The War on Drugs

April 20, 2024

In 1971, then U.S. president Richard Nixon declared to the Washington Press Corps, one of the most consequential statements in the history of the country.  He stated that “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse…in order to defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.Devoid of any context of what was to come next, this could have signaled a new era in our view of how to best treat those suffering from addiction with care and compassion. Unfortunately, over 50 years later we see that this was not to be.  Nixon (a notorious racist and antisemite) was not doing this out of some newfound thoughtfulness for those on the bottom rungs of society but instead was being led by a hate fueled agenda that found its way into every facet of American life. The media would begin calling this initiative the “War on Drugs” and this name would prove prophetic. This view that the problem of drug dependency could be overcome using extreme violence showed the true disregard for human life that underlined this project. Nixon and subsequent presidents would spend billions of dollars on guns and personnel that would terrorize the globe for the next half century. 


What made this all worse was that the classification of one drug in particular, marijuana, was not based on any scientific or logical reasoning. Largely due to his own racist notions of its user base Nixon had Marijuana designated as a “Schedule 1” drug that was supposedly on par with drugs like Bath Salts and Quaaludes. However, even this level of fear mongering was not so unique for America in regards to weed. 


Even earlier than this, in the 1930’s anti immigrant sentiment sparked the criminalization of Marjuana in 29 states, there was fear of racially inferior” communities bringing in their drugs and destroying American values. We see the beginnings of this “war” steeped in falsehoods fueled by antiquated and racist perceptions of minorities but at no point in time since then has it really been asked, is this “war” over and if not what is the motivation to continue fueling it? 


In this history I believe we see the true origins of two ideals that have been mainstays of American culture ever since: monetization and punishment. These two concepts feed off each other in this country in a way that has not been seen before and hopefully will not be replicated in the future.  There is no greater representation of this concept than America’s ill-fated “War on Drugs.”


Punishment is a core American value and we have seen this play out in the incarceration rates from America’s drug war. Since the phrase was coined under the Nixon Administration, the bodies have piled up throughout America and all over the Global South. This was not an idea that went away with time either–as former President Donald Trump proposed to simply give all drug dealers the death penalty. Not to mention the devastation that stemmed from the 1994 Crime bill written by current president Joe Biden.  All of this “tough on crime” talk and action has led to the very famous statistic of Black and brown people being four times as likely to be arrested for Marijuana as compared to white people despite the statistics of usage being nearly identical.  

But as the saying goes in a capitalist country where there is human suffering there is money to be made and that leads us to perhaps the more incious side of this cursed coin, monetization.

To dig a little deeper in both the legal and cultural issues that are caused by these attitudes towards Black and brown communities, Cat Packer from the Drug Policy Alliance  has been working on cannabis policy reform for nearly a decade. On the divide between those who have been fighting for actual freedom for people whose lives have been impacted due to mass incarceration and those who seek merely profit in this space, she responded by using the example of the “Safe Banking Act.” A proposal that would protect the profits of the cannabis industry and its financial partners despite the federal legal status of marijuana. “The industry is focused on banking as opposed to focusing on people, and I see even  Black and brown organizations in the space that are caught up in this kind of contentious battle…  Why would we prioritize  banking for the cannabis industry when we still have people who are in jail? “ This largely matches up with what we see in the media on a larger scale.

Unless you have reached a certain level of ubiquity in white mainstream culture marijuana usage still comes with a stigma attached. If we look towards film there is a very stark difference in the presentation of weed in white lead stoner comedy classics like Dude where’s my car or Fast times at Ridgemont High’ versus the presentations we see in Black lead films like How High  or Friday. In stoner comedies that appeal to majority white audiences it’s understood that even the most desperate of burnouts are in no real danger of destroying their future or possibly spending decades behind bars. 

In Black films  when the subject matter is more light-hearted like in the case of the aforementioned How High and Friday the story has to be told from the perspective of a rapper to provide a bit of edge for the curious white gaze. This is where we see the same criminalization with hip-hop as well. Weed and rap have grown in popularity across the U.S. despite a large part of its population being taught to be afraid of both, due to the fact that the  criminalization Black culture has not stopped. In fact, there is an argument that it has increased.

 “I think that in terms of cannabis arrest specifically there’s been a lot of evidence that arrests overall have decreased …but what concerns me is that what we’re continuing to see is the persistence of racial disparities…if we are not paying closer attention and really getting at the root of those issues we could actually see these types of disparities exacerbated,” Packer says. Like most parts of popular counter culture movements, marijuana iconography, and paraphernalia became ripe from monetization once it was adopted by the mainstream. Rappers such as Snoop Dogg have been able to make weed a large part of the brand identity, were able to profit once the culture was whitewashed and made safe for largely white mainstream audiences. For those who are suffering, the heaviest burden from America’s drug war, there has been no such reconciliation. 

If this is truly a “war” as stated by President Nixon the casualties of said war have been tallied in the blood of Black and brown communities worldwide and America included. The prisoners of this war who can not star in stoner comedies or advocate for the federal government to protect their profits, they are the ones we can not leave unheard or allow to be forgotten.



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