Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon fired the opening salvo in his “war on drugs” by declaring that “America's public enemy number one is drug abuse.” After all these years, and after spending hundreds of billions of dollars on law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration, it's certain that no one has won the war, and clear that the losers have been Black and Latinx Americans and their communities.
Though rates of drug usage and distribution are consistent across racial and ethnic lines, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately stopped, searched and arrested on drug charges by police and then convicted and sentenced with harsh mandatory minimums by the criminal justice system.
Soaring incarceration rates
According to an Associated Press analysis of federal and state incarceration data, the U.S. prison population surged from 240,000 in 1975 to more than 1.43 million in 2019. About 1 in 5 were behind bars with a drug crime as their most serious offense.
The war on drugs has been waged unevenly, however. The Black incarceration rate soared from 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to three times as many (1,808) in 2000. The rate for the Latinx population jumped from 208 in 1970 to 615 in 2000.
The White incarceration rate in the same period went from 103 to 242.
Amped up laws and law enforcement
Since Nixon declared the war, the explosion in incarceration rates has been mirrored in enormous expansions of public and private prison systems and the militarization of city, county, state and federal police forces.
One of the milestones in the conflict was the cocaine overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias in 1986. Within weeks of his passing, the Anti-Abuse Act was drafted and then passed and signed into law, carrying with it mandatory federal prison sentences of 20 years to life for drug law violations.
Harsh sentencing guidelines persist in both federal and California law. And the war on drugs is still being waged on the streets of Oakland and in San Mateo County, across California and around the nation. Experienced, effective legal counsel can help prevent you from becoming another of its casualties.
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