Race and the Drug War

People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal legal system.

The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color.

Many different communities of color bear the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws. This impact may vary across cities and regions. Nationwide, some of the most egregious racial disparities can be seen in the case of Black and Latinx people. 

Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use, but rather of law enforcement’s focus on urban areas, lower income communities and communities of color. 

Disparities in arrests and incarceration are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use may go to jail for decades. This unequal enforcement ignores the universality of drug dependency, as well as the universal appeal of drugs themselves.

Watch DPA's Executive Director Kassandra Frederique speak about how drug policy and the Black Lives Matter movements intersect at our 2015 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

A History of the Racist War on Drugs

We believe that the criminalization of people of color, particularly young Black people, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s.

This video from hip hop legend Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and acclaimed artist Molly Crabapple depicts the drug war’s devastating impact on the Black community from decades of biased law enforcement. 

The video traces the drug war from President Nixon to the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws to the emerging aboveground marijuana market that is poised to make legal millions for wealthy investors doing the same thing that generations of people of color have been arrested and locked up for.

The Facts

The Drug War Drives Racial Disparities in the Criminal Legal System

Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for communities of color.

  • People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal legal system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.
  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.
  • Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were Black.
  • Black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.

Other racial groups are also impacted by the drug war, but the disparities with these highlighted groups are particularly stark and well documented.

Learn about how the drug war has affected Latinx communities.

The Fentanyl Era Exacerbates Racial Disparities

Despite the recent emergence of fentanyl in the illegal market, lengthy sentences have been on the books for decades. They have not stopped the spread of fentanyl. At the federal level, pre-existing penalties range from a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense to life without parole for a third conviction. With the majority (75%) of those currently federally sentenced for fentanyl trafficking being people of color, these laws threaten to only exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal legal system.

See our fentanyl report to learn about health-centered solutions to the overdose crisis.

The Drug War Fuels Widespread Detentions and Deportations

For noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, any drug law violation can trigger automatic detention and deportation – often without the possibility of return.

People deported for drug law violations are sent back to their countries of origin, where they may no longer have any ties to family or community. They may lack basic survival needs like food, housing and health services, and may face serious threats to their security. They are usually barred from reentering the United States, often for life. The result is thousands of families broken and communities torn apart every year.

  • More than 250,000 people were deported from the United States for drug law violations between 2007 and 2012.
  • A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch found that deportations for drug possession offenses increased by 43% from 2007 to 2012.
  • Simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense in 2013, and the most common cause of deportation for drug law violations. More than 13,000 people were deported in 2012 and 2013 just for marijuana possession.

Irrational and racist logic rooted in the drug war falsely associates Latinx and Black immigrants with drug use and drug activity. As a result, the U.S. has created the largest immigrant exclusion, detention, and deportation structure in the world.

Despite having lived in the U.S. since the age of eight as a legal permanent resident, and despite having served in the Army with two deployments to Afghanistan, Miguel Perez, Jr. was deported back to Mexico in 2018 because of an earlier drug conviction for which he had already served time.

Learn more about how the drug war invades immigrant communities at UprootingTheDrugWar.org.

The Drug War Produces Lifelong Consequences

Punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal legal system, but is also perpetuated by policies denying child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, licensing, student aid, public housing and other public assistance to people with criminal convictions.

These exclusions create a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans. Like drug war enforcement itself, they fall disproportionately on people of color.

  • One in 13 Black people of voting age are denied the right to vote because of laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions.
  • One in nine Black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.

Our Priorities 

The Drug Policy Alliance is committed to exposing discrimination and disproportionate drug law enforcement, as well as the systems that perpetuate them. We work to eliminate policies that result in the unfair criminalization of communities of color by rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences and by addressing on the rampant over-policing of these communities.

We advocate for:

  • Decriminalizing drug possession to remove a major cause of the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of people of color. This would help more people receive drug treatment when appropriate and redirect law enforcement resources to programs that help build healthier communities.
  • Eliminating policies that result in disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates. This includes changing police practices, rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and eliminating sentencing disparities.
  • Ending policies that permanently exclude people with a drug arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities. These include barriers to voting, employment, loans, financial aid, child custody, public housing and other public assistance.
  • Providing access to wraparound services outside the criminal legal system so that police don’t end up being the only place people can go for help.
  • Adopting pre-plea diversion programs that allow people with minor drug charges to successfully participate in treatment or other programming without having to enter a guilty plea  –  since a guilty plea is often what triggers federal immigration consequences, including deportation.
Race and the Drug War