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“There’s just too much money in it”: the war on drugs’ profitable attacks on communities of color

Over the July 4th weekend, 82 people were shot in Chicago, including a 16 year-old boy shot by police. Fourteen people were killed.

In late May in Tampa Bay, Florida, police shot dead a 29 year-old man in his own home. The Tampa SWAT team had raided James Wescott's house after a police informant claimed he had sold about $200 worth of marijuana. Acting in accordance with the insane logic of the war on drugs, that alleged drug sale led to a militaristic raid on the young man’s home, which ended in his untimely, violent death. Police later defended the killing, saying that the department acted appropriately. After killing Wescott, officers found $2.00 worth of marijuana in the home. The young man, who apparently struggled with his finances, died over two dollars worth of weed.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s most powerful companies—pharmaceutical firms that manufacture opiates like OxyContin and Vicodin—are funding efforts to prohibit the legalization of marijuana. From a must-read investigative report by The Nation’s Lee Fang:

[The Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA)] and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.

It isn’t just pharmaceutical companies. Police, too, have a huge investment in the war on drugs. Billions of dollars in federal funding programs and a massive quantity of police resources are funneled to activity related to anti-drug enforcement. Mass incarceration is a brisk business, much of it built off of tough-on-crime drug laws that impose savage sentences on drug users and sellers. Like Hilary Clinton said when asked why the US can't legalize drugs, "there is just too much money in it."

It’s no secret that drug prohibition affects communities differently. As the ACLU found, drug war-driven SWAT raids are disproportionately carried out against black and Latino people. Violence attributed to “drug gangs” disproportionately affects black people in cities like Chicago. Prohibition drives incarceration rates among black and Latino communities at astronomical rates, with extreme racial disparity relative to population size. The drug war, perhaps more than any other problem in our country, has driven the expansion of a dangerous, totalitarian surveillance apparatus. Unsurprisingly, people of color have long been the canary in that mine, too.

If, in a more radical future, our country eventually decides to treat cocaine and heroin use as public health—instead of criminal justice—problems, would cities like Chicago still face the same kinds of violence? In a world without drug prohibition, would we still bear witness to weekends seeing casualty figures in the dozens in our streets and neighborhoods? In that world, we know one thing for sure: James Wescott would be alive today, instead of dead at 29 years-old, over $2.00 of weed.

As Fang's article illustrates, many of the most ferocious advocates of the war on drugs advance failed, discriminatory policies because they are defending their power. After all, if voters continue to move towards legalization, where will police get the money and power they want, to justify raids like that on James Wescott? Will people start using medical marijuana to treat their pain instead of dangerous pharmaceuticals that cause addiction and sometimes death? Who will fill the private prisons? How will police acquire new surveillance technologies, in a less violent, more compassionate society?

The drug war is killing us—but all isn’t equal. If we want to begin to heal our society from centuries of slavery, decades of apartheid-like racial inequity, and the ongoing assault against black and brown communities in our cities and towns nationwide, we must end the war on drugs. Doing so won't solve all of our problems, by any means. But it's clear that drug prohibition is a festering wound that infects everything it touches.

Besides, drugs are winning this war: they are more potent, cheap, and widely available than ever before. Militarized police and big pharma companies are winning, too. It’s we the people who are losing—and the darker our skin, the more systemic the injustice, the violence, and the pain.

The war on drugs is a war on communities of color and the poor. There's no excuse to continue the same miserable policies that have led us down this horrible path. More incarceration, more policing, and more surveillance won't fix what ails us. Realizing that—and crafting public policy accordingly—is a good first step towards a healthier, more just, and more peaceful society for everyone.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.