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Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ continues to disproportionately affect people of color.

Clarence Aaron was just 23 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole, all for introducing two of his friends to each other. Growing up in public housing in Mobile, Alabama, Clarence was a child the first time he was exposed to drugs. Despite this early exposure, he made the conscious decision to steer clear of drugs and to instead focus on his studies and football.

While attending Southern University in Louisiana, Clarence received terrible news: his grandfather passed away due to terminal cancer. Shortly after receiving this news, Clarence introduced a high school football teammate to one of his college classmates, a decision that would lead him to three separate life sentences.

During this meeting, 20 kilograms of powder cocaine were exchanged with the intent of transforming it into crack cocaine. In exchange for introducing the two parties, Clarence received $1,500, but no actual drugs. Still, he was arrested for being present during the drug transaction.

Prosecutors held Clarence responsible for the drug exchange and labeled him as a “mid-level manager” during the trial. Despite not having any prior offenses or direct involvement in the transaction, the judge sentenced Clarence to life without parole, a harsher penalty than those of both the seller and buyer.

Stories like Aaron’s are common across the American justice system. A study conducted in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Justice found that of the 3,278 prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole, approximately 79% were convicted of a non-violent drug crime. This jarring statistic is largely due to harsh mandatory minimums, a sentence pre-determined by Congress that a judge must impose regardless of unique circumstances.

Mandatory minimums are a product of the War on Drugs, a decades-long initiative that aimed to curb drug use and the importation of drugs. This “war” began in the 1960s when drugs became a symbol of youthful rebellion and political dissent. In 1971, President Richard Nixon officially declared what he called a “war on drugs.”

His presidency saw a rise in federal detention centers, no-knock warrants, and mandatory minimums. Despite his appointed commission and advisors unanimously endorsing the decriminalization of marijuana, Nixon ignored their recommendations and placed marijuana into the most restrictive category of drugs, along with others like crack cocaine.

Years later, Nixon’s advisor John Ehrlichman, admitted that the “War on Drugs” was politically motivated, rather than fueled by an interest in public welfare. He explained: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people…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.”

Despite claims of protecting communities, the inherent racism and classism caused by heavy criminalization and mass incarceration can be traced back to Nixon’s presidency.

After Nixon’s presidency, the Reagan administration expanded the drug war through the 1980s, such as by creating mandatory minimums for crack cocaine. Unlike powder cocaine, crack was much easier to produce, making it cheaper to buy and more accessible for people from poorer communities. It was known for its intense and quick high, resulting in constant demand.

Although both drugs are derived from the same plant and create a similar effect, the United States judicial system saw them as deserving of two entirely different punishments. This can be seen in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of only five grams of crack. This arbitrary minimum was not backed by science. Representative Dan Lungren, who proposed the act, even said, “We didn’t really have an evidentiary basis for it.”

Under this act, a single person carrying the weight of a candy bar (50 grams) in crack would face the same punishment as a major carrier possessing a briefcase (5,000 grams) worth of cocaine—disproportionately incarcerating low-income, Black Americans.

This trend continued throughout the rest of the 1980s and well into the 1990s when President Clinton fed into the war by ignoring recommendations to remove the sentencing disparity and refusing to end the federal ban on syringes. He also helped pass the controversial 1994 Crime Bill that incentivized states to enact tougher sentences and build more state prisons.

Even as recently as 2010, Congress refused to completely eradicate the 100:1 ratio imposed by Reagan, instead updating it to 18:1. While this is certainly an improvement, it has not been applied retroactively, meaning that people who were convicted prior to 2010 for drug offenses are still serving sentences in accordance with the 1986 act.

These methods of mass incarceration have proven to be detrimental to communities. As of 2016, over 2 million people were in jail, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), “1 in 5 incarcerated people are locked up for a nonviolent drug offense [as of 2020].”

They also found that Black people disproportionately serve sentences for life or life without parole when compared to their white counterparts. While white, non-Hispanic people represent approximately 61% of the U.S. population, they only represent 32% of the prison population facing life. On the other hand, Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but constitute 48% of those serving sentences of up to 50 years (life sentences). These statistics are alarming, especially when white Americans are more likely than Black Americans to have used most kinds of illegal drugs, including cocaine, marijuana, and LSD. This disparity is largely caused by the discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system, such as the laws imposed during the War on Drugs.

PPI has also found that approximately 51% of people released from drug-related charges in 2005 were rearrested for drugs again within 3 years of their release. So, why is it that the War on Drugs has not been proven effective, despite placing excessive burdens on marginalized communities? The answer is simple: lack of rehabilitation.

As opposed to sending young adults to prison for offenses such as drug abuse, the United States should invest in government-sponsored rehabilitation programs. Treatment has been shown to reduce drug-related crime about 15 times more than mass incarceration. Additionally, rehabilitation is more cost-effective, with every $1 spent on addiction treatment decreasing the cost of drug-related crimes by $4 to $7.

While the War on Drugs is claimed to be over, whole communities are still dealing with the effects of antiquated policies that disproportionately target minorities and those living in poverty. This war was created under the wrong pretenses, making it faulty from the start. Over the years, punishments have become harsher, despite new information that proves them ineffective. The true need for a War on Drugs must be reassessed under a transition from punishment to rehabilitation.

Penelope Shvarts is passionate about both government and public policy, and as a content producer at the Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative (FPYC), she aims to use her voice to spark productive discourse regarding current issues and events. Prior to joining the content team at FPYC, Penelope mainly focused on advancing her skills in music. Starting at the age of five, she has played both Classical and Flamenco guitar for close to 12 years. She had the opportunity to play at several prestigious halls as a young child, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, both as a soloist and ensemble player. While continuing her studies in music, Penelope is now an active member of several organizations, including Strings4Smiles, Notelove, and Midori and Friends as a NextGen Musician.