Black versus Blue: Brought to You by the War on Drugs

A few years ago, in August 2014, an unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. While this was not the first time a black man had been killed by police, it did serve as a firebrand to activists seeking justice against a law enforcement apparatus that seems to target, harass and brutalize people of color on a regular basis. Following Michael Brown’s death, there was a series of other highly publicized instances of excessive force against black people, including the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death for the crime of selling cigarettes without a permit; Philando Castille, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop for reaching for his wallet; and Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy that was shot and killed for holding a toy gun in a public park. There are so many more that have garnered attention, and the stories continue to come out, day after day, as if nothing has been done to reign in police officers’ use of violence against black people. Just this month, Dashawn McGrier was brutally beaten in Baltimore by a black police officer, proving that even black cops target black men with increased ferocity.

There is a real problem in this country between the black community and the law enforcement community, and it doesn’t seem to be getting addressed as it should be. As shocking as all this bloodshed is, it is not new — and it is not surprising. This acrimony has been brewing for decades, and it will continue to fester until we address the underlying causes. There is not just one factor responsible for the strained relationship between blacks and police, but they are recognizable, and hopefully, with a little effort, not insurmountable. But it must start with the acknowledgement that, yes, there is a problem. And one of the primary drivers in this vicious cycle is the War on Drugs.

In the early part of the 20th century, there were practically no regulations on any drugs. In fact, many popular, over-the-counter medicines contained heroin and cocaine. It wasn’t until 1914 that the federal government began restricting the sale of narcotics, with the passage of the Harrison Tax Act. By 1937, the FBI had cut its teeth on Depression-era gangsters and achieved some level of national prestige. Prohibition had ended, and meaningful federal health regulation was about to come about under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, operating under the U.S. Treasury Department, had come into existence in 1930 under the leadership of Harry Anslinger, who is single-handedly responsible for much of the hysteria surrounding drugs and drug users that persists to this day.

And into this new national enforcement framework came the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which attempted to tax marijuana into oblivion. Marijuana had not been shown to be dangerous, but the perception that it might be a “gateway drug” for heroin users — and its alleged popularity among Mexican-American immigrants — made it an easy target.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 by an electoral landslide based largely on his leadership during World War II. But it was his administration, as much as any other, that also defined the parameters of the War on Drugs. Not that it did so alone. The Boggs Act of 1951 had already established mandatory minimum federal sentences for possession of marijuana, cocaine, and opiates, and a committee led by Senator Price Daniel (D-TX) called that the federal penalties be increased further, as they were with the Narcotic Control Act of 1956. But it was Eisenhower’s establishment of the U.S. Interdepartmental Committee on Narcotics, in 1954, in which a sitting president first literally called for a war on drugs.

In the period between the 1930s and 1970s, marijuana was considered a “Mexican drug.” The proposal to enact a marijuana ban during the 1930s was wrapped up in racist anti-Mexican rhetoric. The Nixon administration closed the borders, trying to block the import of marijuana from Mexico. Operation Intercept imposed strict, punitive searches of traffic on the U.S.-Mexican border. The civil liberties implications of this policy are obvious, and it turned out to be a foreign policy disaster, due in part to the violence it caused in Mexico over the coming decades.

With passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, the federal government took a more active role in drug enforcement and drug abuse prevention. Nixon, who called drug abuse “public enemy number one” in a 1971 speech, emphasized treatment at first and used his administration’s clout to push for the treatment of drug addicts, particularly heroin addicts. Nixon also targeted the trendy, psychedelic image of illegal drugs, asking celebrities such as Elvis Presley to help him send the message that drug abuse is unacceptable. Seven years later, Presley himself fell to drug abuse; toxicologists found as many as fourteen legally prescribed drugs, including narcotics, in his system at the time of his death.

Before the 1970s, drug abuse was seen by policymakers primarily as a social disease that could be addressed with treatment. After the 1970s, drug abuse was seen by policymakers primarily as a law enforcement problem that could be addressed with aggressive criminal justice policies. The addition of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the federal law enforcement apparatus in 1973 was a significant step in the direction of a criminal justice approach to drug enforcement. If the federal reforms of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 represented the formal declaration of the War on Drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration became its foot soldiers.

This isn’t to say that law enforcement was the only component of the federal War on Drugs. As drug use among children became more of a national issue, Nancy Reagan toured elementary schools warning students about the danger of illegal drug use. When one fourth-grader at Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, California asked Mrs. Reagan what she should do if approached by someone offering drugs, Reagan responded: “Just say no.” The slogan, and Nancy Reagan’s activism on the issue, became central to the administration’s anti-drug message. It is not insignificant that the policy also came with political benefits. By portraying drugs as a threat to children, the administration was able to pursue more aggressive federal anti-drug legislation.

