The War on Drugs at 50 demands reparations for Black people

OPINION: The drug war has taken so much from us. It’s time to decriminalize all drugs and give reparations and give Black people what is rightly ours.

Activist Groups Protest Against Senate Majority Leader McConnell On National Reparations Day
Activists stage a protest to mark the National Reparations Day outside the residence of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) July 1, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As we enter the 50th year of the War on Drugs, we need to not only end the policy, but also give reparations to survivors for the enormous — and politically motivated and strategically orchestrated— harm they have endured, especially Black people. 

To understand the urgent need for reparations, we must understand the magnitude of the harm.

The incestuous relationship between the drug war, policing, and systemic racism has infiltrated every part of Black life. Police officers with drug-sniffing dogs in predominantly Black schools, but no supportive services. That’s the drug war. Black women being extorted for sex in exchange for not being charged with an offense that could destroy their lives. That’s the drug war.

Immigrants ripped from the only home they have ever known all because of a simple drug possession charge. That’s the drug war. Black people like Breonna Taylor, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnson, and George Floyd murdered on their blocks and in their homes. That’s the drug war.

When Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” on June 17, 1971, it was another way to hold Black people down. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, admitted, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate […] Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing [them] heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

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Nixon’s legacy has been successful. Black people are four times as likely as white people to be arrested on marijuana charges, despite nearly identical usage rates across races, and account for 30% of all drug arrests, despite only making up 12.5% of substance users. As a result, Black people are disproportionately saddled with the lifelong consequences of a criminal record, including barriers in obtaining employment and housing, lost educational opportunities, denial of public benefits, and losing custody of their children.

This systemic racism has been supported across party lines; presidents including Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all signed laws and orders that expanded the drug war. As an example, under Reagan, drug testing and background checks became commonplace; the Anti-Drug Abuse Act — passed in 1988 — was the first of many federal directives to evict entire households from public housing if there was just a suspicion that one member used drugs.

By 2008, the private sector adopted these exclusionary practices, with as many as 80% of large apartment companies screening prospective tenants for criminal records.

The damage that has been done to Black communities over the last 50 years is irreversible, deeply traumatic, and immeasurable. That is why we must adopt a reparations approach to begin reckoning with the harms of the drug war.

Although Black people in the U.S. have been fighting for reparations since before the end of slavery, and have seen some localized victories, we have not yet received large-scale reparations for any of the many harms perpetrated against us. However, reparations are an internationally recognized mechanism to make amends and repair harms.

The generally accepted idea is that without addressing past harms we are destined to compound and repeat them. Under the United Nations definition, reparations includes five components: guarantees of non-repetition, restitution, compensation to “the extent appropriate and proportional,” satisfaction and rehabilitation.  

California State Prisons Face Overcrowding Issues
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While reparations for the drug war would look different in different states and should be dictated by the communities who have survived it, there are some basic tenants. Reparations for the drug war must start with cessation and guarantees of non-repetition. This is why decriminalizing all drugs is necessary, taking a sledgehammer to the cornerstone of the drug war and removing the biggest excuse law enforcement has to surveil, harass, cage, and even kill Black people. 

Secondly, reparations for the drug war would have to include restitution, meaning reestablishing the situation that existed before the wrongful act occurred. This means that the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs, housing, right to vote, children and property must get those things back to the extent possible. It also means that people who have been convicted and have had to bear the brunt of a conviction will get their records vacated. For all the things that the drug war took from people that can not be replaced, they must be compensated or given money and resources to make amends for the harm. 

Satisfaction, the fourth prong of the UN definition for reparations, addresses emotional injury, mental suffering, and harm to reputation. Under this requirement there would have to be an assessment of the range of emotional harms caused by the drug war and an attempt to address them through public acknowledgment, honoring those lost, public education and memorialization.

Lastly, reparations for the War on Drugs would include rehabilitation, including legal, medical, psychological, and other care services for the communities impacted by the drug war. At the least, this would require free healthcare, drug treatment and therapy. 

The drug war has taken so much from us. It’s time to decriminalize all drugs and give reparations. It’s time to give Black people what is rightly ours — equitable access to employment, housing, education and healing. 

Kassandra Frederique is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that works to end the war on drugs—which has disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities—and build alternatives grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.

Marbre Caryn Stahly-Butts is Executive Director of Law for Black Lives, a network of over 6,000 lawyers and legal workers and she is one of the leaders of the policy table for the Movement for Black Lives. Marbre works closely with movement groups and legal workers across the country to actualize radical and transformative policy.

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