With the rising popularity of shows such as in Breaking Bag, Narcos, and Pablo Escobar, it is apparent that America is hooked on depictions and representations of the War on Drugs. From fictional drug bosses such as Heisenberg to shows and documentaries dedicated to the real Pablo Escobar, in the twentieth-century pop culture is obsessed with the War on Drugs. However, this war coined by R. Reagan has a more oppressive history than audiences and America realizes. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explores the harmful effects of this once policy term and how it resulted in a system that further incarcerates people of color and encourages further discrimination.
In just her introduction, Alexander outlines the effects and history of the War on Drugs. She begins dispelling the assumption that the War on Drugs “was [a] response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine” (Alexander 4). However, in the 1980’s, cocaine was introduced into inner-city neighborhoods, not by the publicized image of “poor black neighborhoods” but by a government body, the CIA. Alexander, unafraid, accuses and points to the CIA as the causation of the War on Drugs, and by extension, the war on people of color (particularly black people). She states that “The CIA admitted in 1998 that guerrilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States…that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods” (5). She emphasizes how the “CIA never admitted…[to] intentionally sought the destruction of the black community by allowing illegal drugs to be smuggled into the United States” (5). While these facts are damning already, it is worth emphasizing that the resulting “arrests and convictions for drug offenses” hit people of color at alarming rates. Alexander further extends this small piece of her argument to the rising rate in which people – specifically people of color – are arrested in the US.
While Alexander describes the effects of the War on Drugs on minorities, articles of years passed describe how useless and ineffective this war has been. In their 1997 article in The Nation, Eva Bertram, and Kenneth Sharpe state it clearly at the beginning of their article: “The war on drugs has by all accounts failed”. They further this discussion by immediately describing this war as a “failure” and “ dead end” (Bertram and Sharpe 11). They press that the only solution to this “impossible task” is “emphasizing treatment rather than punishment” (12).
Another solution to the war on drugs is offered by Mallory Whitelaw. Their argument is not unheard of, as in contemporary politics it is an argument often spoken of decriminalization of drugs. Whitelaw’s article focuses on the Portuguese model for Decriminalization. Whitelaw emphasizes the “great public and legislative willingness to reform drug laws” (Whitelaw 82). They focus specifically on the liberal state of California, but hopefully, in the future, this will extend to other states. Whitelaw discusses the Portuguese’s struggle with drugs that mirrors that of the US in the 1980s and 1990s. Their reform, specifically Law 30/200, “made Portugal the first country to fully decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use” (92). An important distinction Whitelaw makes is that this “new approach is defined by decriminalization, not legalization” (93). Whitelaw explains that this distinction “means that purchase, possession, and consumption of drugs for personal use are still illegal and subject to police intervention. But violations are now exclusively administrative offenses and no longer [a] burden [to] the criminal justice system” (93). This by extension should reduce the number of arrests, time in prison, and incarcerations for petty drug crimes. Whitelaw explains that this system focuses on health, rather than punishment.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
Bertram, Eva, and Kenneth Sharpe. “War Ends Drugs Win: Registers Say We’re Fighting the Wrong Battles.” The Nation, 6 January 1997, 11-14.
Whitelaw, Mallory. “A Path to Peace in the U.S. Drug War: Why California Should Implement the Portuguese Model for Drug Decriminalization.” Loyola Law School. May 2017.