Since its inception, the War on Drugs has exacted an immeasurable toll on the lives of millions of Americans.
Yet not all Americans have shouldered the burden of the drug war equally. History and statistics show that its victims – and oftentimes, its targets – belong overwhelmingly to non-white communities.
While progress is finally forthcoming in the form of liberalized legal approaches to cannabis, innumerable members of our society have been forced to bear the brunt of discrimination brought about by the drug war – discrimination that continues to this day.
The War on Drugs is rooted in politics, corruption, and xenophobia – a recipe that came to yield debilitating results.
In 1930, Harry Anslinger – an ambitious up-and-comer in the federal government – was tapped to lead the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Anslinger – whose critics charged was motivated more by political expediency and ambition than by expert analysis – embarked on a propaganda war against cannabis that often depicted his crusade in startlingly racial terms.
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. Partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution,” reads one Anslinger article on cannabis. “Result: pregnancy.”
A generation later, Anslinger’s mantle was adopted by President Richard Nixon. Nixon sought to silence his harshest critics – a group that included racial minorities and Leftist activists – by tying them to the degradation of American morals brought about in part through cannabis consumption.
Nixon’s tactics were detailed in a candid 1994 interview with former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said in the interview with Harper’s Magazine.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the wary 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.”
The statistics reflecting the racial disparities of police practices surrounding cannabis law enforcement are startling. According to the ACLU, while racial groups in America use cannabis at statistically similar rates, blacks have been 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than whites. The disparities are even more glaring on the state level: With the exception of Hawaii, every state in the union targets blacks more frequently than whites for cannabis.
Nowhere is the disparity more pronounced than Iowa, in which blacks are 8.34 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than whites. Inequality is even pervasive in the states with lenient cannabis laws. California continues to disproportionately target minorities for cannabis, while Colorado – the Eden for cannabis supporters – does the same even after having legalized the recreational use of the substance.
Racial inequality even permeates the legal cannabis industry. Because of the financial and legal obstacles to establishing a cannabis business, blacks have been disproportionately shut out of the cannabis industry in the states in which medical and recreational cannabis has been legalized. According to one estimate, as few as 1 percent of the nation’s roughly 3,600 dispensaries are owned by blacks. This is at least partially attributable to state laws barring those with prior felony convictions from working within the industry, laws that are disproportionately felt by prospective black entrepreneurs – often, paradoxically, because those aspiring entrepreneurs received felonies for cannabis-related offenses.
The inequality in regards to the policing of cannabis remains a vexing problem as the United States moves towards a more liberalized stance on the substance. However, amidst the continued disparities, encouraging signs are emerging.
Though cannabis nationwide continue to number in the hundreds of thousands, statistics indicate that the number has been steadily falling over the past several years. Federal actions around cannabis are also promising: The DEA earlier hinted earlier this year that it may reschedule cannabis as a Schedule I federally-controlled substance. Such a step could lead to a renaissance in the ways in which the government approaches the substance, particularly from a policing standpoint.
The policing issue – and the drug war as a whole – is even being tackled by Black Lives Matter (BLM). The movement has launched Campaign Zero, aimed at reforming police practices and the U.S. criminal justice system. Patrice Cullors, a BLM co-founder, made clear in a recent panel discussion that the movement will attempt a full-scale change in public understanding of the issue.
“People are so wedded to the institution of policing they can’t even imagine something different, something radical,” she said. “We have to transform the way our communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs.” Public polling and state legalization initiatives signal that the United States may finally have reached a tipping point in its approach to cannabis. And while these developments were long overdue, they indicate that those in our society most often targeted with racial and ethnic persecution throughout the drug war may finally reach the promised land of justice and equality.
Stephen Calabria is a New York City-based journalist who also serves as a Media Advisor for nyvapeshop.com.