State of the Glewnion | Marijuana, Race, and the True Nature of the War on Drugs


Duncan Glew, Co-Editor-in-Chief

One of the most hotly debated questions in contemporary American politics is whether or not marijuana should be legalized, or at least decriminalized, for medical and recreational purposes. As it stands, the federal government considers marijuana a serious public health risk, in the same legal drug classification as heroin, cocaine, and LSD.

But restrictions against marijuana have softened in several states, beginning with California’s legalization of medical cannabis in 1996, and support for decriminalization has grown among the American people. The far-left faction of the Democratic Party leads this movement in Congress.

Many conservatives, on the other hand, maintain that marijuana is dangerous and must remain outlawed. Both sides of this debate are somewhat lacking in credibility, however, because little scientific evidence is available to support either position. The strict federal regulation of marijuana makes it difficult to study medically, so it is hard to know whether such harsh policy is necessary for public health.

Though current legislation has prevented the scientific community from studying the medical effects of marijuana in depth in the United States, researchers are able to investigate its impact on various American communities. Studies into this issue indicate that the accessibility of marijuana relative to other drugs has led to it becoming the most prevalent illegal drug in the United States and the most common reason for drug-related arrests.

These studies also show that the federal government’s stringent approach to marijuana has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, with African Americans and Latinos representing a higher percentage of marijuana arrests than marijuana users.

Another problem affecting racial-minority communities is mass incarceration. The United States is infamous for having one of the largest and most unforgiving prison systems in the world. Where many other first-world countries have modernized their correctional institutions to focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation, America’s prisons have become bigger, harsher, and more damaging to minority communities in particular.

How much of that is due to marijuana? This investigation will explore how marijuana criminalization has affected minority incarceration in the United States in addition to discussing possible approaches to marijuana policy that could mitigate the damage that incarceration inflicts upon minorities.

The role of laws in society, including those that criminalize marijuana, is to promote the well-being of the general public. Some believe that the current, punitive approach to marijuana achieves this goal, but this investigation has revealed to me the damaging effects of that approach on already disadvantaged communities.

To understand marijuana’s current role in American politics as an instrument of racial disparity, it helps to know why it was so harshly criminalized in the first place.

Many assume that the United States’ punitive approach to drug abuse is a misguided but well-intentioned attempt to improve public health. In reality, the primary motivation for the criminalization of marijuana and other drugs was never the well-being of the people, but rather a deceptive strategy that politicians have used to stoke racial resentment and alter the electorate in their favor.

Marijuana’s history as a political issue lies in the origins of the word “marijuana” itself. Today, many advocates for legalization insist on using its proper name, cannabis, due to the historically racist connotations of the more common term.

At the dawn of the 20th century, “marijuana” or “marihuana” was a colloquial designation for cannabis, derived from Mexican Spanish. During and after 1898’s Spanish-American War, Mexicans and other Spanish-speakers became the object of fierce xenophobic sentiment that festered for decades.

Prohibition hawks like Harry Anslinger, chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, took advantage of white Americans’ resentment for Hispanics to further their prohibitionist agendas.

Through official reports and propaganda campaigns, Anslinger and others tied the word “marijuana” to Hispanics by suggesting it was “sold by a hot tamale vendor… in a closely congested section of New York.” Marijuana policy expert John Hudak explains the effect of this strategy:

“These efforts by government officials… are clear in their intent: to link marijuana to unknown, mysterious, or feared groups from other parts of the world, and to link the usage of marijuana to lawlessness and serious criminal offenses. In effect, marijuana—not cannabis or hemp—was a scourge on society, brought to us by all the people we fear or should fear”

The biggest challenge to Anslinger’s anti-marijuana campaign came in the form of 1944’s La Guardia report, the end product of a committee formed by New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The committee found that marijuana was not addictive, did not motivate major crimes, and was not common among children.

It declared “The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of smoking marijuana in New York City is unfounded.”

Despite this blatant rebuttal to Anslinger’s claims, his prohibitionist movement triumphed. The success of his efforts indicates two things: First, that racial sentiment can be a tool more powerful than even data-driven analysis like the LaGuardia report; and second, that the institutionally racist elements of America’s history are closely tied to the history of marijuana policy.

As such, one must consider the possibility that successive U.S. marijuana laws might have similarly ulterior motives.

