The Color of Crime: Rhetoric About Drug Use

Drug Crisis

Drugs and how America deals with their use has been a national debate ever since President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in June 1971. Since then American leaders have decided that drug use deserves punishment not help. President Ronald Reagan talked about crack babies while First Lady Nancy Reagan preached, “just say no.” President Bill Clinton instituted mandatory minimums and greatly expanded the prison industrial complex. Presidents George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. both continued harsh drug policy set in place. All of this culminated in a 600% increase in the prison population between 1974 and 2014. President Obama tried to ameliorate some impacts of harsh drug law, but the problem is deeply ingrained and overall the narrative of personal responsibility remained strong. The overwhelming rhetoric surrounding drug use since Nixon announced the war on drugs has been that consistent drug use is a crime and it should be treated as such in the criminal justice system. Those who use drugs are responsible for the outcomes such use has on their lives. This rhetoric is often coupled with talk about being tough on crime and reducing crime rates.

In the past few months President Donald Trump has talked of fixing the drug problem in this country. However, it is a story with two sides. With certain drugs, his rhetoric is sympathetic to drug users. It is of burdened communities, and families struggling with the serious illness of addiction. These people need help not punishment. This is how he describes the abuse of opioids and heroin. This rhetoric is in sharp contrast to the way he talks about policy towards the use of cocaine, crack, and marijuana.

Donald Trump and his administration believe that users of these drugs do not deserve the help and rehabilitation his administration states opioid and heroin addicts should receive. Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not believe states have a right to decriminalize marijuana use, has said, “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and has created harsher and more criminalized federal drug policy. Sessions reversed Obama-era directives that urged prosecutors not to pursue the most severe penalties, which in effect will incarcerate more people under harsh mandatory minimum statutes. Stephen Cook, an architect of the Trump Administration’s policy on drug criminalization, said in regards to harsh drug policies, “when you put criminals in prison, crime goes down.” This statement has been found to be definitively false and was disproved by studies conducted by the Justice Department.

The fact that the Trump administration favors rehabilitation for users of opioids and heroin is a good thing, albeit their plan to address the problem allocates a measly $57,000 for an epidemic Ohio alone has spent 8.8 billion on. The problem however is their hypocritical approach to drugs, one that has significant racial implications. On the one hand opioids deserve treatment, but on the other marijuana and cocaine deserve harsh punishment. The opioid epidemic has a harsher effect on white communities than black and Latino communities. In 2015, 82% of those dying from opioid overdose fell under the white non-Hispanic designation. According to the 2010 census, the white non-Hispanic population in the United States was 69% which means this crisis has a disproportionate impact on white communities.

However, the criminalization has a far greater destructive impact on black and Latino individuals, families, and communities. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2011 found that white individuals have used drugs at higher rates for nearly every category studied compared to black or Hispanic individuals. But arrest and incarceration rates do not reflect these usage rates. Black individuals are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. According to the NAACP, “African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.” This translate to African Americans being imprisoned as rates six times as high for drug offenses compared to whites. Research also shows that prosecutors are more likely to pursue mandatory minimums if the defendant is black or Latino than if they are white. The Drug Policy Alliance found that, “among those that received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were black.”

These rates don’t spring up out of nowhere. They result from the systemic rhetoric and stereotypes of black and Latino communities trafficking at far greater rates in illegal goods, and from the narrative that individuals in office profess of being tough on crime. The way drugs are talked about and dealt with in this nation cuts across racial lines in a clear attempt to punish some communities and heal others. It is not just to offer services and illness care to for the most part white individuals while continuingly punishing and seeking harsher punishment for drug users who are individuals of color.

If the drug problem is to be truly solved, it will not be solved without addressing the criminalization of drug use in this nation. A large aspect of the drug problem in this nation is mass incarceration. Just because a new pressing drug issue has arisen does not limit America’s responsibility to rectify the harms harsh and unsuccessful policies have had on communities of color. The drug problem will not be solved until American leaders address the full effects that drug policies have on people. No true progress can be made until Donald Trump and his administration focus on rehab for all people afflicted with abuse not just the people who look like and voted for him.




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