The War on Drugs as the War on the Poor
The War on Drugs as the War on the Poor

By Melba Scott


Melba Scott is a proud mother and grandmother. After working in a variety of capacities, she is now semi-retired and thinking about tutoring young children again. She enjoys reading, writing, and Bible study, and attends the Madison Street Church, Riverside, CA. 

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks, who do not need to raise their voice. Hence my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” (C.S. Lewis)

IN JUNE 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and noknock warrants. Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive drug category (Drug Policy Alliance). Drive through poor neighborhoods in urban areas all across America and you will see evidence that a war has taken place. You’ll encounter row upon row, street after street of boarded up, fire-gutted houses and apartment buildings where families once thrived. The neighborhoods are showcases of vacant lots, dilapidated schools, and shabby little store-front churches. They show businesses gone bust, while pawn/gun shops and liquor stores abound. A great many of the working poor trapped in these neighborhoods work low-paying jobs to meet their obligations to slumlords and feed their families. There is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy: a single mother worn out from working too hard for too little doesn’t ask her eldest son where the money came from to keep the utilities on, and he doesn’t tell her. She is ashamed and broken-hearted because she knows he is selling weed, but he is taking classes at community college. Poor people of color and poor whites live in “the now” everyday – “the now” being the age of mass incarceration, high unemployment, high underemployment, mass homelessness, a lack of adequate and affordable housing, and a gross lack of resources. This is not by accident and they didn’t bring it on themselves.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, few could envision the level of ruin and devastation that was about to come down on the poor – black, brown, and white. Reagan is credited with bringing prosperity back to America, but his policies wreaked havoc on low-income workers and the poor. Peter Drier notes: ” By the end of Reagan’s term in office federal assistance to local governments… [he] eliminated general revenue sharing to cities, slashed funding for public service jobs and job training, almost dismantled federally funded legal services for the poor, cut the anti-poverty Community Development Block Grant program and reduced funds for public transit…. These cutbacks had a disastrous effect on cities with high levels of poverty and limited property tax bases, many of which depended on federal aid…. The consequences were devastating to urban schools and libraries, municipal hospitals and clinics, and sanitation, police and fire departments – many of which had to shut their doors.” (See )

Making poor families poorer, and the homeless more hopeless, in the richest country on earth? If this isn’t a crime, it should be. Cutting federal spending on the backs of the poor struck at the very heart of the most needy communities, demoralized their spirit, and further diminished opportunities for upward mobility. Local factories that had been mainstays of employment for generations closed down and headed to other states. Retraining programs were available, but jobs were few. One could see families beginning to fall apart, friends and neighbors evicted and homes abandoned, and of course crime soared.

This is not to say that the people were completely beaten down, sitting on their hands, waiting for a handout. No, I find my people just as hard working, resourceful, creative, and determined as ever. This is a statement about government officials building up, reinforcing, and pushing through policies that hurt vulnerable citizens and put a chokehold on a city or community.

Reagan was able to elevate his “war on drugs” by bringing Special Weapons and Tactics teams (SWAT) into the mix. According to Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Until the drug war, they were used rarely, primarily for extraordinary emergency situations such as hostage taking, hijackings and prison escapes. That changed in the 1980s, when local law enforcement agencies suddenly had access to cash, and military equipment specifically for the purpose of conducting drug raids.” This, in conjunction with Nixon’s priori methods, allowed Reagan, with bipartisan support, to proceed to implement new and tougher sentencing guidelines.

Jeralyn Merritt, in “Reagan’s Drug War Legacy,” lists the results:

• Mandatory minimum drug sentences in 1986

• Federal sentencing guidelines: Under the new method of sentencing, which went into effect in 1987, prison time is determined mostly by the weight of the drugs involved in the offense. Parole was abolished and prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentence. Except in rare situations, judges can no longer factor in the character of the defendant, the effect of incarceration on his or her dependents, and in large part, the nature and circumstances of the crime.

• The Anti-Drug Abuse Act 1988: This law established a federal death penalty for “drug kingpins.” President Reagan called it his new sword and shield in the escalating battle against drugs and signed the bill in his wife‘s honor.

Under President Clinton, the situation deteriorated further: federal funding for public housing decreased 61 percent, and federal funding for corrections increased 171 percent (see Jeff Stein, “The Clinton Dynasty’s Horrific Legacy”). Combine slashing funds to cities with high rates of poverty with the implementation of draconian drug laws, and one has to wonder why no one had the foresight as to the repercussions of these actions.

Applying the same laws, in the same measure, to a nonviolent drug offender and a dangerous and violent drug offender was designed to put more and more young black and brown men as well as poor whites under the control of the criminal justice system. After serving their debt, many discovered upon their release that it was legal to discriminate against them in housing, food, education, work, training, and voting because of their status as a felon. It is no wonder that many end up re-violating and being re-incarcerated. Who does this benefit?

An inmate advocate at a local prison once told me that the new employee handbook opened with the statement, “Welcome to the Department of Corrections. You have become an employee of the fastest growing industry in the state of California.” Some of the top Fortune 500 corporations such as Microsoft, Nordstrom, ATT, Honeywell, and IBM use prison labor. Perhaps if some of those jobs were available on the outside, there would be fewer people on the inside.

The laws I’ve described, along with others, are used to control whole segments of specific populations. In his article, “Navigating the Hidden Obstances to Ex-Offender Reentry,” Anthony Thompson notes:

• Between 1985 and 1995 the number of drug offenders sent to prison increased 478 percent compared to a rise of 119 percent for other crimes

• Although blacks comprise only 12 percent of illegal drug users in the country, they accounted for 44 percent of all drug arrests.

• In 1990, drug traffickers and possessors accounted for 33 percent of all convicted felons, with blacks representing 56 percent of that group.

• With respect to drug and firearm offenses in 1990, the average sentence for black offenders was 49 percent longer than average sentences for white offenders.

That young black men are disproportionately represented in the penal system is not news. Over the last several years I have heard black women ask about the lack of available black men. When we realized that a whole lot of black men were incarcerated, we stopped asking the question. It is one thing to know by deduction, but so much more to see it firsthand. When I witnessed it for the first time, I was devastated. There they all were, a couple of hundred miles from my home in the middle of nowhere. Most of them were behind bars for nonviolent crimes because judges are restricted by sentencing guidelines and are unable to use their discretion in sentencing. Many activist and grassroot organizations are raising awareness and working to address mass incarceration and the racial under caste it produces.

Michelle Alexander’s powerful book, The New Jim Crow is a must-read for anyone concerned about racial injustice and institutionalized racism. The book describes how the law works and how lawmakers make policies that mislead the people by the rhetoric used. Alexander’s background as an associate law professor at Stanford Law School, as well as past director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California adds to her credibility.

Institutionalized racism is a many tentacle beast that attacks the most vulnerable at multiple levels simultaneously. Alexander’s book is the perfect vehicle to start an honest conversation about race and the criminal justice system. At Madison Street Church, a small group of us came together, read the book, using a study guide with scripture related to the book. It is not a quick read, but it is incredibly valuable. As Christians, we are to stand up to the kind of injustices described in the book, in the spirit of these words in Isaiah 42:6: “For it is written, I, the LORD, have called you and given you power to see that justice is done on the earth.”

Posted by Debbie Wright