Powdered cocaine was the champagne of drugs. It was associated more often with white yuppies than other drugs were in the public imagination, while heroin was associated more often with African Americans, and marijuana with Latinos. Then along came crack, cocaine processed into little rocks at a price non-yuppies could afford. Newspapers printed breathless accounts of black urban “crack fiends” and the drug of rock stars suddenly grew more sinister to white middle America. Congress and the Reagan administration responded with the Anti-drug Act of 1986, which established a 100:1 ratio for mandatory minimums associated with crack cocaine. It would take 5,000 grams of powdered “yuppie” cocaine to land you in prison for a minimum 10 years — but only 50 grams of crack. And it is no secret that this policy fell much more significantly upon poor, black people.

In recent decades, the U.S. death penalty has been reserved for offenses that involve the taking of another person’s life. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Coker v. Georgia (1977) banned capital punishment as a penalty in cases of rape, and while the federal death penalty can be applied in cases of treason or espionage, nobody has been executed for either offense since the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. So when Senator Joe Biden’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, which was enthusiastically endorsed and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, included a provision allowing for the federal execution of drug kingpins, it indicated that the War on Drugs had ultimately reached such a level that drug-related offenses were regarded by the federal government as equivalent to, or worse than, murder and treason.

And make no mistake, this metaphorical “War” has indeed become an actual war, one that is waged in the streets of American cities, targeting American citizens as the enemies. Hundreds of innocent people have been killed as “collateral damage” in drug law enforcement activities. People like Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman whose house was erroneously raided by narcotics officers, was shot to death in a rain of bullets in her own home in 2006; Jonathan Ayers in 2009, a reverend who gave some money to a known drug addict and was then followed by police and shot dead; Rodolpho Cardenas in 2004, who police mistook for another person, was shot in the back and killed; Mario Paz in 1999, who was shot in the back in his own home when 20 officers conducted a ‘no-knock’ raid in the wrong house. These are just a few of the more heinous examples of the brutal failure of the War on Drugs. There are many, many more. And besides these obvious failures, hundreds of thousands of people have been thrown in prison — often with oppressive, unconscionably long sentences — for simple possession of drugs, losing their jobs, and often plunging their families into poverty. High crime areas, which are often predominantly black neighborhoods, are by far the most frequent battlegrounds in this protracted and expensive war. And the perpetual combat engaged in by law enforcement has led to the militarization of police departments around the country, which, as can be easily imagined, has only made matters worse.

The Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, and the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, among others, have armed local law enforcement agencies with military and para-military equipment. Armored Personnel Carriers, flashbang grenades, and assault rifles, combined with aggressive training and tactics, have made police officers into combatants in a war, instead of public servants on our city streets. In fact, in many instances police officers are encouraged through their training to adopt a “warrior” mentality, and to “think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”

Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, were originally adopted to handle emergency situations, such as hostage crises. However, today nearly 2/3 of SWAT deployments involve simple drug raids. They serve search warrants on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of drugs, often a small amount. These para-military SWAT teams break down doors in the middle of the night, with battering rams, toss a couple grenades into the house to blind and deafen the occupants, and enter, full assault style, to serve a search warrant. As should be expected, there is a greatly increased risk of violence in these raids, which are violent events in themselves.

Many police officers are honest, hard-working men and women. They perform heroic acts, and place themselves willingly in danger. But even these good officers are trained, armed and ordered to conduct aggressive, “proactive” policing, especially in “high crime” areas that are often neighborhoods of color. Police officers are sent into these areas to look for a fight, and to engage the public as enemy combatants. Is it any wonder that there are so many police shootings, when they are whipped into a frenzy and conditioned to be on high-alert at every moment?

And this increase in police aggression has led, quite visibly, to mass incarceration of people of color. Not only are large numbers of African Americans incarcerated, African Americans are incarcerated at percentages that exceed any legitimate law enforcement interest and which negatively impact the African American community. While African Americans only comprise 12% of the U.S. population, they represent nearly half of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons. In fact, on average, African American males are approximately 8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. For some age groups, the racial disparities are even worse. For young men between the ages of 25 and 29, African Americans are closer to 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

It has been suggested, by people smarter than me, that the mass incarceration of African Americans is a direct consequence of the drug war. As one commentator has stated:

‘Drug arrests are a principal reason that the proportions of [B]lacks in prison and more generally under criminal justice system control have risen rapidly in recent years.’

Institutional racism is, of course, a strong component in this struggle between African Americans and the criminal justice system, but even that factor is made easier, and more deadly, by the overly aggressive tactics involved in drug law enforcement. It allows officers to approach black men with the presumption that they are dealing with a dangerous criminal, even without any evidence to support such a presumption. The lingering portrait of the black “crack fiends” of the 1990’s, and the violent image of black men that has been circulating through the public discourse since at least the 1970’s, has made the unfair and disproportionate targeting of blacks by law enforcement easier still. But I firmly believe that if the War on Drugs finally enters a long-overdue cease-fire, we will at least begin to see the loosening of some of the tension between these two groups. And if even a fraction of the money — billions upon billions of dollars — that is wasted on the failed drug crusade is diverted to community programs and rehabilitation services, we may even begin to see a society-wide reduction in crime, poverty and conflict. Even if my predictions aren’t exactly accurate, isn’t it worth a try?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jesse Beasley

Jesse Beasley

Public interest advocate. Guitar guru. Devoted father. Political dissident.