War on Drugs

By Anna Cheng | Last Updated: April 12, 2021

Image by: Lexi Wang

What is the War on Drugs?  

The war on drugs is a phrase popularized by the Nixon administration, and refers to initiatives aimed at reducing the illegal drug trade in the U.S.  This initiative outlined policies that increased prison sentences for drug dealers and users.

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Key Takeaways

  • President Richard Nixon created a crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity in the early 1970s.

  • The War on Drugs had a detrimental impact on America's mass incarceration and exacerbated pre-existing disparate health outcomes for communities of color.

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Nixon’s Persistence

President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” in June of 1971. Shortly after, he increased federal funding to fight newly created drug crimes.

Nixon went on to create the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973. The DEA is a special police force committed to targeting illegal drug use and smuggling in the U.S. The DEA enforces laws on all drugs, including marijuana, which is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance alongside heroin and meth.

Crack vs. Powder Cocaine Sentencing

Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established a series of “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for various drug offenses. You should know that individuals caught selling crack became subject to mandatory minimum prison sentences. These sentences were much harsher than those related to powder cocaine. Possessing five grams of crack cocaine would result in an automatic prison sentence of five years, while it would take 500 grams of powder cocaine to get that same sentence; a 100:1 disparity.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced this disparity to an 18:1 disparity, which was a step in the right direction. But this law still disproportionately harms communities of color, despite the nearly identical chemical, physiological and psychoactive effects of both substances.  

Clinton also rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to eliminate the incarceration gap between crack and powder cocaine users. It was only in George W. Bush's second term that the Supreme Court finally addressed the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. 

The War on Drugs’ Legacy 

In 1994, Nixon's advisor, John Ehrlichman, revealed that the former president's real “public enemy number one” wasn't illicit drugs, but “Black people and anti-war liberals.” At that time, about 80% of crack users were Black. The average sentence for Black Americans convicted of federal drug charges was 65.5% higher than that for White Americans, and mandatory minimums led to an unequal increase of incarceration rates for nonviolent Black drug offenders.

The war on drugs gave police officers the ability to racially profile, stop and frisk and fatally shoot suspects. As a result, the war on drugs continues to devastate communities of color as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.

Racial disparities continue to escalate today as Black males frequently receive prison sentences that are 20% longer than those of white men who committed the same crime. Currently, this contributes to the U.S.’ mass incarceration issue. The U.S. accounts for 1/4th of the world's prison population, despite making up 1/20th of the world's population. Mass incarceration is a growing public health issue

Current Efforts

The Eliminating Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, introduced in January of 2021 by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), seeks to eliminate the disparate sentencing of crack and powder cocaine for federal prisons. 

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Outside the Huddle

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Reviewed by Geetika Rao, MPH | Edited by Nidhi Mahagaokar, MPH and Jared Dashevsky, M.Eng. | Fact checked by Julia Radossich, PA-C