Election results continue to pour in, and while we do not know about several races across the nation, there is one loser for sure: the “War on Drugs.” Connecting drug abuse to carceral punishment has long been the policy of the United States, but propositions, laws, referenda, and initiatives across the country continue to display evidence that we are headed in a better direction to end America’s longest war. But there is much more work to be done.
Over the past two weeks, our nation has seen an impressive amount of change, perhaps most palpable in Oregon, which passed the nation’s first ballot measure decriminalizing possession of drugs harder than marijuana, including LSD, methamphetamines, oxycodone, and even heroin. In New Jersey, 67 percent of voters expressed support for legalizing marijuana for voters over the age of 21. In South Dakota, 70 percent voted to legalize medical marijuana and 54 percent voted to legalize recreational marijuana, passing both measures. In Montana, 59 percent voted to legalize recreational marijuana. In Arizona, the number was 60 percent. Mississippi voted to legalize medicinal marijuana. The District of Columbia decriminalized “magic mushrooms” with 70 percent of the vote. The NIH clarifies the difference between decriminalization and legalization by saying that the former keeps the substance illegal but removes the criminality of possession of it under a certain amount, whereas the latter completely removes all prohibitions against the substance.
The above states and districts had a range of supporting President Donald Trump that went from 5.2 percent to 61.8 percent, allowing decriminalization and legalization to break down traditional barriers of “red” and “blue” states. These jurisdictions join a growing movement of delegitimizing the War on Drugs and calling into question the actions of the United States for the past 50 years.
So let’s investigate how we got here. Former President Richard Nixon first coined the term “War on Drugs” in 1971, as drugs were increasing in youth circles as a sign of social rebellion. But the War on Drugs was never really about drugs: it was the activation of white supremacist and American colonist culture as an effort to control populations that would or could challenge that culture. In the words of a top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, “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.”
While heinous, Nixon’s and Ehrlichman’s actions did little to deter a nation. Nixon commissioned a report, rejected its suggestions, and then continued to ask for legislation to criminalize and illegalize illicit substances. Much to the chagrin of Nixon, most of these measures failed miserably for the next 10 years, until President Ronald Reagan really kicked the War on Drugs into gear. Media buzzed around what they saw as increased drug use. Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan capitalized on the heightened attention, making reducing youth drug use a hallmark of their tenures. LA Police Chief Daryl Gates, who famously said that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” ended up leading a drug education program called DARE. First Lady Reagan’s fixation on teen drug use kept faulty programs like DARE in circulation in American schools. This intense infatuation quickly led to lawmakers heavily criminalizing drug use, connecting the mental health issue of addiction to one of our most severe forms of punishment: that of the carceral sentence.
Although the hyper-criminalization of drugs began in the 1980s, it definitely did not end then, and the effects can still clearly be seen today. As of 2015, we arrest 1.3 million people per year for drug-related offenses, disproportionately Black and Brown Americans. In fact, Black Americans are six timesmore likely to be incarcerated for drugs compared to White Americans, even though both populations use drugs at the same rates. Families were wrecked. Communities uprooted. And all for naught. Evidence shows that, as the United States locked up more people, and spent billions on incarceration, drug ratesonly went up.
With the recent measures both on Election Day 2020 and the past few years, we appear to be on the right track toward correcting one of our nation’s worst mistakes of the past century. However, we shouldn’t pop the champagne quite yet.
First off, only 15 states have legalized marijuana, although another 13 have decriminalized it. That leaves 22 states that have yet to decriminalize marijuana, a substance for which there is little evidence to suggest it is any worse than tobacco. And, of the 28 states that have decriminalized, only some have expunged past offenses, an important move to restore rights to those who were convicted given the recency of the decriminalization efforts. If we don’t expunge their records, up to hundreds of thousands of Americans will suffer the long-term consequences of committing a crime that our society no longer deems a crime.
Even the measures recently passed pale in comparison to where they should be. For instance, the Oregon action to decriminalize hard drugs, while monumental in its impact, requires that possessors of drugs pay a $100 fine and get treatment for drug abuse through centers that have not yet been created. Loopholes in the Montana ballot measure leave it open to officials who wish to overturn it.
The “War on Drugs” created a full force factory of incarceration and failed initiatives built on continuing a legacy of white supremacy. And while the initiatives of 2020 provide evidence that Americans now recognize our national aberration, they do not go far enough. What we need is full legalization of marijuana, decriminalization of all drugs, scientific studies to evaluate the harm of drugs harder than marijuana, fully-funded treatment methods, and complete expungement of all past drug-related charges. Only then can we say that we righted our wrongs.
Jonah Perrin is from Chapel Hill, NC, studying political science and philosophy.