The exploitation of xenophobia for political purposes did not stop with Harry Anslinger, nor with the marijuana debate. It became of an integral part of the Republican electoral strategy beginning in the late 1960s. With Civil Rights victories in the Supreme Court and the passage of the Voting Rights Acts in 1965, African-American voter turnout was at an all-time high.

Due to their longtime Democratic leaning, both African Americans and blue-collar whites posed a threat to the Republicans’ electoral chances. Richard Nixon and his campaign staff sought to solve both problems simultaneously.

One of Nixon’s biggest domestic policy campaigns was his “war against crime.” Civil Rights activist Angela Davis alleges that this moniker is deceptive in nature, noting that “the word ‘crime’ begins to stand in for the word ‘race.’”

The word “crime” became a masked umbrella term for the various groups of people Nixon saw as political threats, but his primary target was racial minorities.

In one speech, Nixon said “We must wage total war in the United States against the evils that we see in our cities.” Nixon’s focus on cities in his supposed anti-crime, anti-drug campaign reflects modern politicians’ use of the words “urban” and “inner-city” to reference Latinos and African Americans, who often live in urban areas, without naming them outright.

This tactic is now known as the Southern strategy. Nixon’s veiled appeal to white Americans’ racial suspicions led working-class whites to “join the Republican Party in droves,” according to author and civil-rights advocate Michelle Alexander.

There is a reason the phrase “war on drugs” is more closely associated with Ronald Reagan than Richard Nixon. Nixon introduced the Southern strategy to persuade working-class whites to join the Republican electorate, but Reagan and his allies perfected it.

Jelani Cobb, formerly of the University of Connecticut, explains that “Reagan promised tax cuts to the rich and to throw all the crack [cocaine] users in jail, both of which devastated communities of color but were effective in getting the Southern [white] vote.”

Reagan’s politically motivated attack on people of color took a multi-pronged approach. The fact that he is still hailed as a hero by many modern Republicans is largely due to his establishment of trickle-down economics and old-fashioned individualism as central tenets of the party. His administration scaled back government intervention in education, welfare, jobs, healthcare, and more of what Angela Davis calls “the institutions that are designed to assist human beings.”

This platform led to the highest number of Americans living in poverty in two decades, which was even more disastrous for people of color considering that a far higher percentage of African Americans were impoverished than whites.

The second method that Reagan used to target communities of color was his realization of Nixon’s war on drugs. From 1980 to 1986, the percentage of U.S.’s combined state and federal prison populations represented by African Americans rose only 3 percent.

However, by the end of Reagan’s presidency in 1988, the U.S.’s total number of prisoners had risen to 603,732 from around 315,974 in 1980, the largest increase in the 20th century at that point. This means that, despite the increase in the percentage of blacks in the prison population being somewhat small, there were nonetheless many more total African Americans incarcerated in 1988 than at the beginning of the Reagan era.

Furthermore, drug-related arrests grew by 80.3 percent from 1980 to 1987, which indicates that Reagan’s anti-narcotics initiative played a major role in the growth of the prison population under his administration.

The Southern strategy is, admittedly, a cynical narrative. It seems somewhat outlandish to claim that Nixon’s and Reagan’s wars on crime and drugs were not actually public-health initiatives, but complex electoral schemes. Conservative analysts have attempted to discredit this interpretation of late 20th-century Republican policy by pointing out that, on its surface, the Southern strategy sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Without hard evidence, it would be. But top strategists from both administrations have admitted that is exactly what happened. President Nixon’s close adviser, John Ehrlichman, said in a 1994 interview that:

“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.”

Like Nixon’s staff, Reagan’s inner circle was also aware of the true intentions and consequences of their policies. Longtime Republican strategist and Reagan adviser Lee Atwater was once caught on tape saying:

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n*****;’ that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes. And all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

On its own, U.S. drug policy’s close association with racist politics is not enough to prove that marijuana criminalization has a major impact on the incarceration of racial minorities, but it does establish a historical relationship between the two and indicates that America’s current, flawed approach to drug abuse is not a misguided attempt at improving public health, but a politically motivated strategy to alter the electorate.

By the time of the 1992 presidential election, Republicans had controlled the White House for 12 years. Ronald Reagan had been popular not in spite of his covert racism, but partially because of it. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of his legacy was the fact that, “you couldn’t win [the presidency] without appearing tough on crime” due to Reagan’s wars on drugs and crime.

