Lost Lives and Broken Homes: The True Cost of the War On Drugs

“The War on Drugs was used as a tool to abuse and disenfranchise people of color."

Police frisking a black teen San Francisco, California, USA - May 19, 2015: SFPD officers patdown black american man in San Francisco. Overall, Black Americans are arrested at 2.6 times the per-capita rate of all other Americans. (iStock / chameleonseye)

With more and more support growing for marijuana legalization across the country, 2019 is shaping up to be a major year for the legal cannabis industry. Last year, our neighbors to the North fully legalized cannabis across the country and Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to legalize. On top of that, experts project that by 2027 the North American cannabis industry will generate $47.3 billion compared to the $9.2 billion in 2017. Despite those staggering numbers, the U.S. federal government is still waging a losing war on cannabis, one that has cost Americans trillions of dollars over the yearsAccording to the ACLU, the War On Drugs is just another chapter in the long and storied history of maintaining and reinforcing their hard-line anti-marijuana stance, often at the detriment of minority communities.  

Michael Collins, the director of national affairs in Washington D.C. for the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Stash that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected communities of color over the years.

“The War on Drugs was used as a tool to abuse and disenfranchise people of color,” Collins said.

Those results are far from an unfortunate side effect, however. Collins said that the War on Drugs was a targeted, purposefully enacted act by the Nixon administration to specifically hurt groups of people they disliked.

Legislation Fueled by Racism

John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide, said of the decision to spark the war on drugs years later,

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The War on Drugs is founded in racism

Cleveland, Ohio, USA – July 21, 2016: A lone demonstrator protests police killings of African Americans

The criminalization of certain drugs has always corresponded with the fears and racism of the nation at that particular timeframe. The 1870’s opium ban was born from its prominence and use among Chinese immigrants, the anti-cocaine laws were targeted at southern African American men in the 1900s and anti-marijuana laws were the results of fears of Mexican immigrants in the 1910’s and 20’s.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, those types of racially motivated drug enforcement polices have had a massive impact on communities of color over the years.  

People arrested for marijuana-related legal violations came in around 659,700 in 2017, while 599,282 of them were charged with a crime.

Of those 659,700 arrests, about 46.9 percent of them were of African-American or Latinos, groups that only make up 31.5 percent of the U.S. population.

Cannabis: The Gateway Drug to the Criminal Justice System

However, according to the US Sentencing Commission, those arrests don’t translate directly to marijuana offenders ending up in prison. Only 92 out of every 20,000 people locked up – about half of a percent – are in jail due to marijuana possession, those arrests do lead to probation and criminal records that make it more harder to get jobs, housing or financial aid for college.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug to the criminal justice system,” Collins said. “It’s a great way to end up in court, in front of a judge facing your third strike and being put away for life.”  

A fantastic example of the rigid federal stance on cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been taking an incredibly hard-line stance against cannabis, highlighted by the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Cropped image of prison officer wearing handcuffs on prisoner

iStock / LightFieldStudios

Since it’s implementation in 1979, the program has given support and funding to 128 state and local agencies in nationwide cannabis-fighting efforts which, according to the DEA’s website, “allows the enhancement of already aggressive eradication efforts.”

In 2017 alone, the DCE/SP resulted in the arrests of 4,502 people, seizing 151,444 pounds of cannabis worth about $20 million dollars. Of the states that had the most cannabis value seized, three out of the top four were states where cannabis is legal.

Washington had $4,708,157, California had $2,581,357 and Michigan had $2,494,983 taken. The only state in the top four where cannabis is illegal is Illinois at $3,794,230. That seems like a major waste of resources for states that have already made it clear they’re fine with full legalization and decriminalization.

Despite the relatively low number of marijuana offenders behind bars compared to the overall 2,205,300 prisoners in the U.S., it’s too high of a number considering 33 states and DC have legalized cannabis for medical use and 10 states have fully legalized or decriminalized, with others likely to follow suit. 

That same decriminalization has led to massive profits for those same states.

The Cost of Lost Profits

California is a fantastic case study on how much money legalizing marijuana can bring for a state. That legal cannabis is taxed at 15 percent statewide, along with local taxes and fees tacked on. California, Colorado, and Washington all made billions of dollars from legal, recreational cannabis, raking in $2.75 billion, $1.56 billion and $1 billion respectively. No state that has legalized has made less than $17.7 million from that recreational cannabis.

On top of that, the medical cannabis industry pulls in hundreds of millions more dollars. By maintaining the outdated federal cannabis laws, the nation is missing out on billions of dollars that could be used for infrastructure, education, and aide for military veterans, just to name a few possible uses for those funds.

I’m counting that unclaimed profit as a price the U.S. is paying as a result of their fight against cannabis, one that’s looking grimmer as more and more states introduce pro-cannabis legislation for 2019 and a clear majority of Americans support legalization.

Collins said that even though we have a decent idea about the funding and reach of many federal cannabis enforcement programs, there are many more grants and programs we can’t account for.

“Unfortunately, the real numbers when it comes to how much the U.S. is spending strictly on cannabis enforcement is tough to know,” Collins said.

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