Public Comment

The Bogus War Against Illegal Drugs

Harry Brill
Saturday February 02, 2019 - 04:42:00 PM

The media recently reported that former Vice President Joe Biden expressed regret for supporting the drug crime laws because they have disproportionally and unfairly impacted African Americans. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that although 16 percent of those who sold drugs were blacks, they made up 49 percent who were arrested. Moreover, African Americans constituted 74 percent of those who went to prison just for possessing drugs. And they were much more likely to receive longer sentences.  

When Ronald Reagan became president, he pushed though legislation that added 29 new mandatory minimum sentences. That certainly limits the sentencing discretion of liberal judges. However, the federal courts have imposed prison sentences on black men that are almost 20 percent longer than those received by white men who had committed similar offenses. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at an average rate that is 5 times more than white Americans. In some states, that rate is 10 times more. Moreover, in 35 states that have complete data, blacks also serve disproportionately longer sentences. 


The length of sentences depend on the particular drug and the quantity possessed or sold. The federal penalty for possession could be as high as 40 years. A second offense could be for life. Indeed, the enactment of three strike laws yielded very long prison sentences, including for life, even if each violation for possession was relatively minor. The federal government and 24 states have some form of three strike laws. The aggregate result has been an increase in the prison population from 500,000 in 1980 to over 2,200,000 currently. 


Undoubtedly, poverty and unemployment, and more generally a sense of hopelessness have contributed to the temptation to use illegal drugs. But the widespread use of drugs could not be contained because of the lack of adequate oversight by agencies that are responsible for putting a stop to drug trafficking. Instead, many officials have been ignoring the trafficking of drugs for a long while. The laxity in enforcement probably explains why there are substantially more drug addicts on the streets of San Francisco, as the SF Chronicle reported, than students enrolled in the city's high schools (1-30-19). 

Take for example the Winter Hill Gang in Boston, which was heavily involved in trafficking drugs. Some FBI agents claimed that they did not attempt to restrain the organization because the Winter Hill gang provided the FBI with information about a rival gang. That explanation was just an excuse that gave the gang the ability to traffic in drugs with impunity. In fact, according to law enforcement officials, drug trafficking organizations have been operating in at least 230 U.S. cities. And for the most part they have been able to do so without interference from authorities. 

The obvious question is why are enforcement agencies so lenient in enforcing drug laws. The highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, claims persuasively in her book, "The New Jim Crow", that the main reason for imprisoning African Americans reflects the establishment's backlash against the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was not only very unpopular with the establishment. It was resented by many whites, particularly in the south, who looked unfavorably at the various gains, including voting rights, that African Americans achieved. To win white votes, Republicans pursued a racist strategy. 

Richard Nixon played a major role developing the war on drugs in order to subdue the militancy of black activists. After many years as a top Nixon aide, John D. Ehrlichman acknowledged to a journalist that criminalizing blacks was a major motive for Nixon's war on drugs. What he admitted is worth quoting in full: 

"You want to know what this was really about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying. We knew we 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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did". 

Nixon was credited with initiating what he called the "War On Drugs". He certainly pursued it with a vengeance, claiming that drug abuse was "public enemy number one". But actually it was Lyndon Johnson's support for an anti-drug policy that preceded Nixon. Johnson supported the Civil Rights Act mainly in response to the successful militant struggles led by MLK Jr. and blacks generally. During his first 20 years in office (1937-1957) he always voted with the South. But he changed his position beginning in 1957, which was shortly after King and the black community won the Montgomery Bus Boycott battle. 

The political pressure of black civil rights activists did not only have an immense domestic impact. The international community was also concerned about this country's racism. Images of armed soldiers blocking nine African American high school students from integrating a public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas sent shock waves to many countries abroad. The Soviet Union was delighted with the bad publicity the U.S. was getting. The U.S. representative to the U.N. warned Eisenhower that the international repercussions were damaging this nation's influence. So Johnson along with a congressional majority of both Democrats and Republicans supported the civil rights act mainly because of the immense political pressures that were both domestic and international. 

What is not widely known is the duplicitous role that Johnson played. Before leaving office Johnson stated that the government needed to make an effort to curtail the social unrest in the country. He thought that the focus should be on illegal drug abuse. He took some organizational steps to facilitate the coming war on drugs. So although Johnson supported civil rights legislation, he also endorsed a strategy to undermine the militant character of the civil rights movement and the opportunities to make additional advances. Nixon, who succeeded Johnson, mentioned that it was important to take Johnson's advice.  

As already mentioned, Biden said that he realized the drug laws were a mistake. That's a good first step. Now he and others who have been troubled by the injustices that blacks have suffered should also demand the release of all those who are in prison for possession of drugs. The addiction to drugs deserves treatment not punishment. It is hazardous to the health of the addicted and their families. In fact, last year over 72,000 died from drug overdose. Also, treating addiction would certainly be a lot less expensive than imprisoning addicts. It would cost at least $20,000 less per person than incarceration.  

A humane approach would undoubtedly make some members of the establishment very unhappy. But it would certainly improve the quality of life of many Americans and would be best for our society as a whole.