War against Drugs Launched by President Nixon: Descriptive Essay

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The United States of America makes roughly 5 percent of the world population, yet funny enough it houses more than 25 percent of all people incarcerated throughout the world (Coates). The hardest hit communities are by far those of color in urban areas. This paper will focus on how America used the War on Drugs to wage war against its own citizens, those of color anyway. It will look at policies set forth by the war and how it systematically destroyed those urban communities, particularly African American communities.

In June of 1971 president Nixon declared a war on drugs, which would later be a catchphrase used by countless politicians for years to come. By declaring a war on drugs and proclaiming that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” President Nixon was able to get millions of dollars to fight this new “war” increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies.

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While the Guardian newspaper would have one believe that Nixon started this “war” because of drug use by soldiers fighting in Vietnam, John Ehrlichman Nixon’s top aide said otherwise:

You want to know what this is really about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying, we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, 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. (Fulwood)

Nixon’s “war” on drugs was a way to attack the communities of color, taking aim and targeting black communities especially. A year earlier Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) which created a schedule system (classification) of drugs based on the likelihood of the drug having addictive tendencies. What this meant was that if a drug was a schedule I drug it had a high potential of being addictive and thus being abused. Schedule V represents the least potential for being abused (DEA.gov).

Marijuana was labeled a schedule I drug, which meant it had the harshest penalties. Cocaine, because it offered some me medicinal benefits, namely as an anesthetic for eye surgery and in dentistry was labeled a schedule II drug which meant the consequences were less than that of marijuana (Reuter 87). Just a couple of years later the Drug Enforcment Agency of DEA was created which served as the agency responsible for stopping preventing any distribution of illegal narcatics in the United States. By 1974 the DEA budget was a staggering 788 million dollars, but would grow to an astronomical number in years to come. The DEA was tasked with impmenting and enforcing the laws directly related to laws as a result of the controlled substance act. Thus Nixon laid the foundation for which only Ronald Reagan would not only continue the work started by President Nixon, but take it to new heights.

While the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were relatively mild, as far as the war on drugs goes, it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan came into office that the war on drugs was put into overdrive. If $788 million was a lot of money directed at this new “war” by the end of Reagans presidency in 1989 it had ballooned to over $6.6 billion (Reuter). During the same period the prison population exploded! From the 1970s to the mid 1980s the prison population doubled from 150 per 100,000 people to 300 per 100,000.

With Reagan in office his administration and his wife took aim at the drug issue. In 1984 Nancy Reagan began created the “just say no” anti-drug campaign. By 1986 “the house of representatives, then controlled by democrats, overwhelmingly passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act” (Hallinan). The bill passed in large part due to the media sensitization of the deaths of two well known athletes just days apart from each other in 1986 (Reuter). Politicians were able to capitalize off of the deaths of these two athletes, using them as a way to spread fear while at the same time gaining widespread support on both sides of the isle for tougher drug laws. In fact, during this time to be seen as “weak” on drug crime was political suicide so many politicians appeared and supported tougher laws. That was how Reagan was able to pass with huge support from the democratic party, even though he himself belonged to the republican party, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

What the anti-drug abuse act did would set the stage for millions of people to get trapped in the criminal justice system for decades to come. Due in large part to the act getting passed, between then and 1990 congress passed numerous mandatory minimum penalties targeting violent crimes and especially drug related crimes. The mandatory minimums were an attempt by lawmakers to deter crime by creating fixed and lengthy prison sentences (Vagins).

The most damaging part of the bill was related to crack cocaine, cocaine in a rock-like form that is smoked instead of snorted. Because powder cocaine was seen as a “rich, white” persons drug and crack-cocaine was seen as a “poor, colored” problem crack got the stiffer punishment. Because crack was a black and brown problem plaguing urban centers congress specified a relationship between the penalties for powder cocaine, and cocaine in rock form, or crack.

The distribution of up to 5 grams of crack the mandatory minimum was a prison sentence of 5 years, the same sentence that was handed out for 500 grams of cocaine in its powdered form. This would come to be known as the 100:1 ratio, even in the absence of evidence that proved crack was 100 times worse that powdered cocaine. Ignoring the street value of such amounts of drugs, policy makers justified this by claiming to go after big-time drug dealers and not small-time dealers. The mandatory minimums forced judges to hand out five- and ten-year sentences without having a choice in the matter (Hallinan). Obviously this was a way to stop the public and others from protesting this bill. By 1985 the prison population reached 500,000 but by 1995, less than a decade later that number doubled to more than one-million people (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

If crack was a problem, it was colored communities that were paying the price. Studies hae shown that white people smoked crack at higher rates than that of their black counterpart yet black men were sent to prison at higher rates. By 1995 black men accounted for over 80 percent of all people sent to federal prison for trafficking crack cocaine. Interesting enough the average federal prison sentence for murder was only six years, while the average prison sentence for crack-cocaine was eleven years (U.S. Sentencing Commission).

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War against Drugs Launched by President Nixon: Descriptive Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/war-against-drugs-launched-by-president-nixon-descriptive-essay/
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War against Drugs Launched by President Nixon: Descriptive Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/war-against-drugs-launched-by-president-nixon-descriptive-essay/
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