How the War on Drugs Reinforced Structural Racism

Photo by James Eades

NisonCo takes pride in supporting causes that better the lives of marginalized and persecuted people in our nation. This includes standing up for the rights of minority communities and gaining a better understanding of the history that has created inequitable situations for them. February is Black History Month and another chance to review the past in the hopes of understanding and changing the present. In that pursuit, this article seeks to explore how the War on Drugs molded black culture and reinforced structural racism in American culture. 

The War on Drugs is a War on Us

The War on Drugs played a pivotal role in the history of cannabis and continues to impact society today. The government initiative, presented under the guise of creating a safer America for all, led to disproportionate incarceration rates and further strengthened the questionable underpinnings of an already-racist nation. Policing primarily minority communities — while pretending not to do so — reinforced the structural racism at the heart of political campaigns for the time. It also led to decades of continued unjust imprisonment for people of color. The War on Drugs played a huge part in the embedding of structural racism in the United States today.

Where did the War on Drugs Start?

From the Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, regulations on drugs became all the more standard with the procession of time. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act signed into law by Richard Nixon sought to classify drugs according to their addictive nature and medical benefits by separating them into schedules. This scheduling is still used today, although some drugs have changed classifications as science continues to explore various substances’ medical benefits.

Politics and Policing

In June of 1971, the drug climate changed when Nixon announced the War on Drugs, declaring substance abuse as “public enemy number one.” Illegal drug use would now label someone a criminal and result in extensive prison time. Nixon even went on to create one of today’s best-known governmental agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, as part of his continued crusade on drugs, drug sellers, and users.

In a perfect world, having a government fight toward the eradication of illegal acts in the hopes of creating safer lives for all Americans sounds virtuous. However, this was not the intent of Nixon and the United States government, despite their political advertisements. John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, gave an interview in 1994 which explained the true motives behind the War on Drugs. Ehrlichman stated that the government, “…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.”

Stigmatizing Cannabis

And the War on Drugs did just that. Cannabis became stigmatized despite its previously common usage, and heroin was policed largely only in minority communities. Racism was still rampant, and now law enforcement agencies had even more cause to arrest minorities. Black neighborhoods were devoured by drug busts, and more and more people of color entered the correctional system. In 1986, years after Nixon declared his War on Drugs, people of color were still being unjustly but legally persecuted through the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which “allocated longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans).”

The Human Toll

The disproportionate amount of black to white convictions wasn’t the only outcome of the War on Drugs, though. It also strengthened the roots that structural racism already had in America. Imprisoning people of color at such an alarming rate left a generation without parents and the guidance all children need. It brought individuals with no previous criminal background into the realm of crime, which experts say is a cycle that is hard to escape. It also created a perception of people of color as delinquents simply because their faces were the ones more often apprehended, despite their lauded white counterparts committing the same crimes.

Of course, structural racism goes far beyond the War on Drugs and its legal implications. Structural racism is an infestation in the United States that goes back to the days of slavery and through to present-day prejudices. But Nixon’s rampage against minority communities through his substance abuse agenda surely left a mark on colored communities that is hard to escape and could have been avoided. The War on Drugs was just one of the many unethical and biased legislations of the past century. It is the responsibility of the people to continue fighting its racist ramifications and remember that, though created equal, people of color are seldom treated as such.

Diversity Equity and Inclusion promotion through Cannabis SEO and PR

Looking forward as we have a chance to build, shape and form the new cannabis industry it’s important to remember the effects of lead us here so we may grow and facilitate a representative industry. NisonCo provides pro bono cannabis seo and public relations services to advocacy groups and individuals engaged in activism, as well as companies that are advancing socially responsible and ethical practices in innovative, impactful, and systemic ways. I
n this way and many others, we seek to be not just a company that operates for profit, but a company that cares. Happy Black History Month, and remember that every month is a chance to celebrate culture and acceptance.

Tori Gates is an operations and business development manager who has worked with NISONCO since 2017.