The War On Drugs Through The Lens Of Conflict Theory

The United States Government declared war on drugs 50 years ago. As implied by the use of the word “war,” the US has spent decades enacting militaristic legislative and policing policies in an attempt to curb drug use in the country.

But even a cursory glance at the current state of America’s drug culture reveals that the billions spent funding this so-called War on Drugs have only succeeded in flooding our prisons with non-violent drug offenders. Drug use is just as prevalent as it was in the 1970s, opiate-related deaths have become all too common across this nation, and certain people are becoming extremely wealthy selling legal cannabis, while others languish behind bars for doing the exact same thing. 

There are clear winners and losers in the war and drugs, and by viewing the whole enterprise through the lens of conflict theory, we can determine the role society’s economic and racial biases have played in determining those winners and losers. 

What Is The War On Drugs? 

War on drugs and cannabis

The first time the United States heard the term War on Drugs was in 1969 when then-president Richard “Tricky-Dick” Nixon declared a war on drugs that would focus on “eradication, interdiction, and incarceration.” 

Nixon’s war declaration set the stage for a new, more draconian approach to combating drug abuse—one that moved away rehabilitation models in favor of one centered around merciless punishment. 

America watched as mandatory prison sentences filled for-profit prisons with non-violent drug offenders during the next five decades. By the 1980s, drug-related arrests increased by over 126%. From 1980 to 2009, that number grew by another 138%

These are real people, whose lives have been ruined by these ill-thought malicious policies, but they are also a prime example of the resource loss during the war on drugs. It costs somewhere between $14,000 to $70,000 to house a single prisoner for a year. Local and federal police forces were also given huge budgetary increases and access to excess military-grade weapons and vehicles to aid in the campaign.

The total estimated cost of the War on Drugs is over a trillion dollars. Despite these massive costs, drug use continues to rise. 

cost of the war on drugs

What Is Conflict Theory? 

conflict theory and cannabis

Conflict theory originally stems from the dialectical materialist view of history and sociology based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedreich Engels. It posits that different groups in societies are constantly vying for power, and the dominant group maintains authority through subjugation. Conflict theory in classical Marxist philosophy describes the relationship between the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeoisie (upper class). 

However, modern approaches to conflict theory also describe conflict between other social dynamics such as race and gender.

Who’s Winning The War On Drugs?

African americans are more likely to get arrested for cannabis

There is an unquestionable economic and racial element to the War on Drugs and the way law enforcement selectively applies the law to people of other certain ethnicities or social classes. 

African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related crimes than white people, despite both racial groups reporting near-identical usage. What accounts for this glaring disparity? 

One might reasonably assume that the root cause of this imbalance has to do with the racist inclinations of individual police officers. However, this ignores decades of systemic top-down drug-enforcement policies that intentionally favor white people over people of color. 

For example, take the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 passed by the Reagan Administration. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act created minimum prison sentences for cocaine possession, but what’s most telling is the way in which the legislation makes clear distinctions between the drug’s powder and hard forms. In the 1980s, powder cocaine use was rampant among affluent white communities, nearly as commonplace as a cup of coffee in Wall Street stock trading offices. Freebase, or crack cocaine, however, became associated with low-income African American neighborhoods. 

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, cocaine users would not receive mandatory jail time for possession of under 500 grams of powder cocaine. In contrast, just five grams of crack cocaine carried a mandatory five-year prison sentence. This is just one example of numerous racially-coded drug laws implemented during the War on Drugs.

Through the use of these sorts of policies, the dominant group, in this case, white people, maintain social dominance over people of color by exploiting their disproportionate control over which legislation becomes law and how the overwhelmingly white police force selectively enforces that law. 

Any attempt to balance these scales will require an enormously radical shift in our systemic policing practices, but ending the War on Drugs would certainly be a good place to start.