Drug Policy Is Racist in Its Roots

July is Minority Mental Health Month, which is a fantastic opportunity to learn and reflect on how drug policies are often discriminatory and weaponized against marginalized groups. This issue affects most of us in some ways, even those who may not realize it. In this article, we will discuss the racist roots of drug policies within the United States and abroad, the implications of these policies, and what we can do to change them.

How Drug Policies Impact Minorities

The 1971 a drug policy that became known as The War on Drugs was implemented by U.S. President Richard Nixon and the federal government.  The plan was to take drugs off the streets, reduce addiction, and prevent illicit drug production and distribution at home and abroad. 

The goal was to institute “law and order,” increased incarceration for offenders, and penalize those who propagated and participated in recreational drug use. This hardline approach to illicit substances prioritized incarceration over rehabilitation, but the implication was that both would be achieved. The Drug Enforcement Administration was established to oversee the efforts. 

Again, this policy was welcomed by many who were worried about how drugs and crime were impacting their communities. However, over forty years after it started, The War on Drugs is often considered a remarkable failure, with some citing it as “The New Jim Crow” based on its overwhelming and documented racist implementation among marginalized and minority communities. 

By far, minorities received the harshest punishments and significantly higher rates of arrest and incarceration relative to their caucasian counterparts who were caught using the same substances. Statistics have varied over time because The War on Drugs has spanned over five decades, but the Human Rights Watch reports that African-American men are incarcerated in state prisons at 13 times the rate of caucasian men. Other various watchdog and human rights agencies have reported similar shocking statistics regarding extreme differences in searches, arrests, and sentencing statistics between caucasian and minorities.

Why the War on Drugs is Racist

Nowhere in the drug policy does it specifically say that it is okay to incarcerate and convict minorities over non-minorities. However, this is what inevitably happened and continues to happen to this day. But why? 

Harsher Sentences for Minorities

As previously mentioned, minority groups have consistently received harsher punishments for the same drug-related crimes. Statistics show that, for example, marijuana use is relatively consistent among caucasians and African-Americans, yet African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be incarcerated for possession of a substance. 

Vilification of Minority Groups

The War on Drugs was weaponized against minority groups (specifically African Americans) and antiwar protesters in the 70s, but the vilification never really stopped. Drug crimes and addiction became a new dog whistle for latent racism, and politicians and lawmakers could lobby for votes and power based on this fear-mongering tactic.

Racial Profiling

Minority groups have inevitably become the overwhelming target of The War on Drugs. Racial bias is a well-documented phenomenon in law enforcement, and only in the past few years has this become a national conversation. 

Community Destabilization

When minority groups and neighborhoods are frequently targeted and incarcerated at higher rates, the entire community suffers. It’s hard to maintain a job, take care of a family, finish an education program, or become a functioning member of society when extremely harsh punishments are instituted on some, while others receive a warning or a “slap on the wrist” for the same crime.

International Conflict

The United States has sent funds to other countries to supposedly stop or slow drug production and trafficking, but the effects of this have been controversial at best. Many countries have experienced intense regional conflicts and destabilization because of these efforts, in many cases making them more politically and criminally unstable than before American intervention.

How You Can Help

If you’re interested in combating the often racist and discriminatory drug policy in the United States and abroad, here are some ideas to get involved.

  1. Contact your legislator – Your elected officials should reflect their constituents. Letting your local elected officials, senators, and representatives know how you feel about these racist policies should help inform how they vote at a legislative level.
  2. Vote – Educating yourself and voting for the parties and politicians who reflect your ideals is crucial to a functioning democracy. Learning about the politics in your local area is often just as important as country-wide elections.
  3. Donate to organizations – Many organizations are committed to representing and advocating for minority groups who are often targeted by these racist policies. Additionally, countless rehabilitation and re-entry programs rely on volunteers and donations.
  4. Educate yourself and others – Many people, particularly those who haven’t been personally affected by the racist roots of drug policy, don’t fully recognize how these policies have historically impacted people (and continue to do so today). Reading books, listening to podcasts, and becoming more mindful of the true scope of the problem is a great first step in doing your part to make your community (and the world) a better place.


The War on Drugs is still ongoing in the United States and abroad. During Minority Mental Health Month, it’s crucial to take some time to reflect on the lives and communities that have been damaged by the racist policies and practices that have caused destruction, not healing. 

Substance abuse treatment and addiction counseling are far more effective in counteracting drug and alcohol abuse. Preventative programs, education, and even harm reduction have higher rates of efficacy and are significantly less disruptive to communities, with fewer recidivism rates than simply locking people in jail. 

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years.  He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic, and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center that specializes in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.