The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With just 5 percent of the global population, the US possesses 25 percent of all the world's prisoners.
At the center of all this is the War on Drugs, a costly, futile, decades-long endeavor that destroyed communities and made America a country that spends $80 billion a year on mass incarceration. It's been a complete social and economic disaster.
From the very beginning, the War on Drugs disproportionately impacted people of color, and it continues to do so.
For example, white people are more likely to deal drugs, but black people are more likely to get arrested for it. Moreover, in spite of the fact whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rate, black people are around four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession.
It's no coincidence one in three black males ends up in prison, compared to one in 17 white males.
Indeed, there has long been widespread evidence the War on Drugs is inherently racist, even as policymakers argue it's about keeping illicit and dangerous substances off the streets.
But, the words of John Ehrlichman, who served as President Richard Nixon's chief domestic advisor when the administration launched the War on Drugs back in 1971, completely contradict the notion the drug war was ever about keeping people safe.
According to Ehrlichman, who served time in prison as a consequence of the Watergate scandal, the War on Drugs was fundamentally motivated by racism.
In the April cover story for Harper's magazine, journalist Dan Baum recalled an interview he conducted with Ehrlichman back in 1994 while writing a book on the politics of drug prohibition.
At the time, Ehrlichman told Baum,
You want to know what [the War on Drugs] was really all 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.
This is awful, but in many ways, it's completely unsurprising when one takes a look at the War on Drugs, the policies surrounding it and the impact of the policies across American society.
More importantly, this is further evidence it's long past time to end the War on Drugs and move toward decriminalization while expanding access to treatment for addiction. Other countries, such as Portugal, had great success with this approach.
Ending the War on Drugs would be a huge step forward in terms of reducing incarceration rates and eradicating systemic racism in the US.
Citations: Nixon official: real reason for the drug war was to criminalize black people and hippies (Vox), White people are more likely to deal drugs, but black people are more likely to get arrested for it (The Washington Post), THE WAR ON MARIJUANA IN BLACK AND WHITE (ACLU), 1 In 3 Black Males Will Go To Prison In Their Lifetime, Report Warns (Huffington Post), Legalize It All (Harper's magazine), Why hardly anyone dies from a drug overdose in Portugal (The Washington Post)