War on Drugs and Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System


The war on drugs has shown unequal has been characterized by law enforcement discrimination. Communities of color have suffered disproportionate drug misery. Different communities of color suffer discrimination on enforcement of drug laws. While the impact differs across regions and cities, African Americans and Latinos experience the highest levels of racial disparity on the enforcement of drug laws. Even though these communities experience a high rate of incarceration and arrests, the high rates of arrests and incarceration in the communities is not a reflection of an increase in the prevalence of drug abuse but instead indicates that law enforcement focuses on lower income, urban areas and communities of color (Crutchfield, Fernandes, and Martinez, 2010). The more the law enforcement agencies focus on these communities, the more it appears like these communities have a higher rate of drug abuse and offenses related to drug use. The truth is different from what this trend show.

Disparities in incarceration and arrest are experienced in both violations related to the possession of illegal drugs as well as the violations associated with the low-level sales of drugs. Offenders found selling small amounts drugs so that they can maintain an income to purchase more drugs for their use are likely to be jailed for a long time, running in decades. This treatment is disproportionate as compared with the offenders found to engage in the large-scale sale of drugs. The unequal enforcement does not recognize the universality of the appeal of drugs and the universal nature of drug dependency. Misguided laws and harsh sentencing have made people of color more vulnerable even though the use and sale of drugs are similar across all races (Tonry and Melewski, 2008). Mass discrimination against young people of color depicts a broad system of racial control.


In the United States, the policy enacted to fix racial disparities in the fight abuse is the Drug Abuse Policy. The Drug policy highlights laws governing prescription and illicit drugs. The policy regulates aspects of drug abuse ranging from drug classification based on their potential to be abused to the legalization. Changes have been made to the drug policy over the years. The policy clarifies that drug courts send victims to treatment and not prison. The country spends a lot of money to provide care for drug victims and drug-related issues. The drug abuse policies addressed issues like how drugs affect specific populations, prevention methods, prescription drug use and drugged driving. The goal of drug policies in the United States is to prevent abuse of drugs offering education on the dangers of drug sale and abuse (Andrews and Bonta, 2010).

The US drug abuse policy on populations of the United States explains that drug addiction does not respect social, geographic or ethnic boundaries but some group is more likely to get exposed to drugs as compared to others. The policy also considers groups that may be highly likely to be exposed to drug abuse including military veterans, women, college and university students, as well as communities like African Americans Native Americans and Native Alaskans. The policy states that drug use in these communities has become burdensome and the government is developing programs specifically for these populations (Andrews and Bonta, 2010). The policy promotes ideas that are specific to the regions and tribal authorities to assist in creating strategies including law enforcement, recovery, prevention, and treatment.

About the laws regulating abuse, the policy specifies that more Americans prefer rehabilitation of individuals rather than criminal penalties on drug possession. With legalization decriminalization of some drugs, the public is appreciating that addition is a disease that needs to be treated rather than moral corruption (Andrews and Bonta, 2010). As from 2014, the US sentencing commission reduced the sentence for non-violent drug offenders. The policy also lays rules for strategies to prevent relapse including outpatient treatment and 12-step meetings in the community. The expected outcome is to reduce addiction and drug abuse offenses through treatment and rehabilitation rather than through imprisonment.

History of the Policy

The policies on the war on drugs trace from President Nixon to the draconian Rockefeller Drug laws than to modern marijuana markets in which wealthy investors make fortunes while generations of Africans Americas and Latinos get arrested and imprisoned. Richard Nixon started the war on drugs in 1971. Ronald Reagan continued the same laws in 1986. The goal was to spread the work that drugs were dangerous and destroyed one’s mental functioning. The war led to the loss of social security, loss of jobs and defunding of school, reducing opportunities for African Americans and Latinos (Erickson, 2014). The United States become one of the countries imprisoning the highest number of people due to drugs. Judges had to provide mandatory life sentences for petty offenders in drug abuse cases. State governments then started making laws treating different forms of similar drugs differently, such that those who used powder cocaine could use it while those who used crack cocaine could be imprisoned. Under these laws, the prison population of people of color grew by more than 900% since these low-income communities used the form of the drug that was termed prohibited (Schanbacher, 2013). People then began talking about treating drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal offense. However, arrests and imprisonments continued. Some states have received a boost in economic performance after the legalization of marijuana but still handout mandatory imprisonment to Africa Americans and Latino. Former felons are still barred from taking part in the lucrative marijuana business yet rich business people make a fortune out of it. This unequal treatment called for a rethink of the policies since the war on drugs has been a failure.

