arrested, incarcerated, and even killed (by police officers) for drug use, possession, and distribution. Second, drugs are here to stay so long as society has a pulse. And finally, if we do not mobilize and redirect all of our efforts and resources towards the amelioration of the structural and societal underpinnings that contribute to vulnerable peoples’ insidious capture by palliating narcotic forces, the criminal-justice system will continue to ruin innumerable lives and remain irreproachably racist, without conscience, and harrowingly unfair in meting out justice.

In order to improve our current reality, we must have a profound understanding of the putative historical backdrop of the War on Drugs and acknowledge its apocryphal origins. A 1994 interview with Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman reveals the nefarious ulterior motives of this war. Ehrlichman explained that the antiwar left and black people were enemies to Nixon’s political campaign, and that “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. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Criminalization of a societal taboo (e.g., drugs) is in many ways a politician’s most conveniently calculated and savvy political weapon: it is an impregnable political subterfuge and an impossibly shrewd tactical gambit for actualizing one’s ideological vision with impunity—criminalization, a socially constructed action, by any institutional operative confers upon their judgment a protective shield of unfalsifiability and bestows upon them the mantle of righteousness under the aegis of morality without having to provide any objective, substantive, and wholly verifiable justification besides a subjective declaration of what is considered personally and philosophically “good” or “bad” for the collective social contract. In this way, any adversarial challenge in thought can be annihilated with great celerity by inculpating detractors in a crime of moral bankruptcy and subversion of virtue, de facto vitiating the validity and legitimacy of the opposition’s perspective in one swift motion.

Drug wars are inherently designed to fail because they are predicated on the grossly unsubstantiated notion that ruthless, punitive anti-narcotic laws will undoubtedly lead to significant deterrence of drug production, distribution, and consumption, and that imprisonment and harsh sentencing will result in less drug use, fewer drug arrests, and fewer cases of drug overdose, which is one of the greatest canards that has ever permeated the American consciousness.

Contrarily, not only are drug wars ineffective, but they are counterproductive. It has become practically public knowledge that, annually, those who die from alcohol-related causes and tobacco-related causes far exceed the deaths from heroin and cocaine, yet alcohol and tobacco are still legal. Why? It is important to always ask ourselves this question and determine if the reasons we are told are truly corroborated by robust empirical evidence that is not biasedly spurious, reductive, or facile. What financial, political, and furtive motivations would institutions have to criminalize certain things and not others and to the extent that they do?

It is important for us to also recognize that there have always been influential stakeholders, corporations, government systems, and politicians who are invested in producing research and data that promulgate a particular narrative surrounding a drug to comport with their ideological convictions (which inherently are informed through a lens of unconscious societal discrimination and surreptitious cultural racism) throughout every historical era.

Today, it is no secret that the historical racial inequities surrounding crack versus cocaine arrests, incarcerations, and prison sentencings were and continue to be mired in clandestine racism, the former of which was more widely associated with black Americans (and much longer prison sentences) and the latter with white Americans during the 1980s. The treacherous synergy of living under a criminal justice system that is ineluctably linked to a stable foundation of racial inequality coupled with the existence of differential mandatory minimum sentencings for different drugs used unevenly by different communities, discriminatory stop-and-frisk policies, racial profiling, racial bias, police brutality and unaccountability, and a legal system and court system where the odds are stacked against black Americans and people-of-color, creates an endless stream of unfathomable injustice and unconscionable harm to human life in our country today that devalues black lives, black bodies, and black futures. Thus, if we do not legalize all drugs, the pathway to eradicating racism will forever be a chimerical feat.

As members of the health care profession, we have a choice: We can be the silent, complicit crucifiers of suffering victims embroiled in drugs by locking their bodies up in a traumatizing jail cell for an inordinate amount of time, or we can be their vociferously vocal champions and compassionate saviors, and exercise our political will to put all of our efforts and resources into a commitment to human life and restoration of humanity under the law.

And so I ask: Will you be a crucifier or a savior?

Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.

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