In 1971, Richard Nixon labeled drug abuse "America's public enemy No. 1."
"In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive," said the now-disgraced president.
Forty-five years later, the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, has nearly 25 percent of the world's prison population. The United States had the highest prison population rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people. According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are nearly 208,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons, almost half of them for drug offenses. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are about 1,359,000 people in state prisons. Fifty-seven percent of the Hispanics in federal prisons are there for drug offenses as are 53 percent of blacks. Thirty-two percent of those in prison or jail are white. About half of those are in jail for drug offenses. If you count those in jail or prison and those on probation or parole, the United States spends nearly $80 billion on incarceration and corrections.
Earlier this week, Pres. Barack Obama issued clemency to more than 60 people in jail for drug offenses (200 since 2014), but more than 10,000 petitions are pending.
"Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just," said White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. "Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. So, while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences."
Criminal justice reform is something that has garnered bipartisan support, and America's evolving perspective on drug use is shining a light on how we punish drug abusers and how we treat those who are looking for help.
But last week, it was revealed this whole war on drugs debacle initiated by Nixon was really nothing more than an extension of Jim Crow and a reaction to the hippies and radicals of the 1960s.
"You want to know what this was really all about?" Nixon's former advisor John D. Ehrlichman, told Dan Baum in 1994. Nixon "had two enemies: the antiwar 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 black, 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."
Harper's Magazine recently republished this observation in a recent issue — "Legalize It" — and its editor-in-chief Ellen Rosenbush noted the catastrophic collateral wrought by the drug war on the lives of millions of black families was intentional.
As Lynette Holloway noted, writing for News One, Nixon's war on drugs "was the progenitor of today's lopsided criminal justice policies that have resulted in backlash in cities across the nation, including Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and Chicago."
Policies implemented after Nixon was forced to resign included the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, wrote Holloway, the Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, the Clinton Crime Bill, and New York's stop-and-frisk program. These policies, wrote Holloway, were aimed at "criminalizing Black people and dismantling African-American families."
But as Jarvis DeBerry, writing for NOLA.com, noted, Ehrlichman's statement can't be surprising to anybody familiar with Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness." The war on drugs was just a tool to push back on the Civil Rights movement, noted DeBerry. "It's past time we admit that the unfair application of laws wasn't a flaw in the war on drugs. The unfairness was the point."
And it's past time we stop treating drug users and abusers like criminals. Some are people in need of mental health care and others need tools to battle their addictions, while others just like to get high. In a nation that professes to be all about liberty, we should give people the freedom to ingest substances and focus our attention — and our pocketbooks — on keeping drugs out of the hands of children and caring for the people who ask for help. And maybe at the same time, restore some sense of justice to our judicial system.