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Is the War on Drugs Racist?

3,885 words [1]

There are two main forms this claim can take: that the war on drugs is racist in intent, e.g. that the war on drugs was created to be racist (whether it is or not); and that the war on drugs is racist in effect, e.g. that the war on drugs targets blacks and Hispanics over whites to a greater extent than blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use drugs (if they are at all).

There is a veritable cottage industry of books built upon propping up these narratives. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness [2] is one of the most popular of these. As she puts it, “The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime . . . [it] was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters, as a way to say, ‘We’re going to get tough on them, put them back in their place’ – and ‘them’ was not so subtly defined as African-Americans.”

Even Ron Paul, known for a series of newsletters [3] containing statements calling carjacking “the hip–hop thing to do among the urban youth who play unsuspecting whites like pianos,” seems to believe it [4]: “ . . . minorities are punished unfairly in the war on drugs. . . . blacks make up 14% of those who use drugs, yet 36% of those arrested are Blacks and it ends up that 63% of those who finally end up in prison are Blacks. This has to change. . . . We need to repeal the whole war on drugs.”

Is any of this true?

Let’s start with the claim that the war on drugs is racist in intent.

Amazingly, before the modern war on drugs was put in place, we actually had the kinds of rehabilitative policies the far Left admires today. In 1956, the white Reverend Norman C. Eddy of the East Harlem Protestant Parish “opened a store-front drop-in center and a clinic where addicts received a physician’s services, referrals to hospitals, assistance in job searches, psychological counseling, and legal assistance for those facing criminal charges.”

After taking in a whopping five percent of the nation’s addicts, according to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ statistics, the EHPP merged with five other programs to become the New York Neighborhoods’ Council on Narcotics Addiction in 1959. The Council lobbied the state government for after-care programs for detoxified users, and eventually helped pass the Metcalf-Volker Narcotic Addict Committee Act, which was signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1962. The Metcalf-Volker Act was essentially a full decriminalization bill [5], creating a system in the United States much like Portugal’s, where addicts are sent to rehab programs instead of prison. This was a Governor who had taken office expressing condemnation [6] of “[conservative] extremists [who] feed on fear, hate and terror . . . [and] have no program for America – no program for the Republican Party . . . no solution for our problems of chronic unemployment, of education, . . . or racial injustice . . .” In 1966, he even passed a Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act [7] which allowed addicts who had been convicted of property crimes (!!!) to be compulsively treated for their addiction rather than jailed.

That’s the very same Rockefeller who would later be preposterously accused of creating the war on drugs in New York just to target blacks.

In any case, these rehabilitative programs did not work. A staggering half [8] of the entire nation’s addicts lived in New York by the end of 1963 – that is, almost 23,000 of the nation’s recorded 48,000.

And it was “blacklash” against this fact, not “whitelash,” that created the war on drugs.

Mark T. Southall [9] of the NAACP told a Democratic Party hearing that “[Harlem] is slowly and surely becoming a cesspool of the dreadful narcotics racket . . . Churches are constantly being robbed by addicts . . . Ministers and other citizens of the community are being mugged, beaten, and robbed by addicts, who also are guilty of rapes, pickpocketing and many other crimes, daily and nightly.” The pistol-packing Reverend [10] Oberia Dempsey led a seven-week drive to “Urge the president to mobilize all law enforcement agencies to unleash their collective fangs on dope pushers . . .” And he wanted to “urge Governor Rockefeller” – who, up to this point, was favoring rehabilitative programs – to “also push a similar crackdown . . .”

A few years later, Dempsey recruited [10] “volunteers from among retired policemen, guards and others who had been trained and held pistol permits” to take immediate action to repel “pushers.” A 1970 article in Ebony magazine [11] discussed State Senator Waldaba Stewart’s support for “groups in Harlem . . . known as Black Citizen Patrols. The no-nonsense groups have served notice that we’re going to have to keep the heat on every spot that’s well-known as a dope drop . . . we document an area as a drug drop. Then we turn our report over to the police. If nothing happens . . . we barricade the place . . . Our last step is to have citizen arrests made by our members who are off-duty black policemen.”

The Black Liberation Army ran a campaign [12] to “Deal with the Dealer” by identifying the “hangouts” of prominent drug dealers and manufacturers and raid them.[1] In fact, both Assata Shakur (well-known black icon) and Hubert Gerold Brown (Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) were involved in trials related to underground attacks on drug activity in black communities.[2]

In 1970, the Congressional Black Caucus had its very first opportunity to take formal action by meeting with the President himself. They presented a document which outlined sixty-one recommendations they requested the President to consider, among them: “We strongly urge that drug abuse and addiction be declared a major national crisis. . . . Since organized crime is the principal distributive mechanism of hard narcotics, we urge that Justice Department manpower for investigation and prosecution in that area be substantially increased.”

Three of the five African-American representatives who voted on the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act later that year voted “Yea.” [13] Ironically, this was the very same year that white conservatives issued a report [14] claiming that “Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety . . . [T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. . . . The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior . . .”

There was no significant black advocacy, either within or outside Congress, for these measures. Meanwhile, white Republican William F. Buckley could be seen on television debating black Democrat Charles Rangel over ending the war on drugs – the white conservative in favor; the black liberal opposed [15].

Meanwhile, white people weren’t really concerned about drugs or crime in general. In 1970 [16], “Thirty three percent of nonwhites identified drugs and crime as major issues while only 18 percent of the entire sample [skewed by that 33% of nonwhites] mentioned either drugs or crime.” But in 1973 [17], seventy-one percent of blacks favored life without parole for “pushers.”

So in 1973, the drug war finally began nationally with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (or DEA) [18], and locally with the passing of what became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws [19]. As this insightful paper notes [20], “Governor Nelson Rockefeller did not root his campaign for harsh new drug laws in the politics of white racial backlash. Instead, he championed the laws by publicizing their endorsement by several African American community leaders from Harlem” – after consulting leaders in the black community through meeting [21] after meeting [22] since 1965.

Glester Hinds, the head of the Harlem’s People’s Civic and Welfare Association, responded to the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in this way: “I don’t think the governor went far enough . . . his bill [should include] capital punishment because these murderers need to be gotten rid of completely. Yet because of the bleeding hearts that we have, the legislators try to be pacifistic in having laws that do not work.”

When NYU Law School Professor and former staff attorney for the NAACP Leroy D. Clark spoke against the measure, he acknowledged [20] that he was asking “for a restraint which our communities now do not feel” because they were so convinced that “the community is being immobilized by the addict.”

Lest anyone think I’m getting my information from someplace like Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, my primary source for a great deal of this information was actually Michael Javen Fortner [23], the City University of New York’s Academic Director of Urban Studies. In this [24] publication, he observes the effects of the immediate passage of the war on drugs and provides concrete data to prove once again that minorities were in fact disproportionately affected by the drug epidemic through the ‘60s and ‘70s: “Although blacks constituted 14% of New York City’s population in 1960 and around 19% in 1970, they constituted a disproportionate share of deaths due to drugs, representing anywhere from 50% to 60% of all such deaths from 1960 until 1973. In fact, this rate dips below 50% only after the passage of the drug laws in 1973.”

What’s the takeaway from all this?

Well, of course, there are many. But I have my own partisan reasons for wanting to focus on one: a key thread running throughout much of black sentiment across these periods of time was that society’s demonstrations of racism were in its not caring enough to do something to stop the epidemic because it didn’t care enough to do something to help black victims – exactly the opposite of how the situation is viewed today. In 1970, an Ebony magazine piece covering grassroots efforts to fight drug use in black communities begins by noting that Mothers Against Drugs – “which urges community people to record the names, addresses, and license plate numbers of known traffickers, suppliers, and pushers” – sends this information directly “to the district attorney’s office,” and spitefully skips over local police because they resentfully believe that police “simply don’t care about drugs in black communities.“

The first paragraph opens with this quote from a grieving mother: “You know the best way to deal with the dope problem? Get as many white kids on it as possible! The best news I’ve heard in a long time is that more white kids are getting hooked on heroin. If I had the money I’d buy it and give it to them free!”

In short, as white members of society, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You’re damned for “white flight” if you leave a black community. You’re damned for “gentrification” if you enter one. You’re damned for just wanting to throw black people in jail if you fight black crime and drug epidemics that disproportionately hurt blacks. And you’re damned for wanting black people dead if you don’t care about either. The message is now universal in the public consciousness that the war on drugs is racist because it (supposedly) disproportionately impacts blacks. But the message was universal then that the fact that we wouldn’t go to war on drugs showed how little we cared about black addicts or those suffering the repercussions of their violent behavior.

In any case, learning more about this history was actually my first step toward leaving libertarianism. When I truly studied the history, I realized not only that the war on drugs was not racist, but that far from “creating” the violent subculture of black-market dealing, it actually reduced violence. In The Crime Drop in America [25], the authors note that the crack epidemic peaked in New York City between 1987 and 1989, when a whopping seventy percent of all arrestees tested positive for either crack or powdered cocaine in urinalysis.

From 1960 to 1975, there was an average of1,066 murders per year [26]. From 1975 to 1986, when the Anti-Drug Abuse Act [27] was passed, that average almost doubled to 1,941 murders per year.

But by 1995, that number fell to its previous rate of around 1,177. Between 1995 and 2014, there were just 634 murders in the state of New York each year. In fact, the years 2013 and 2014 saw a total of less than 330 murders each.

Whereas seventy percent of arrestees in the late ‘80s tested positive for cocaine, by 1991 that number fell to sixty-two percent – and by 1998, it had fallen all the way to forty-seven percent [28]. By 2012, this number had fallen even further to twenty-five percent [29].

The fact is, the war on drugs worked. Access to drugs went down. Use of drugs went down. Violence associated with drugs went down. Streetcorner violence wasn’t created by the war on drugs; it preceded it. To further substantiate these claims, you can see my expanded version of this essay [30], which was actually (strangely enough) cited by Loyola economist Walter Block, the aforementioned Crime Drop in America by Alfred Blumstein and Joseph Wallman, and Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control [31] (as well as his discussion of that topic with Salon here [32]).

About that disparity in sentencing for crack versus powdered cocaine . . .

In the 1999 America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible [33], Stephan and Abigail Thermstrom write:

Critics of the war on drugs . . . allege [that this policy was] blatantly racist, because crack tends to be used by blacks and powder cocaine by whites. If so, it is certainly peculiar that the Congressional Black Caucus backed the law, and that some of its members proposed even tougher penalties on crack. They knew that crack was much more common in black neighborhoods than in white ones, and that more blacks than whites were likely to be incarcerated as a result of the change. And in fact, that was precisely their reason for supporting the legislative change: a conviction that it might reduce the havoc on the streets where their constituents lived.

Of twenty–one black members of Congress at this time [34], seventeen are listed here [35] as co–sponsors of the bill (I had to find these separate lists and cross-reference them myself): Charles Hayes, Alton R. Waldon, Jr., Mitchell Parren, Charles B. Rangel, Harold Ford, Sr., Julian C. Dixon, William H. Gray III, Mickey Leland, Mervyn M. Dymally, Major R. Owens, Edolphus Towns, Alton R. Waldon, Jr., Bill Clay, Cardiss Collins, Ronald Dellums, Louis Stokes, and Walter Fauntroy. Only Gus Savage, Alan Wheat, George W. Crockett, Jr., and John Conyers fail to make the list – whether by “Nay” or abstention is unclear.

Second of all, if you want to know whether we institute harsh mandatory minimum laws for drugs because of the race of their users or because of the perceived harmfulness of the drug itself, you only need to look at methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine use corresponds perfectly to the stereotypes. The vast majority of self-reported use, arrests, and hospitalizations for possession or use of meth are among whites. Just 5.6 percent of black visitors admitted to emergency rooms for drug-related problems mentioned meth in 1994, compared to seventy percent of white visitors admitted for drug-related problems in 1994. As we’ll see in a moment, hospitalization rates among members of different racial groups for different drugs corresponds strikingly well to our everyday stereotypes about who uses which drugs. The same is true here [36]: “In 2006, the 5,391 sentenced federal meth defendants were 54% white, 39% Hispanic and 2% black.”

In 2011, 21.9% [37] of those sentenced to mandatory minimum penalties had used methamphetamine (compared to 24.7% for crack). In another table in this report, we can see that 82.2% of crack cocaine cases – and 83.2% of methamphetamine cases – carry minimum mandatory penalties.

Furthermore, the report acknowledges that “[t]he average sentence for methamphetamine offenders who remained subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at the time of sentencing . . . was 144 months, which is the highest average sentence for any drug type.”

But it goes even further – even those blacks who do use methamphetamine are punished less severely than white users: “Black methamphetamine offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty and subject to the mandatory minimum at sentencing had the lowest sentences, on average, of any racial group”: 131 months for blacks, compared to 143 months for whites. So what appears to be happening here is that, yes, the stereotypes about which racial groups prefer which drugs are accurate; but that in general, people are indeed also punished slightly more for conforming to these stereotypes, whether they’re white or black. Just as blacks do indeed receive a bit more punishment for using crack cocaine than whites, whites on average receive a year’s worth of extra punishment for using methamphetamine than blacks do.

But don’t whites and blacks claim in surveys to use drugs at the same rates?

This is actually one of the most blatant lies you’ve been told. I’ve said this before: I don’t take accusations of blatant lying lightly. It’s one thing to end up accidentally misinformed, but on this point, the media is blatantly lying to you.

How do I know that? Because I’ve looked at the actual reports they’re basing their arguments on, and the reports don’t say what the media says they say.

The half-truth in those claims is that if you look at lifetime reports concerning those who have admitted to ever using drugs at all [38], the numbers by race do end up looking fairly similar. But as you go from the “lifetime use” category to the “use in the last year” category, to the “use in the last month” category, to the “use in the last week” category, the ratio of blacks to whites who say “Yes” grows increasingly larger, every step of the way. The New Jim Crow uses a similar sleight-of-hand to claim that white juveniles deal drugs more often than black juveniles, which is similarly debunked by the Hudson Institute [39] here [39]. So whites and blacks do not admit to using drugs at similar rates. They’re just equally likely to try a drug at some point in their lives.

However, even these self-reports are biased in terms of underestimating black drug use.

Self-reports in general are notoriously useless. Women are more likely to underestimate their meat and calorie intake than men [40], perhaps subconsciously giving the responses they think they should give instead of the truth. Conversely, people who are ill are most likely to overestimate their meat intake [41] – a fact which confounds all epidemiological studies on the health effects of eating meat. It turns out a whopping sixty percent of people who call themselves “vegetarian” have eaten a hamburger within the last twenty-four hours [42].

People lie. They give the responses they want to give, or the responses they think they should give, instead of the truth. And for several decades in a row, studies have continuously confirmed that blacks are more likely to lie on self-reports about drug use than whites. How can we test this? It’s actually quite easy: ask people what drugs they’ve been using recently . . . and then follow up with an actual drug test.

All the way back in 1992, a study [43] found that “. . . intravenous drug users who were black or whose primary drugs of choice were injected cocaine and crack were more likely than other groups to misrepresent their current drug use status.” In other words: lie. In 1994, another study [44] found that “Race/ethnicity [was] the most important predictor of cocaine use disclosure [in other words: honesty] among those testing positive for this drug.”

