"Narcotics addiction is a problem which afflicts both the body and the soul of America. It is a problem which baffles many Americans." With these words in 1971
, President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, then framed as a moral crusade to root out the corruption that the drug epidemic brought to the soul of the country.
That was 44 years ago, and we know now that the War on Drugs doubled as a war on people of color and a war on poverty. It developed over a half century of increasingly arcane drug enforcement laws and ever-expanding drug enforcement police powers, and ended in whole swaths of poor black and Latino communities devastated by police brutality and incarceration. If the machine of the prison-industrial complex is indeed the "New Jim Crow," then the War on Drugs is the policy background that created and enabled it.
But today, as heroin and painkiller abuse, overdose, and death rates skyrocket mostly among white folks, several outlets including Vox, The Atlantic, and The New York Times have detailed efforts to re-envision a softer drug war, one that treats drug addiction more as a public health issue than as a criminal offense. According to The New York Times:
When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.
Of course, this is the approach that made sense all along. Treating a drug epidemic like an epidemic—what a novel theory! But for almost half a century, drug policy has rested on a highly racialized and criminalizing outlook, seeping into almost every aspect of justice and race and sending millions of people of color to prison. Some received life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
Read on for more on this story.
As mostly white citizens reap the benefits of a shift in heroin and painkiller policy and as mostly white citizens make money from liberalizing marijuana policy, this development becomes another layer of racial inequality instead of the sweeping philosophical change that has been needed for decades. A public health paradigm calls for sweeping investments to be made in education, prevention, and treatment on the public's dime. This paradigm is not largely applied to drugs with more users in minority communities, such as crack cocaine. Also, even when using the same drugs as whites, people of color are more likely to be arrested, charged, and face lengthy sentences.
Then there are the thousands of people still languishing in prison or re-entering communities that have been irrevocably broken by War on Drugs policies that now seem antiquated. What happens of them? What happens to the millions lost in income and family assets to incarceration and felony disenfranchisement?
Essentially, we're watching the United States finally make some strides at getting drug policy right without correcting decades of bad policy, just because this time the epidemic affects people who are seen as meriting empathy. It's a step forward, but not everyone gets to take it.