The war on drugs is deeply unpopular. 2021 looks to continue to be a pivotal year for reform.
Nineteen states and Washington, DC have now legalised adult use of marijuana. In March, New York passed a suite of policies that not only legalised marijuana but also focused on social equity and expungement. Sweeping reforms decriminalising the personal possession of drugs also recently passed in Oregon. Governors Booker, Wyden, and Schumer announced a plan to deschedule and decriminalise marijuana and enact major drug law reforms at the federal level this year. Advocates across the United States continue to push for the implementation of supervised consumption sites, expanded harm reduction services, and low-threshold drug treatment.
Even with these policy shifts, an active public debate continues to rage about how and why we should reform drug policies. After spending years analysing hundreds of newspaper items dating back to the early ‘80s and thousands of internet comments, I can see the shape of the debate around the war on drugs and its implications.
Despite well-documented racial injustices stemming from drug policies, news outlets rarely mention them – and their silence often misleads readers and, in fact, reinforces racial stereotypes. Only nine percent of all the arguments in the hundreds of newspaper articles that I analysed actually centred on racial inequality. Only two percent focused on systemic racism. The majority note that people of colour are overrepresented in drug related arrests and imprisonment, but they do not reference why. Audiences, relying on misinformation and racist stereotypes, interpret this overrepresentation as the result of who they assume is most likely to use drugs or commit crime. The reality, though, is that people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates, and use rates have remained largely stable over the years.
The most common argument in newspapers suggests that the war on drugs fails to control, or even exacerbates, drug use and crime. This line of reasoning implies that what the war on drugs has actually failed to do is properly subjugate and control already marginalized groups by linking the “drug problem” with people of colour. Often these points are made through raising fears about “thugs,” “inner-city gangs,” “illegal invaders,” “Islamic terrorists,” or “Mexican cartels.” This argument is false and dangerous. It also is exactly how the war on drugs has been mobilised against communities of colour.
Throughout the 20th century, white people were the primary users and traffickers of marijuana, cocaine, and opiates. In the 21st century, this trend continues to hold. Racially targeted enforcement, arrests, and incarceration account for racial inequalities within the criminal legal system, not the demographics of people who use, produce, or distribute drugs.
Too often, our drug policy has reflected or been driven by the racial stereotypes I saw time and time again in my analysis of the media. Drug prohibition has enabled community disinvestment, aggressive and racially targeted policing practices, and the growth of the prison system. Police departments enforcing drug laws target predominantly poor and Black neighbourhoods in response to pressure from local economic elites to gentrify these areas, as influenced by media depictions of local drug problems, or to avoid the blowback from targeting communities with greater influence and resources.
Black people – who are 13% of the U.S. population – make up 26% of all people arrested for drug offenses, despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates. White men charged with drug felonies are more likely than their Black counterparts to receive pre-trial diversion and face probation rather than incarceration. White people charged with drug crimes are more likely to receive drug treatment, while Black people are more likely to receive prison sentences. In comparison to Black people, white people receive shorter prison sentences for the same drug crimes and prosecutors are more likely to suggest lower sentences for white people than Black people.
These remaining inequities reflect the deadly cocktail of discrimination and silence. They persist, despite progress being made on the policy front, because we have failed to expose and address the structural racism behind our drug policies, while allowing racial stereotypes about who uses and sells drugs to go unchallenged. It is time for major media outlets to do a better job breaking the silence, uncovering the deeply embedded racial discrimination at the heart of the drug war, and undermining the myths about the “users” and the “sellers” of drugs. As long as myths and omissions pervade this debate, policy reforms will fail to heal the wounds of racial oppression.