A 2005 study found [45] that “compared with other groups, African Americans may provide less valid information on drug-use surveys. The findings suggest that African American respondents had significantly lower concordance rates [e.g., honesty].” Furthermore, poverty was not a factor: “SES was not a consistent mediator of underreporting . . . [and] in general, none of the theories of mediation received strong support from this evaluation. Overall, the results replicate and extend a growing body of research suggesting that African Americans under-report substance use on surveys.” Before controlling for other factors including SES (which didn’t change the results much anyway), the study found that “Whites have over 25 times the odds of providing concordant responses” – that is, of being honest.

A 2008 study found [46] that “[a]pparent underreporting of recent cocaine use was associated with inpatient hospitalization for the participant’s most recent quit attempt, younger age, identifying as African-American or Other, and not having a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. . . .  African-Americans in comparison to Caucasians who were urine positive were about 6 times less likely to report cocaine use when other factors are controlled for [again including poverty].”

Finally, as I show here [47], there is an incredibly strong correlation between arrest rates for various drugs by race, and hospital admission rates for those same drugs by race. 54.5% of black patients admitted to emergency rooms because of drugs mentioned cocaine, compared to fourteen percent of whites. Controlling for population, this would suggest that about 0.4% of the white population and about 4.9% of the black population were using cocaine – more than a tenfold difference. Likewise for heroin, these statistics validate the notion that Hispanics have often been the heaviest users.

Finally, as the Thermstroms write in America in Black and White:

In 1980, before the antidrug crackdown, African Americans were 34.4 percent of the inmates in federal prisons, and 46.6 percent of those in state penitentiaries. By 1994, their share of the federal prison population had risen only slightly, to 35.4 percent. Among state prisoners, the black proportion rose three points between 1980 and 1993 to 49.7 percent.

The black prison population would be smaller, but not much smaller, if the drug laws were different – if, for example, crack and powder cocaine were treated identically. But a calculation made on data for prisoners newly admitted to penitentiaries in thirty-eight states in 1992 indicates that if the percentage of black men serving drug sentences had been reduced to the figure for white men, the black proportion of the total would have fallen from 50 percent to 46 percent. Again, not a trivial difference, but hardly a monumental one. A similar calculation done for prisoners in federal facilities yields even less of a difference; we could have made the proportion of black males sent to federal prisons for drug offenses in 1994 identical to the proportion among white males by setting free just 855 African-American men, a mere 3 percent of those sent to a federal penitentiary that year.

Since we know from collections of national reports from victims and witnesses [48] that citizens report that blacks have committed crimes against them far more often than police arrest blacks that police are in fact arresting blacks less often than they are committing violent crimes rather than more, we likewise know beyond any doubt that the arrest rates are simply not biased towards overestimating the amount of black crime committed in the United States. It would be very strange indeed if drug use were the one exception to this. But since the black/white ratio of drug arrests are almost identical to the black/white ratio of arrests for violent crime, which we know do not overestimate the racial disparities in violent crime but in fact underestimate it slightly, the most plausible conclusion is that drug use follows roughly the same racial pattern as all other types of crime. This is corroborated not only by emergency room admission rates, but even by those self-reports we’re told about so selectively by the media themselves.



1. Sundiata Acoli’s August 15, 1983 testimony in United States v. Sekou Odinga et al., in Sundiata Acoli’s Brinks Trial Testimony, a pamphlet published by the Patterson (New Jersey) Black Anarchist Collective, p. 21.

2. Kes Kesu Men Maa Hill, Notes of a Surviving Black Panther: A Call for Historical Clarity, Emphasis, and Application [49](New York: Pan-African Nationalist Press, 1992), p. 71; Dhoruba Bin Wahad, interviewed by Bill Weinberg, “Dhoruba Bin Wahad: Former Panther, Free at Last,” High Times 241 (September 1995); Assata Shakur, op. cit., pp. 162-72; Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s [50] (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 298.