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 African Americans and Latinos.
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.
We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African Americans, 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.
Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for communities of color.
Other racial groups are also impacted by the drug war, but the disparities with these highlighted groups are particularly stark and well documented.
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 justice system.
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.
Punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal justice 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.
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: