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The War on Drugs

The ‘War on Drugs’ refers to the recent trend in United States political and military systems of sweeping prohibition efforts to end illegal drug trafficking. The first use of the term war to describe these policies occurred when President Richard Nixon gave a speech on June 18, 1971 in a press conference for the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control, in which he referred to drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” However, Nixon was not the first U.S. President to support stringent drug control policies; his actions were a continuation of existing policies.

One of the most significant aspects of the U.S. Drug War can be traced back to 1952, when Congress passed the Boggs Act. This act established the U.S. policy of mandatory minimum sentencing. With mandatory minimums, courts are required to sentence first-time offenders with a minimum sentence depending on the drug. The Boggs Act referred specifically to Cannabis possession, and many of its elements were later repealed. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 strengthened the system of mandatory minimum sentencing, and added provisions for other types of drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences have been criticized for being inflexible and unfair, and have contributed to the overall trend of prison overcrowding in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 49.8% of inmates, about 100,000 people, are currently incarcerated due to a drug offense. Less than 30% of inmates are violent offenders.

Though there have been drug prohibition laws in the United States since 1860, the Drug War is strongly associated with President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which, in addition to strengthening the mandatory minimum sentencing policies, appropriated $1.7 billion to fund the war on drugs, and also shifted the federal supervised release program from a rehabilitative focus to a punitive one. The supervised release program refers to the measures that inmates must do when they are released on probation. These programs usually consist of regular drug tests and meetings with probation counselors. Historically, these systems were in place to help recovering drug addicts stay on track once they were out of prison. However, the shift to a punitive focus reflected a desire to punish those involved in illegal drugs, rather than help them recover and get their lives back on track. During Reagan’s presidency, the First Lady, Nancy Reagan began a campaign called ‘Just Say No’, which was focused on educating youth about the dangers of drug abuse and on different ways they can say “no” to drugs.

One of the most notable aspects of the war on drugs is its apparent targeting of lower income and minority communities. With the passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine warrants a five year mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time offender. In order to get the same sentence for possession of powder form cocaine, someone would have to have 500 grams. While some argue that crack cocaine is more addictive and therefore deserves a higher sentence, some medical experts dispute this by stating that there is no pharmacological difference between the two forms of cocaine. Many people assert that, because crack cocaine is statistically linked to impoverished Black communities while powder cocaine use is most common among affluent White communities, the legal disparity between powder and crack cocaine is potentially rooted in racist beliefs. While both forms of the drug are harmful and addictive, the drastic differences between the mandatory minimum sentences reflects a devotion to punish drug offenders at all costs, rather than on working to find a solution that would land less people in prison. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

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