Some Democrats learned this lesson by the 1992 presidential campaign. Bill Clinton and Al Gore ran advertisements labeling themselves as “tough on crime,” openly distancing themselves from “the other Democrats.”

After Clinton was inaugurated, he followed through on his campaign promise of empowering law enforcement. Despite the fact that the wars on drugs and crime were devised by Republicans, it was Clinton who oversaw the largest surge in incarceration of any president in the 20th century — and in U.S. history. The prison population grew from 846,277 in 1992 to 1,331,278 by the end of his presidency in 2000.

The state of the U.S. criminal justice system today is largely the result of Clinton-era policies. The number of Americans in prison continued to rise under the second Bush administration, but not nearly as steeply as under his predecessor. It peaked at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, in 2009, at 1,613,740.

The incarcerated population declined during the Obama years, reaching 1,458,173 in 2016. It has never come close to pre-Clinton levels.

The past roughly 30 years of the U.S. prison system, known as the mass-incarceration era, have been damaging to the country as a whole. Studies suggest that mass incarceration has had little impact on declining crime rates since the 1990s, and that Clinton’s strict sentencing policies were both costly and unnecessary.

But the mass-incarceration era has been particularly damaging to some racial and ethnic minorities. The racial demographics of the U.S. criminal justice system do not reflect those of the general population. According to the Pew Research Center, non-Hispanic whites made up 64 percent of the total U.S. population in 2016 but only 30 percent of all those incarcerated in state and federal prisons.

Hispanics made up 16 percent of the general population but 23 percent of the incarcerated. Most shockingly, African Americans make up 33 percent of the incarcerated population despite comprising only 12 percent of the general population. That is a statistically significant difference. To give further context for the sheer number of African Americans in prisons, there are more black males incarcerated in the United States than there are women incarcerated on Earth.

To counter claims of racial bias within the criminal justice system, some conservatives analysts cite the fact that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes than other racial and ethnic groups. Edwin S. Rubenstein of the New Century Foundation writes that “Asians have the lowest rates, followed by whites, and then Hispanics. Blacks have notably high crime rates.

This pattern holds true for virtually all crime categories and for virtually all age groups.” But it is also true that Asian Americans have the highest median household income ($81,331 as of 2017) of any racial group, followed by whites ($68,145), then Hispanics ($50,486), and finally black Americans ($40,258).

Could it be a coincidence that the racial sequence of crime rates aligns exactly with the racial sequence of median household income? Perhaps, but it more likely means that socioeconomic status is directly related to criminal activity.

To attribute higher crime rates among African Americans to some innate predisposition to crime would be both absurd and racist.

There is every reason to believe that heightened crime rates among African Americans is the result of a historical socioeconomic disadvantage that originated with slavery and has persisted ever since. Members of less advantaged communities are more likely to become involved in criminal activity. This means that mass incarceration and draconian sentencing has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

Recidivism only exacerbates this problem. Being incarcerated for a first time in the United States, whose prison system is much more focused on punishment than rehabilitation, greatly increases the likelihood of being arrested and jailed again.

Furthermore, since it is predominantly males who are incarcerated among African American communities (The chance of a black male born in 2001 being incarcerated is one in three, compared to one in 17 for white men and one in 18 for black women), their imprisonment often robs African American families of a key breadwinner, which causes significant economic strife for those families. This is especially true considering black and Hispanic households are more likely to be impoverished even without the influence of incarceration.

This is why the punitive, harsh judicial and legislative approach to low-level drug offenses like marijuana possessions are so destructive to ethnic and racial minorities. The result of the war on drugs, and the era of mass incarceration that followed, has been a devastating impact on the socioeconomic opportunities of minority communities.

Bill Clinton oversaw the largest surge in the prison population in American history. There is reason to believe that much of that 485,000-prisoner increase, and much of the excessively punitive approach to crime that defined the mass-incarceration era, manifested as a crackdown on low-level drug offenses — especially marijuana.

During his presidency, Clinton produced numerous bipartisan criminal-justice policies in collaboration with the Republican Party, which was still heavily influenced by the Reagans’ anti-drug fervor. Two such policies were particularly impactful on drug offenses and on America’s racial minorities.

The first was the introduction of mandatory-minimum sentencing. Federal judges were required to impose sentences no less stringent than those prescribed by the federal government. Often times, such requirements were extremely harsh, sometimes going as far as mandating life or decades-long sentences for low-level drug possession or sale. This filled America’s prisons with low-level offenders.

