National View: 'War on drugs' only perpetuated the problem it was trying to solve
As our nation continues to push for racial equality, it is essential to examine all the factors contributing to racism in our society. There are things inherently wrong with our justice system that disproportionately affects minority populations. Police brutality is easier to recognize than other misconduct.
While efforts are being made to change the current system of public safety in our country, there is more that needs to be addressed. One area that needs attention is the negative effect drug arrests have on the Black community.
Substance abuse has plagued our society for decades. Though many are negatively affected by addiction, certain groups have been adversely affected by the policies put in place to stop it.
The “war on drugs” was implemented in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon to stop the drug trade and curb substance abuse. The initiative was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when severe penalties for drug-related crimes were created.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, these policies led to a very significant rise in incarcerations. There were 50,000 arrests for non-violent drug crimes in 1980; in 1997, there were 400,000 arrests. Unfortunately, this did not seem to do anything to curb the distribution and use of narcotics. Instead, the war on drugs perpetuated the problem it was trying to solve.
You see, the majority of the arrests were members of the Black community. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and around 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are People of Color. Furthermore, punishment for drug violations tends to play out in other areas that further impact an individual’s quality of life. Child custody, voting rights, business loans, employment, student aid, public housing, and other public assistance are regularly denied to people with criminal drug convictions.
Due to these factors, many incarcerated individuals are faced with challenges after they serve their sentences. This can motivate some to utilize the illegal drug trade to support themselves and their families. It also contributes to financial stress and other factors that can lead to substance-abuse issues. While we cannot blame systems entirely for the actions of people, it is hard to deny these factors are extremely influential.
It can be argued that reducing drug trafficking and abuse was not what the war on drugs accomplished. The initiative did more to further marginalize demographics already left at a disadvantage due to the socioeconomic climate that exists in our country. The consequences of this play out in the present and are clear evidence of the systemic racism that is so prevalent in American society.
We are currently on the verge of what looks to be a monumental change. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained unprecedented support, and individuals from all demographics are starting to form a unified front. As steps are taken to eradicate systemic racism, it is essential to look at current laws and policies that disproportionately affect the Black community. The way we deal with non-violent drug crimes and low-level possession charges is a perfect example.
If our country continues to fill its courts and prisons with drug charges, then systemic racism will never end. It is not that Black people use more drugs; they are just more harshly punished. It is time to make a change that focuses on empowering individuals as opposed to imprisoning them. This transformation can begin with sweeping changes with the way we handle low-level drug charges. Let’s help people instead of punishing them for having substance-use disorder.
Cori Buck of Newport, Oregon, is a certified nursing assistant who worked more than four years at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. She is a regular contributor to the health website addicted.org. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.