America has undergone a great deal of change since the 1970s, but one thing that has been slow to evolve is our perception of drug use. In 1971, Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one,” and since then, billions of dollars and millions of Americans have wasted away in the senseless, fear-induced War on Drugs.
The “War on Drugs” is a term commonly applied to a campaign of prohibition of drugs, enforced by military aid and intervention, with the stated aim of reducing and eliminating illegal drug trade in North America.
There are many assumptions that must be dispelled in order to understand how profoundly the War on Drugs has disrupted American communities. The first false claim is that the criminalization of drug use is based upon empirical science and is uninfluenced by notions of race, ethnicity and gender. If the disproportionately non-white population currently residing in American prisons doesn’t paint a clear enough picture, a short history will: in the 1800s, middle class white women were the primary consumers of opium in the U.S., but opium use was not criminalized until it was associated with the unwelcome influx of Chinese immigrants entering California, who were soon banned in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Minimum sentencing laws for cocaine flaunt a similar narrative. During the Reagan Era, possession of five grams of crack cocaine—a relatively cheap, smokable form of cocaine hydrochloride often used in black communities—could land someone in jail for five years. Unsurprisingly, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine—used primarily in white, suburban neighborhoods—yielded the same sentence.
To top it off, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Domestic Affairs Advisor, confessed in a 1994 interview that was recently made public in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine: “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.”
Another big misconception about the War on Drugs is that it is effective in deterring young people from experimenting with and becoming addicted to drugs. When our leaders assert that drug abuse is not only a problem, but also an enemy—implying some degree of vindictiveness between drug users and the pearly white American dream—they have essentially placed drug use in a vacuum. The problem with this approach is that it functions on the understanding that sobriety is the opposite of addiction. If this were true, then the 400,000 American soldiers who were addicted to heroin in Vietnam should not have been able to drop their addictions immediately upon returning home—but 95% of them did. Because in practice, the opposite of addiction is connection, nurturance, and understanding—all of the things that human beings are deprived of in prison, where they’re supposed to be “getting clean.”
Above all else, the notion that recreational drug use is always, without exception, harmful on the individual and societal level, is groundless and often nocuous. There has never been a civilization in which drugs were not present in some capacity. Central and South American cultures were consuming Psilocybin mushrooms in 9,000 B.C. Peyote has been used in Native American religious ceremonies since 8,000 B.C. The desire to alter one’s consciousness may be as fundamental to the human condition as finding belonging or procreating.
So, yes, the War on Drugs is a highly politicized, discriminatory debacle that has done irreparable damage to this country’s minority population. But what can be done about this in the future?
First, drug education must be improved. America has a long history of implementing campaigns of fear in children’s education, especially when it comes time to discuss to sex, alcohol and drugs. Amplifying the effects of recreational drugs creates a desired effect: avoidance by means of fear in the short term. But equating marijuana to LSD or cocaine is disseminating misinformation, effectively breaching the trust between students and teachers, and dismantling the paradigm of our education system.
Second, we must put forth legislation to curb the unrelenting incarceration of nonviolent drug users, and shift our focus away from stigmatizing them into deeper addiction. Proponents of the War on Drugs and their opposition want the same thing: a safe society, free of fear that a few wrong decisions could forever stifle the potential of a young person. Locking away that young person after one bad decision may appear to fulfill that goal, but it doesn’t compare to the goodness that could be if that person was greeted not with shame, but with direction and support.
Drug-reform movements are well underway and are growing rapidly. We as a country are beginning to abandon fear-mongering policies in favor of health and human rights. President Obama has pardoned thousands of non-violent individuals serving excessive sentences for petty crimes. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are being heavily amended. We have just begun picking up the pieces of the broken communities that the War on Drugs continues to trounce, but with time, these efforts will restore decency and impartiality to our justice system, and we as a nation will grow stronger.
Mackenzie Karbon is a freshman majoring in jazz performance. Her column, Here’s That Rainy Day, runs the third Thursday of each month.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay user RemazteredStudio