Today we honor a man who spent his life in pursuit of justice, equality, and civil rights for all Americans regardless of the color of their skin. Had that life not been tragically cut short in 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be ninety-one years old today.
Despite the modicum of progress we’ve made since the assassination of the minister and activist, our country is still divided on the issue of race in much the same way it was during Dr. King’s life. Take, for example, the similarities between the global protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Watts Rebellion of 1965.
Even the most cursory examination of incarceration statistics reveals that there are still two separate Americas with disparate applications of the law. One of the key ways in which this institutional bifurcation upholds itself is through policy and rhetoric disguised as a War on Drugs.
What is the War on Drugs?
In 1971, three years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., then-President Richard Nixon coined the phrase “War on Drugs” during a press conference following the publication of a special congressional message in which Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.”
What were the motivations behind the Nixon administration’s sudden prioritization of drugs? Were the draconian policy decisions that would increase the country’s prison population from 350,000 to over 2 million simply the result of misguided moralizing—a failed attempt to improve public safety—or was there something more nefarious going on?
Perhaps the person most equipped to answer that question was John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon and a key figure in the infamous Watergate Scandal. During a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum, Ehrlichman spoke surprisingly candidly about the inspiration behind the War on Drugs, saying:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? 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.”
This wasn’t the first time Ehrlichman made these sorts of claims. In his own memoir, he details the Nixon campaign strategy of appealing to the racist voter through subliminal dog-whistling.
White Southerners with racial grievances following the dismantling of Jim Crow laws were particularly receptive to this sort of subconscious rhetoric, and it was deemed the Southern Strategy.
The War on Drugs Part II: 80’s Night
The Southern Strategy radically shifted voting demographics in the South and helped transform a historically blue section of the country into today’s deep red Republican stronghold.
One of the central proponents of this blueprint was strategist Lee Atwater, who served as an advisor to both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. Atwater famously summarized the need to switch from overt to latent racism in the years following the civil rights movement of the 1960s in an interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis.
Lamis asks if Reagan’s campaign promise to cut down on food stamps was in itself an appeal to racist voters. Atwater responds:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, "N****r, n****r, n****r". By 1968 you can't say "n****r"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Ronald Reagan would go on to pick up the torch lit by Richard Nixon by bringing the War on Drugs back to the forefront of American politics. One can speculate on whether or not Reagan’s iteration of the War on Drugs was an intentionally racially-motivated abstraction like the one described above. Still, one thing is for sure: to borrow the phrase used by Atwater himself, a byproduct of those policies is that blacks get hurt worse than whites.
In 1986 the Reagan Administration passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created mandatory minimum sentencing for cocaine possession. Perhaps most telling about these minimum sentences is the way they were applied to various forms of the drug. In order to receive a mandatory sentence of five years for possession of powder cocaine, which was most associated with affluent white people, the accused would need to be in possession of a whopping 500 grams. In contrast, only five grams of crack cocaine, the form of the drug most associated with African-American communities, carried a five-year mandatory minimum.
A report authored by the ACLU twenty years after the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 became law found that the distinction between powder and crack cocaine “perpetuates a racial caste system when it comes to our criminal justice system.”
During the Reagan era, the War on Drugs seemed to take on a more literal meaning, and the United States Police Force became rapidly militarized. Local offices suddenly had funding for automatic weapons, tanks, body armor, and explosives, shifting the public conceptualization of a police officer from Andy Griffith to John Rambo. Acclaimed sociologist Julian Go describes this process of militarization as “local police borrowing tactics, techniques, and organizational templates from America’s imperial-military regime that had been developed to conquer and rule foreign populations.”
The George H.W. Bush administration would go on to take this even further by creating the 1033 program, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer excess military equipment directly to local police forces ostensibly to aid the fight in the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs Part III: The Nasty 90’s and Ugly Aughts
The disparity in our nation’s policing policy transcends political party, as evidenced by the Clinton Administration, which oversaw a 170% boost in prison spending.
Under Clinton, the Democratic party sought to reshape its feckless image by pivoting to “tough on crime” stances. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, drafted by President-elect Joe Biden (who was then a senator), included sixty new death penalties and allocated funds for 100,000 cops and 125,000 new state prison cells. One of the most damaging provisions in this bill was the three-strike law, which created mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders.
Another provision buried in the massive bill is mandatory drug testing for those serving federal supervised release, which significantly contributes to the massive recidivism rate (the third highest in the world) in this country.
Ramifications of the War on Drugs in Modern America
The United States of America has a mass incarceration problem at odds with the ethos the country was supposedly built upon. There are more people in prison in the United States than anywhere else on the planet, and the USA has the highest rate of incarceration per-capita. That’s right—the same nation that purports to be the “Land of the Free” has the most people locked away in cages. Maintaining such a massive prison population doesn’t come cheap; in fact, it costs the taxpayer an estimated $80 billion annually. For context, ending homelessness would cost an estimated $20 billion annually.
Over a million people are arrested for drug possession every year. That’s 1 million people going in and out of the court system at the expense of the taxpayer for non-violent, victimless crimes. In 2018 alone, over 600,000 people were arrested for crimes related to cannabis, the large majority of which were people of color. African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, despite both demographics reporting similar usage.
This Martin Luther King day, ask yourself: “What are civil rights?”
Civil rights ensure an individual’s protection from discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other protected category. Taking a look back at the last fifty years of policing in this country, it becomes clear that cannabis prohibition, the War on Drugs, and mass incaceration are more than just talking points or mere policy disputes—they’re full-blown civil rights issues.