Is the War on Drugs Modern Slavery?

Just as we look back on the policies condoned by our ancestors with shock and horror, our descendants will do the same with us. It’s a safe bet that the policy that will astonish them the most, just as the cruelty of slavery and segregation stand out to us today, is the infamous War on Drugs.

Now we don’t want to beat a dead horse with an old stick but if we’re going to appreciate what’s happening, we need historical context.  Although the first drug prohibition law was passed in 1914, the War on Drugs didn’t start in earnest until Richard Nixon signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act of 1970. The intensity of the War was ratcheted up by Reagan in the 80s, and we’ve been dealing with the problem of mass incarceration ever since. In 1980, our jails held 300,000 people. By 2000, that number soared to 2 million; and by 2007, 7 million Americans were incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.

Cannabis, which has never caused a single death, accounted for 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests during the 1990s

The cruelty of this system is compounded by the fact that many of those within the incarcerated class are users, not dealers––perpetrators of victimless crimes. For instance, in 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession. Moreover, it’s untrue that the War on Drugs is mainly concerned with hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. Cannabis, which has never caused a single death, accounted for 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests during the 1990s. It seems that the War On Drugs has targeted exactly who it was meant to: in the words of Reagan’s domestic policy assistant, “hippies with Marijuana.”

The War on Drugs also disproportionately affects black Americans. For instance, of the 353,000 people arrested for marijuana possession by the NYPD between 1997 and 2006, blacks were over-represented compared to whites by a factor of five. Facts like these have led many people to call the War on Drugs “The New Jim Crow.”

In addition to the humanitarian concerns, there are purely economic reasons to end the War on Drugs. One Harvard economist has estimated that legalizing cannabis and taxing it at similar rates to alcohol and tobacco would bring in $8.7 billion a year in revenue. What’s more, ending the War on Drugs completely would save over $40 billion dollars in costs incurred by our criminal justice system. This is no mere pipe dream. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and by all accounts, it has been an enormous success.

For all of these reasons, it’s high time to end the War on Weed.

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