A primer on the war on drugs

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was arrested in Staten Island, New York, on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes. An arresting officer placed the unarmed 43-year-old into a chokehold, despite the fact that the NYPD banned this type of restraint in 1993. Garner subsequently died of suffocation and his death was ruled a homicide, though a grand jury chose not to indict the arresting officer. 

Eric Garner's tragic death sparked outcry across the United States and mass protests ensued. As many Americans have learned since then, Garner's murder at the hands of police wasn't an isolated incident or even a rare occurrence. It was the direct result of practices and policies that were designed to target Black Americans and normalized by the war on drugs.

To begin to repair the damage that's been done, we first need to understand how we got where we are today. Here you'll find a brief history of the war on drugs, examples of present-day consequences, and tools for getting involved in the fight for justice. 

What is the war on drugs?

The war on drugs is an umbrella term for the US federal government's campaign against the illegal drug trade. In theory, the war on drugs was designed to combat drug abuse and trafficking. In practice, the campaign has done more harm than good, especially with regard to perpetuating racial inequality. 

flowers are not a crime museum of weed
The war on drugs is an umbrella term for the US federal government's campaign against the illegal drug trade. 
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

A brief timeline of the war on drugs


To understand the modern-day consequences of racist anti-drug policies, we have to go back to June 1971 when the war on drugs began. It was in June of 1971 that President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one.” Shortly after this declaration, Nixon increased federal funding to fight newly created drug crimes. He then established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. The DEA oversees laws on all drugs, including marijuana, which is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance alongside heroin and meth. 

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. As Ehrlichman admitted to journalist Dan Baum“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 [Vietnam] 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.” 


Ronald Reagan served as the president for almost the entire decade, and his aggressive reforms led to unprecedented levels of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders — especially those from minority communities. When the schoolchildren of the 1980s heard First Lady Nancy Reagan cry “Just say no!” to drugs, they had no idea that this slogan was part of a larger effort to put a disproportionate number of Black Americans in prison. 

Individuals convicted for crack trafficking offenses were overwhelmingly Black in the 1980s. Black people still account for 83% of those convicted for crack trafficking, according to a 2015 Drug and Alcohol Dependence report titled “Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk for Arrest and Socioeconomic Disparities in Use.” 

After the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed, these individuals were suddenly subject to mandatory minimum prison sentences. These sentences were much harsher than those issued to the drug offenders who used powder cocaine and were more likely to be white. For example, possessing just five grams of crack cocaine results in an automatic prison sentence of five years. Meanwhile, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to get that same sentence. 

This sentencing discrepancy only makes sense if your goal is to exacerbate racial inequalities since, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, “There are no pharmacological differences between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.” 


The zero-tolerance policies and draconian penalties of the 1980s carried over into the final decade of the 20th century. President Bill Clinton largely followed the precedent of Reagan's administration, notably rejecting a United States Sentencing Commission recommendation to close the incarceration gap between crack and cocaine users, as reported by the LA Times in 1995. 

By the turn of the century, in 1999, the Human Rights Watch reported that Black Americans were more likely than any other race to be arrested for drug offenses, sentenced for drug offenses, and punished to the harshest extent of the law. In the late 1990s in Illinois and Maryland, 90% of individuals sent to state prison on drug charges were Black, a statistic the civil rights organization deemed alarming. 

marijuana laws
The Human Rights Watch reported that Black Americans were more likely than any other race to be arrested for drug offenses, sentenced for drug offenses, and punished to the harshest extent of the law.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

The Human Rights Watch stated, “The disproportionately high percentage of blacks among those admitted to state prison on drug charges is cause for alarm. But the disparity in the rates at which black and white men over the age of eighteen are sent to prison on drug charges is nothing short of a national scandal.”

2000 to 2010

As the 21st century dawned, President George W. Bush took office and allocated more money than ever to wage the war on drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. He's also largely responsible for the militarization of police forces across the country. By the time Bush stepped down from office, the number of paramilitary SWAT raids on Americans suspected of illegal drug use had climbed to 40,000 annually. Mind you, SWAT teams were originally created to handle hostage situations and sniper shootings — not low-level drug offenses. 

2010 to 2020

During his two terms in office, President Barack Obama granted 1,715 sentence commutations to nonviolent drug offenders. He issued more than 300 of those commutations on his final full day in office on January 19, 2017, according to an article published in the Washington Post. 

In the article, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, shared, “By restoring proportionality to unnecessarily long drug sentences, this administration has made a lasting impact on our criminal justice system.” In fact, the Obama administration granted more clemencies than the previous 12 administrations combined. More than 500 of the individuals Obama pardoned would have served life in prison. 

Since Obama's presidency ended, marijuana reform has gained momentum across the country with many states voting to decriminalize recreational use of the plant and legalize medical cannabis. However, the Drug Policy Alliance reports that despite this progress, more than half a million individuals remain in prison for marijuana-related offenses, 90% of which involved non-violent possession. 

President Trump is known to support the death penalty for drug offenses and has praised world leaders who have used this draconian method as part of their own anti-drug efforts. Trump has also vowed to double down on anti-drug efforts even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, opting to allocate protective gear to soldiers fighting the drug war instead of essential healthcare workers. 

How does the war on drugs affect society today?

The war on drugs gave police officers the ability to racially profile, stop and frisk, fatally shoot suspects, and essentially trample our constitutional rights without consequence — all in exchange for very little progress when it comes to reducing drug abuse.

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 American men frequently receive prison sentences that are 20% longer than those of white men who committed the same crime, according to a 2017 report published by the United States Sentencing Commission. 

In 2016, despite growing legalization efforts, more than 500,000 people in the United States were arrested for marijuana-related crimes, as reported by the Center for American Progress. The organization further stated that Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white individuals, although both racial groups use cannabis at comparable rates. 

According to a report published in the American Journal of Public Health, police caused 8% of the adult male homicides that occurred from 2012 to 2018. In that time, US police officers killed more than 1,000 men each year or three men per day on average. This data also shows that Black men are three times more likely to die at the hands of police than white men. 

How can I fight for justice in the war on drugs?

There are numerous organizations working to combat these injustices, and you have the power to get involved. Here are three reputable organizations to join forces with if you would like to step up for justice:

  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): For 100 years, the ACLU has been fighting to protect the constitutional rights of every American citizen. The organization has been especially vocal about the imbalances of the war on drugs. You can subscribe to the ACLU email list to stay informed, make a donation, or sign up to be a volunteer. Website: https://www.aclu.org/
  • Drug Policy Alliance: Founded in 2000, this New York City-based non-profit is doing its part to protect people imprisoned for drug offenses during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can sign a petition if you're in favor of passing the HEROES Act, which would help the most vulnerable individuals incarcerated for drug offenses receive early release from prison. You can also sign up for action alerts, find out how to contact your local officials, and shop for books and apparel to support the cause. Website: https://www.drugpolicy.org/
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): One of the most well-established civil rights organizations in the United States, the NAACP was founded in 1909 by a group of luminaries including Black American writer and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. You can become a member of the NAACP, purchase a gift membership for a loved one, or sign up to volunteer and encourage voters in your community to cast their ballots in upcoming elections. Website: https://www.naacp.org/

The impact of the war on drugs has been far-reaching, from the mass incarceration of Black Americans to petty arrests with tragic consequences. The only way we can hope to reverse the damage done by racist policies is to keep ourselves informed and continue to fight back with concerted, sustained action. 

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on January 21, 2021.