Former President Richard Nixon introduced the War on Drugs in 1971 in an attempt to remove illicit drugs from the streets. But this same program fractured many marginalized communities, leaving millions in prison.
The Pew Research Center found in November 2019 that 59% of Americans supported legalization of medical and recreational marijuana use. This data reflects a current movement that goes against the established War on Drugs.
Oklahoma is a traditionally Conservative state, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. But even under the Republican party platform, state officials released more than 400 prisoners in November convicted of simple drug misdemeanors.
The organized release was in response to a growing societal shift toward leniency regarding drug possession and use. This shift reflects the effect tough drug enforcement has had on poorer communities, which are often filled with minority groups.
At the Washington County prison, overcrowding is to the point where some prisoners sleep on the floor, according to reports from the Washington County Sheriff Department.
Arkansas needs to follow Oklahoma’s decision in releasing prisoners with minor drug offenses rather than institute a jail expansion as Sheriff Tim Helder of Washington County proposed in 2019.
Instead of expansion, focus should be directed on the disproportionate arrests of minorities on drug charges.
In 2018, 541 people were arrested in Fayetteville on misdemeanor marijuana charges. Of those, 26% were black, 6% were Hispanic and 66% were white, according to the Fayetteville Police Department.
Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of Fayetteville is 7% black, 8% Hispanic and 78% white.
2018 data from the Prison Policy Initiative illuminated the wide disparity between African-American and Hispanic arrests compared to white residents in the state of Arkansas. Though African-American and Hispanic Arkansans represented 21% of the Arkansas population, they accounted for 49% of the prison and jail records last year.
White Arkansas residents made up 75% of the state population but only 50% of the prison and jail population.
Though these arrests are not limited to drug-related charges, there is an inconsistent pattern in the relationship between resident makeup and arrests.
Nixon hailed the War on Drugs as the nation’s leading force against drugs, which he defined as “the public enemy.”
Subsequently, the public learned that the program was secretly intended to silence hippies and African Americans through interviews with Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman, which were published in an April 2016 Harper’s Magazine article.
One study from the International Journal of Drug Policy revealed the correlation between drug violence and drug enforcement agencies in the U.S.
In the study, researchers analyzed independent cities, states and the nation collectively, theorizing that increased drug enforcement results in lower drug violence.
The study ultimately proved the opposite of the researchers’ hypothesis was true, concluding that “scientific evidence suggests drug law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates.”
As opposed to criminalization, there is an increasingly popular agenda to prioritize community development, job employment, true educational equality and public access to treatment facilities to effectively reduce drug use.
Broken communities stem not only from this program, but the racial targeting that has explicitly followed. According to the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, despite the data showing drug use is approximately equal between races, African-American people are arrested 2.5 times more than white people in Arkansas.
In areas like Manhattan, African American adults are 11 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white adults.
The movement to reduce drug sentences, change drug laws and decriminalize marijuana is not a sinister movement or an attempt to plague the nation with narcotics. It is about reflecting on the past several decades and acknowledging the harm that has been done, the injustice that has occurred and the pain that communities have suffered.