Forty years of drug war failure

June 8, 2011

Helen Redmond tells the history of the never-ending, always-failing war on drugs.

THE WAR on drugs in the U.S. turned 40 years old this year, but there's nothing to celebrate.

No victory has been declared, and there is no exit strategy. More than $1 trillion has been squandered on the impossible: The mission to make America "drug-free." America, of course, isn't even close to being free of drugs--millions of people in the U.S. continue to use illegal drugs despite the threat of harsh penalties.

The war on drugs is a war on people. It couldn't be otherwise. It's not directed at inanimate objects, but against drug users and those involved at every level of the drug trade.

What the drug war has been successful at is locking people up. The U.S. imprisons 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world. Convictions for nonviolent drug crimes, mostly possession of small amounts, and mandatory minimum sentences account for the explosion in the prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, in 2008, drug offenders made up more than half of the inmates in federal prisons.

A man is seized and arrested by narcotics officers in California
A man is seized and arrested by narcotics officers in California

The war on drugs is shot through with racism at every stage, from the police who target minorities for "stop-and-frisk" searches for drugs, to the disproportionate length of prison sentences. More than 60 percent of people in prison today are racial and ethnic minorities, according to the Sentencing Project, and three-fourths of those serving time for drug offenses are people of color.

Here's something else the drug war does well: waste money. Last year, the federal government spent more than $15 billion on the war on drugs, according to the organization DrugSense--and state and local governments together spent another $25 billion.

THE WAR on drugs was launched in 1971 by Republican President Richard Nixon.

Nixon despised the counterculture of the 1960s that openly challenged and defied drug laws. For "Tricky Dick," the marijuana-smoking students and legions of tripping "Dead Heads" didn't respect law and order, and lacked morals. In a White House conversation caught on Nixon's infamous tapes, Nixon declared: "[H]omosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they're trying to destroy us."

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Nixon's paranoia aside, liberals and radicals did push for the decriminalization of drugs, starting with marijuana. In 1972, the Shafer Commission, appointed by Nixon to study marijuana, likewise recommended decriminalization of marijuana, concluding: "Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety."

Nixon was horrified, refused to read the report and did nothing to follow the recommendations.

This denial of the truth about drug use is a central aspect of the war on drugs. The drug warriors, with the complicity of the mainstream media, have depended on whipping up drug panics to instill fear in the public.

The hysteria around crack cocaine in the 1980s shows how hyped-up, drug-war rhetoric paved the way for the government to scapegoat and demonize African Americans, eviscerate civil rights, expand the power of police and prosecutors, and enact "tough-on-crime" mandatory minimum prison sentences that sent huge numbers of people to jail.

The media ran thousands of stories full of hyperbole, using phrases like "crack attack" and "crack craze." An influential and widely read article in Newsweek warned, "Crack has captured the ghetto and is inching its way into the suburbs...Wherever it appears, it spawns vicious violence among dealers and dopers."

So-called "crack babies" were discovered. The media were filled with images of inconsolable infants--mostly African American, of course--who were said to be damaged for life. Only decades later would medical researchers conclude that the long-term effects on children who were pre-natally exposed to cocaine were "relatively small," "less severe than those of alcohol" and "comparable to those of tobacco."

Of course, by then, the damage was done. Amid the hysteria about a "crack epidemic," the Reagan administration passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law established the infamous disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. It was known as the 100-to-1 rule--a person convicted of selling 5 grams of crack cocaine received a five-year mandatory sentence, but it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum.

The disparity was patently racist, as became clear by the early 1990s. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) released a report in 1995 showing that almost 90 percent of defendants sentenced under the crack cocaine rule were Black.

Lawmakers with no scientific evidence to back up their claims tried to justify the sentencing disparity by arguing that crack was more addictive than powder cocaine and triggered more violence. That myth was later debunked as well.

The USSC, hardly a bastion of antiracism, advocated for the elimination of the 100-to-1 rule, issuing four reports over 20 years that concluded there was indisputable racial bias in the disparity between the mandatory minimum sentencing. Their recommendations were ignored by both Republican and Democratic administrations hell-bent on proving their tough-on-crime credentials.

THE WAR on drugs may have gotten its start under Republican presidents, but their Democratic successors did their part, too.

Bill Clinton escalated the war on drugs to unprecedented levels. A majority Democratic Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which expanded the use of the death penalty to include large-scale drug traffickers, provided new and stiffer penalties for violent crimes and drug trafficking committed by gang members, and created a federal "three strikes" rule that imposed mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for federal offenders with three or more convictions for drug trafficking.

The result, as the Justice Policy Institute pointed out, was the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates under any president in U.S. history. The prison-building boom couldn't keep up with the volume of people being chucked behind bars--severe overcrowding and inhumane living conditions were the result.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, hopes were high that racist, draconian drug laws would be overturned. After all, Obama was an African American man, and he admitted in his book Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance to using both marijuana and cocaine. Plus, candidate Obama promised to eliminate the racist 100-to-1 rule, arguing, "We have talked about the need to address this cocaine sentencing disparity for long enough. It is time to act."

Once in the White House, though, Obama caved on this issue, as so many others, to Republicans. On the 100-to-1 rule, his administration agreed to a reduction in the ratio, but not its elimination. It was an unnecessary compromise--the Democrats controlled Congress, and Obama had 24 years' worth of evidence that the disparity was racist.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 dropped the disparity to 18-to-1, prompting Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, to say: "It's still okay to be a little racist."

And the new law doesn't apply retroactively. In a welcome development, Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that select federal inmates serving time for past crack-cocaine convictions could apply for reduced prison terms. But inmates with criminal histories or those who possessed or used a gun will not be eligible for sentence reductions.

So Telisha Watkins, sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2007, won't be eligible for a reduction because of a prior criminal conviction for drug possession. Her likely release date is 2024. Nor will Derrick Cain, sentenced to 10 years for selling cocaine and possession of a firearm. Derrick's gun was legally registered and wasn't used in connection with cocaine sales, but he'll be in prison until 2017.

Despite four decades of evidence that prohibition doesn't work and that racist discrimination operates at all levels of the criminal justice system, the Obama administration has continued the war on drugs.

Obama's Justice Department even opposed Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana when it was on the ballot last November in California. "We will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law," wrote Eric Holder.

As a candidate, Obama also promised to end the Bush-era attacks on medicinal marijuana sellers and patients, saying, "I won't have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users." Holder announced in 2009 that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would stop raiding state-approved marijuana dispensaries.

But the DEA in California ignored the directive and a week later raided a legal, permitted dispensary in San Francisco. In another raid--carried out SWAT-style, with guns drawn--the DEA and the FBI shut down 26 medical marijuana dispensaries in Montana.

It's no mistake that there's no exit strategy in the war on drugs. The war has given unprecedented police powers to federal and state law enforcement officials, and provided the opportunity to scapegoat and lock up people virtually without challenge.

Civil and human rights have been gutted in the war on drugs. There is a virtual "drug exception" to the Bill of Rights when it comes to no-knock warrants, random searches, stopping cars and buses on public highways and detaining people on the streets without warrant or probable cause, illegally seizing evidence, wiretapping, surveillance of the U.S. mail, drug courier profiles, drug testing in the workplace, and civil asset forfeiture.

The United States has become a society of suspects where all manner of violence against those suspected of drug crimes is tolerated or ignored. Thousands of people have been killed or injured in the name of the war on drugs.

The war on drugs is a win-win for government drug warriors. They won't give up their power and control over people's lives without a fight, and the war won't end without a serious challenge that exposes the lies and confronts the racism the war is based on.

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