Half a century of victims later: the war on drugs turns 50 this summer

The American war on drugs weaponized mandatory minimums in prison sentencing against Black and Latino Americans and their communities, your Friday long read from the AP

We go to the AP for this week’s long read by Aaron Morrison. Read the whole story, “50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black Americans.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.

Consequences of U.S.’s racist drug policies last for generations

As a teenager, Alton Lucas believed basketball or music would pluck him out of North Carolina and take him around the world. In the late 1980s, he was the right-hand man to his musical best friend, Youtha Anthony Fowler, who many hip hop and R&B heads know as DJ Nabs.

But rather than jet-setting with Fowler, Lucas discovered drugs and the drug trade at the height of the so-called war on drugs. Addicted to crack cocaine and involved in trafficking the drug, he faced decades-long imprisonment at a time when the drug abuse and violence plaguing major cities and working-class Black communities were not seen as the public health issue that opioids are today.”

Lucas was caught up in a system that imposes lifetime limits on most people who have served time for drug crimes, with little thought given to their ability to rehabilitate. In addition to being denied employment, those with criminal records can be limited in their access to business and educational loans, housing, child custody rights, voting rights and gun rights.


[T]he loser is clear: Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities. A key weapon was the imposition of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing. Decades later those harsh federal and state penalties led to an increase in the prison industrial complex that saw millions of people, primarily of color, locked up and shut out of the American dream.

Although Nixon declared the war on drugs on June 17, 1971, the U.S. already had lots of practice imposing drug prohibitions that had racially skewed impacts. The arrival of Chinese migrants in the 1800s saw the rise of criminalizing opium that migrants brought with them. Cannabis went from being called “reefer” to “marijuana,” as a way to associate the plant with Mexican migrants arriving in the U.S. in the 1930s.

Experts say Nixon’s successors, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, leveraged drug war policies in the following decades to their own political advantage, cementing the drug war’s legacy. The explosion of the U.S. incarceration rate, the expansion of public and private prison systems and the militarization of local police forces are all outgrowths of the drug war.

Bottom Line

“The heavy hand of law enforcement came without addiction prevention resources,” she said.

Roland Fryer, an author of the Harvard study and a professor of economics, said the effects of the crack epidemic on a generation of Black families and Black children still haven’t been thoroughly documented. A lack of accountability for the war on drugs bred mistrust of government and law enforcement in the community, he said.

“People ask why Black people don’t trust (public) institutions,” said [Roland] Fryer, who is Black. It’s because we have watched how we’ve treated opioids — it’s a public health concern. But crack (cocaine) was, ‘lock them up and throw away the key, what we need is tougher sentencing.’

“As much as the legacy of the war on drugs is a tragedy, it is also a story about the resilience of people disproportionately targeted by drug policies,” said Donovan Ramsey, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “When Crack Was King.”

“Even with all of that, it’s still important to recognize and to celebrate that we (Black people) survived the crack epidemic and we survived it with very little help from the federal government and local governments,” Ramsey told the AP.

Read the whole story here.