Clinton’s second and most important policy change is the transformation of Reagan’s war on drugs into a war on marijuana. A comprehensive 2006 study by Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King explains:

“Over the course of the 1990s… Law enforcement agencies arrested fewer people for cocaine and heroin offenses and began to arrest more people for marijuana possession and sale. By 1996, marijuana had once again surpassed heroin and cocaine as the primary drug of arrest, a gap which has widened since then.”

The Mauer-King study investigated the evolution of marijuana enforcement and arrests from the year 1990 to 2002. For eight of those 12 years, Bill Clinton was in the White House, meaning the trends noted in the study are largely due to his policies.

An important change from Reagan’s war on drugs was that marijuana-related offenses, primarily use and possession, came to comprise the vast majority of drug arrests. The researchers found that, “of the 450,000 increase in drug arrests during the period 1990–2002, 82% of the growth was for marijuana, and 79% was for marijuana possession alone.”

Due to Clinton’s stringent law-enforcement policies, many (roughly a third) of those who were arrested for and convicted of marijuana felonies ended up being sentenced to prison.

Perhaps the most important finding from the study is the role of race in marijuana enforcement. African Americans make up an estimated 14 percent of marijuana users, but 30 percent of marijuana arrests. This disparity speaks to a major bias in terms of which communities law enforcement targeted for marijuana offenses during the study period.

The percentage of Americans in federal prison for drug-related crimes peaked in 1994 at 61 percent. That number has fallen since the Clinton era, but the effects of the war on drugs in the late 20th century were so colossal that, even today, drug offenders still comprise 47 percent of convicted federal prisoners — or 82,000 people.

The figures are different when looking not only at the federal prison, but also state prisons and local jails. The majority — around 42 percent — of persons in all America’s prisons have been convincted of violent crimes, compared to 21 percent for drug offenses. But that is still over 450,000 people.

The Mauer-King study reveals that “marijuana arrests now constitute nearly half (45%) of the 1.5 million drug arrests annually,” indicating that many thousands people are now in prison for marijuana-related crimes.

It is likely that many of their sentences are both unjust and impractical, considering that the anti-drug and anti-crime agendas of recent American presidents were never motivated by a genuine interest in public health.

The sad truth of the war on drugs is that the politicians who devised it were willing to decimate entire communities of their constituents for the electoral gain that a tough-on-drugs agenda would bring them. Marijuana became central to that tactic during the 1990s due to its widespread usage and relative accessibility.

Under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. This is perplexing from a medical perspective because, in many cases, the health risk posed by cannabis is not nearly as dire as that of other Schedule I drugs like heroin and cocaine.

This policy disparity is the work of people like Harry Anslinger and Nixon campaign strategists, who over several decades used marijuana to villainize racial minorities. Thanks to them, many American political leaders and citizens alike have the mistaken perception that marijuana poses a massive threat to public health.

That is not to say marijuana is a benign substance. In recent years, cultivators have increased the cannabis plant’s average content of its primary psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol, to levels much higher and more dangerous than in previous decades.

Furthermore, there is data to suggest it can inhibit brain development in young adults, whereas there is little data available to assess claims some have made regarding its supposed medical benefits.

As such, the question of whether marijuana should be fully legalized for recreational and medical purposes is difficult to answer. But considering that marijuana’s harsh criminalization has contributed to the rise of mass incarceration in America, cost the country a great deal of money (an estimated $4 billion per year), and harmed racial-minority communities to a great degree, it is clear that marijuana should at least be decriminalized.

The United States treats drug abuse as a criminal issue rather than a medical one. One solution to our drug-imprisonment problems — and our vast and costly prison system — would be to look abroad. While recreational and medical marijuana are fully legalized in only two countries (Canada and Uruguay), there are not many modern nations that criminalize the drug as harshly as America does.

Nations throughout Europe, such as the Netherlands, approach drug use — and criminal justice as a whole — rehabilitatively rather than punitively. In Germany, “the sole aim of incarceration is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.”

Given that medical data are currently so sparse, it might not be wise to legalize marijuana outright without first studying its medical effects in greater detail.

However, the enduring legacy of marijuana criminalization as a central instrument of the war on drugs, which has harmed racial minorities in America to a great extent, makes it necessary to scale back restrictions and devise a policy aimed at helping those affected by marijuana — rather than punishing its users.