Attempts to Solve

Attempts to solve the problem have been made through the implementation of race-neutral policies. Jail terms and other criminal justice option that was considered race-neutral have shown a direct correlation on race perception. Research on the punitive sentencing policies has revealed a relationship between harsh suctions and the opinion of a race. It has been realized that extend to which whites support repressive policies is to what degree the crime is considered a black crime. Several states have implemented school zone drug laws to punish drug offenders within specified distances from schools, which unfortunately have displayed similar outcomes. Research has revealed the correlation between the racial effects of the law and congested house planning in neighborhoods (Overman, 2014). Since black communities live in urban areas that have closer proximity to schools than whites, they are more likely to be convicted with harsh penalties and sentences than white communities that live in less populated neighborhoods. Attempts have been made to consider revising these proximities to ensure there is the proportional distance from the schools about the population density of the community.

Policy Proposal

Ending racial disparities in the war against drugs can be addressed through coordination of community groups, policymakers, and criminal justice leaders. Authorities need to shift the focus of policies and practice to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and address substance abuse. In this approach, there should appropriate allocation of resources for law enforcement as well as treatment of additions. Public health systems that are community-based should be developed so that the healthcare facilities do not need to depend on the criminal justice system to identify victims (Dumont et al., 2013).

Federal and state policies also need to provide for equal access to justice. Community-based sentencing options and defense services should be made adequate for the communities. Also, the court system and the community should be given an expansion of resources to enable better dispatching of duties (Chiricos, Welch, and Gertz, 2004). While the short-term costs might increase, the long-term costs would reduce.

Another approach is the assessment of the racial impact of decisions made in the criminal justice system. According to the Justice Integrity Act of 2008, any disparities in the prosecution process can undergo analysis and address accordingly. An independent body within the criminal justice system should be given the responsibility to analyze the prosecutions to determine that there are no racial disparities introduced in the process. In the same way, the racial impact of policies on the war against drugs should be analyzed if they bring racial disparities before being implemented in the criminal justice system. Implementing this proposal will help to eliminate the racial disparities that have existed in the war on drugs since its inception.


Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2010). Rehabilitating criminal justice policy and practice. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law16(1), 39.

Chiricos, T., Welch, K., & Gertz, M. (2004). Racial typification of crime and support for punitive measures. Criminology42(2), 358-390.

Crutchfield, R. D., Fernandes, A., & Martinez, J. (2010). Racial and ethnic disparity and criminal justice: How much is too much?. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-)100(3), 903-932.

Dumont, D. M., Allen, S. A., Brockmann, B. W., Alexander, N. E., & Rich, J. D. (2013). Incarceration, community health, and racial disparities. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved24(1), 78-88.

Erickson, J. (2014). Racial impact statements: Considering the consequences of racial disproportionalities in the criminal justice system. Wash. L. Rev.89, 1425.

Overman, T. R. (2014). A Dubious Distinction: New Jersey’s Drug-Free School Zones & Disparately Impacted Minority Communities. BCJL & Soc. Just.34, 397.

Schanbacher, K. (2013). Behind the veil of the war on drugs: an institutional attack on the African American community. Scholar16, 103.

Tonry, M., & Melewski, M. (2008). The malign effects of drug and crime control policies on black Americans. Crime and justice37(1), 1-44.

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