How Will The "New" War On Drugs Impact Communities of Color?

By Victoria Kim 03/29/18

People of color already receive disproportionate penalties for drug crimes and the renewed drug war could make matters worse.

man with his hands laced behind his head

Since President Trump announced his plan to address the national opioid crisis on March 19, drug policy experts have tried to unpack the president’s promises, and gauge where this "new" approach will take us.

One writer, Vann R. Newkirk II, who covers politics and policy at The Atlantic, analyzed Trump’s opioid plan from the viewpoint of Americans of color, the very people who were devastated by the “War on Drugs” declared by former President Richard Nixon in 1971.

It’s important to ask how Trump’s War on Drugs 3.0 will impact communities of color in the United States.

Last Monday, Trump pledged to impose “tougher penalties”—including the death penalty—to punish some drug traffickers. While his plan also included efforts to expand access to substance use disorder treatment and limiting opioid prescriptions, the bit about ramping up punishments for drug dealers has gotten the most buzz.

Following Trump’s announcement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed suit, sending out a memo to U.S. Attorneys that read: “Congress has passed several statutes that provide the Department [of Justice] with the ability to seek capital punishment for certain drug-related crimes. I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes our nation.”

Writer Newkirk predicts that new resources will be funneled “primarily to white communities” while law enforcement will heighten its focus on low-income, communities of color.

“Black and Latino people are already much more likely to be policed, arrested, and sentenced than their white counterparts,” wrote Newkirk, who acknowledged that some low-income white communities are just as vulnerable to the administration’s punitive approach.

This racial disparity in enforcing the War on Drugs has existed long before Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.”

“Police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color… while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem,” according to a 2009 report by the Sentencing Project.

While white and black Americans have comparable rates of illicit drug use, blacks and Latinos are arrested at higher rates. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black men received drug sentences that were 13.1% longer than for white men between 2007-2009.

As a result, nearly two-thirds of drug offenders in state prisons are black or Latino.

While the Sentencing Project report suggests this trend may be waning, Trump’s call for harsher penalties for drug dealers may roll back that progress.

Even if the administration does not act on its promise of harsher penalties, Newkirk notes, Trump’s rhetoric may be just as damaging to people who use drugs and communities of color alike—by re-legitimizing the old way of thinking and moving us further away from the more compassionate and less punitive approach to dealing with drug abuse, that took years to get to.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr