The War on Drugs and The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is the US is not perfect. However, it is a very well developed system, and its goal at the end of the day is to ensure that justice is served. It is a complicated system and those who navigate its murky waters must know their way and be well trained.

One area of the criminal justice system which has gotten very murky in recent history is drug enforcement policy.  The modern “War on Drugs” began in the 1970’s when President Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one”. The War on Drugs refers to a set of policies, including enforcement, prohibition, and military intervention, to curb the use and distribution of psychoactive drugs.   The focus on enforcement of drug policy, to the exclusion of prevention and treatment, has had lasting effects on the American justice system and on the social and economic well being of American communities.

One of the lasting impacts of the War on Drugs is the racial injustice it has created and perpetuated. This injustice has many implications and strains police and community relations. White and blacks have about the same rate of drug use, however, African-American men are arrested at 13 times the rate of white men on drug charges. African Americans and Latinos make up 29 percent of the total U.S. population, but make up over 75% of those in prison for drug related charges . African Americans accounted for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of drug convictions, and 74% drug incarcerations. The most well-known example of racial disparities in drug sentencing is the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for trafficking of crack cocaine vs trafficking of powder cocaine. Until 2010, it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence as someone with 5 grams of crack cocaine – which triggered a mandatory 5 year sentence. This policy is biased against racial minorities because crack is cheaper than cocaine and is more prevalent in inner cities, while cocaine is more prevalent in suburbia  Couple these racial disparities in the how law Is carried out with the violent and disruptive tactics of the drug war, and it’s easy to see how community and police relations become strained.

The drug war has resulted in an increasing militarization of our police – with drug raids carried out by police in paramilitary gear, spreading fear in communities and a distrust of police officers. Further destroying police / community relations are policies such as “Stop and Frisk” in New York – which substantially affect more black and brown bodies. The consequences to these policies are long lasting. When a community does not trust the police, public safety suffers. Crimes go unreported. As crime increases, police may use more violent tactics when interacting with community members.  Implicit Bias within the police force also becomes a problem.

The most lasting effect of the War on Drugs is how it tears at the fabric of the affected communities. During the height of the War on Drugs, one million American were being incarnated every year . Mandatory minimum sentences land thousands of individuals who made one mistake in jail. In 1989, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act created 29 new, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. As a result, from 1980 to today, the number of people incarcerated for drug offences has increased from 50,000 to half a million That’s half a million families with a father, a mother, a son, a daughter behind bars. If the breadwinner or head of household is jailed for years, the family suffers, kids grow up without a father or mother. Generations of able-bodies adults are in prison. And when these individuals return, they are not rehabilitated and not given the tools to succeed in the outside world. For millions of families, dreams of upward mobility – the American dream – are dashed. Convicted felons are stripped of voting rights. A drug conviction will cause federal financial aid to be denied or delayed, make you ineligible for public housing, and 32 states will prohibit you from accessing food stamps . This causes the recidivism rate to be very high.

The Drug War frames drug use as a moral issue that must be curbed by punitive measures. This results in a war on drug users – criminalizing their existence, often disproportionately affecting marginalized communities and communities of color. U.S. federal, state, and local governments now spend $50 billion per year on enforcement tactics. Targeting to reduce the supply and punish the users has not been effective. Alternative policies should seek to reduce demand by treatment and prevention programs, which is more cost effective .  The criminal justice system should be reformed. Mandatory sentences for possession should be eliminated. Sentencing first time offenders should be based around the goal of restorative, not punitive justice.

*“This article is a submission for entry to the 2016 Monder Law San Diego Scholarship

1) Drug War Statistics”. Drug Policy Alliance. Retrieved February 25, 2014.


 3) “I. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS”. Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Human Rights Watch. 2000. Retrieved February 3,2010.

4) A Public Health Approach to Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Illicit Drug Abuse; National Association for Public Health Policy,  Journal of Public Health Policy, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1999), pp. 268-281, Palgrave Macmillan Journals,

5) Spencer, K. B., Charbonneau, A. K., & Glaser, J. (2016). Implicit Bias and Policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass10(1), 50-63.

6) Lester Grinspoon, M.D.& James B. Bakalar, J.D. (February 3, 1994). “The War on Drugs—A Peace Proposal”330 (5). New England Journal of Medicine: 357–360.

7) Jesse Ventura. American Conspiracies (New York: Skyshore Publishing, 2010), 117.



10) ^^ National Association for Public Health Policy, 1999

11) ^^ National Association for Public Health Policy, 1999


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