As protests against the Vietnam War and support for the civil rights movement surged across the United States in 1971, President Richard Nixon stood in the White House on June 17 and addressed the nation, declaring the “War on Drugs.” Nixon called drugs “public enemy number one.”
John Ehrlichman, who served as a domestic policy aid to Nixon, claimed that the War on Drugs was politically and racially motivated in a 2016 interview with Harper Magazine.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar and Black people,” Ehrlichman stated in the interview. “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.”
Though some have since expressed doubt over Ehrlichman’s account, statistics don’t lie – and the numbers are harrowing. According to a 2021 Associated Press report, the U.S. prison population in state and federal prisons rose from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans from 1975 to 2019. Out of those incarcerated in 2019, about one out of five was imprisoned for drug related charges. In 2020, Black Americans made up 24% of those arrested for drug-related crimes, despite making up 13% of the population.
The “War on Drugs” was said to be declared for the sake of public safety, but it has similarly failed in this mission. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths increased by 30.4% in 2020 and have gradually climbed since 1998.
Following Nixon’s 1971 actions, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses became a part of the criminal justice system in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan. The U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and funded the “War on Drugs” with $1.7 billion, according to Britannica. This change in public policy caused incarceration rates to quickly grow in the past 40 years, and has continued to disproportionately impact minority groups.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom abolished minimum mandatory sentencing on Oct. 5, when Newsom signed Senate Bill 73, amending rules of the justice system created in 1986 during the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a law that targeted crack cocaine and gave out far harsher sentencing for users of crack cocaine than powder cocaine. This racially motivated policy targeted low-income Americans and minority groups that were more likely to use crack cocaine than the substantially more expensive cocaine prefered by white Americans and the upper class.
SB 73, set to take effect on January 1, 2022, was written by California Senator Scott Wiener with the intent of reducing mass imprisonment of Americans convicted for nonviolent drug crimes and providing alternative methods of treatment for those convicted, according to The Drug Policy Alliance. The approach of treating drugs like a public health problem instead of a crime issue has proven successful in countries like Portugal, which decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2000.
“War on Drugs policies are ineffective, inhumane and expensive. SB 73 ends mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and gives judges more options to allow people to stay out of jail,” Wiener said in a statement when introducing the bill last year.
Law enforcement who believe the mandatory sentences better communities and keep citizens safe have openly expressed their opposition to the bill. Meanwhile, research suggests that mandatory minimums have not been successful in deterring crime, as its supporters suggest. It similarly doesn’t keep those incarcerated from becoming repeat offenders. California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2021 study has found that the rate of how many people become re-offenders after going to prison has averaged around 50% over the past ten years.
An additional problem with mandatory minimums is that they take away the judge’s discretion in determining punishment for cases where a minor penalty would be more applicable for less serious crimes or for a particular individual’s situation.
“Allowing judges the discretion to order supervised probation as opposed to jail time is a step in the right direction to address the racial inequities in our criminal justice system,” said Jeanette Zanipatin, California State Director for Drug Policy Alliance.
While in favor of SB 73, the editorial board believes that more funding to organizations offering community substance abuse resources along with more affordable beds in rehabilitation centers is needed to successfully fight the harmful effects of drug addiction, thus decreasing incarceration numbers in the U.S.
The editorial board further believes that better education surrounding drugs and addiction is necessary to improve this issue, beyond the “Just Say No '' rhetoric commonly repeated in public schools and institutions.
Children in the substance abuse prevention program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, commonly known as D.A.R.E., were just as likely to use drugs than those who didn’t participate, according to Scientific American. Today, more schools and organizations are embracing harm reduction-based strategies to offer students and community members the education needed to take their safety into their own hands when it comes to drug use.
The editorial board believes that education centralized around factual information of drug use, in order to gain knowledge on the repercussions of these illegal substances is the best alternative to prevent drug crime. We agree with accurate and individual judging of non-violent drug crime cases, rather than immediately labeling users as criminals through mandatory jail time.
For addiction help and community resources, please visit Orange Coast College’s substance abuse webpage.