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50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black Americans

Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Today it is questionable whether anyone won the war. Yet the loser is clear: Black Americans, their families and their communities.

7/21/2021 9:25:00 AM

Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Today it is questionable whether anyone won the war. Yet the loser is clear: Black Americans, their families and their communities.

Landscaping was hardly his lifelong dream. As a teenager, Alton Lucas believed basketball or music would pluck him out of North Carolina and take him around the world. In the late 1980s, he was the right-hand man to his musical best friend, Youtha Anthony Fowler, who many hip hop and R&B heads know as DJ Nabs.

Landscaping was hardly his lifelong dream.As a teenager, Alton Lucas believed basketball or music would pluck him out of North Carolina and take him around the world. In the late 1980s, he was the right-hand man to his musical best friend, Youtha Anthony Fowler, who many hip hop and R&B heads know as DJ Nabs.

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But rather than jet-setting with Fowler, Lucas discovered drugs and the drug trade at arguably the worst time in U.S. history — at the height of the so-called war on drugs. Addicted to crack cocaine and convicted of trafficking the drug, he faced 58 years imprisonment at a time when drug abuse and violence plaguing major cities and working class Black communities were not seen as the public health issue that opioids are today.

By chance, Lucas received a rare bit of mercy. He got the kind of help that many Black and Latino Americans struggling through the crack epidemic did not: treatment, early release and what many would consider a fresh start.ADVERTISEMENT“I started the landscaping company, to be honest with you, because nobody would hire me because I have a felony,” said Lucas. His Sunflower Landscaping got a boost in 2019 with the help of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a national nonprofit assisting people with criminal backgrounds by providing practical entrepreneurship education. headtopics.com

Lucas was caught up in a system that limits him and a virtually unknowable number of people with criminal drug records, with little thought given to their ability to rehabilitate. In addition to employment, those with criminal records can be limited in their access to business and educational loans, housing, child custody rights, voting rights and gun rights.

It’s a system that was born when Lucas was barely out of diapers.Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Today, with the U.S. mired in a deadly opioid epidemic that did not abate during the coronavirus pandemic’s worst days, it is questionable whether anyone won the war.

Yet the loser is clear: Black and Latino Americans, their families and their communities. A key weapon of the war was the imposition of mandatory minimums in prison sentencing. Decades later those harsh penalties at the federal level and the accompanying changes at the state level led to an increase in the prison industrial complex that saw millions of people, primarily of color, locked up and shut out of the American dream.

An Associated Press review of federal and state incarceration data showed that, between 1975 and 2019, the U.S. prison population jumped from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans. Among them, about 1 in 5 people were incarcerated with a drug offense listed as their most serious crime. headtopics.com

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ADVERTISEMENTThe racial disparities reveal the uneven toll of the war on drugs. Following the passage of stiffer penalties for crack cocaine and other drugs, the Black incarceration rate in America exploded from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000. In the same timespan, the rate for the Latino population grew from 208 per 100,000 people to 615, while the white incarceration rate grew from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.

Gilberto Gonzalez, a retired special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration who worked for more than 20 years taking down drug dealers and traffickers in the U.S., Mexico and in South America, said he’ll never forget being cheered on by residents in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood near Los Angeles as he led away drug traffickers in handcuffs.

“That gave me a sense of the reality of the people that live in these neighborhoods, that are powerless because they’re afraid that the drug dealers that control the street, that control the neighborhood are going to do them and their children harm,” said Gonzalez, 64, who detailed his field experiences in the recently released memoir “Narco Legenda.”

“We realized then that, along with dismantling (drug trafficking) organizations, there was also a real need to clean up communities, to go to where the crime was and help people that are helpless,” he said.Still, the law enforcement approach has led to many long-lasting consequences for people who have since reformed. Lucas still wonders what would happen for him and his family if he no longer carried the weight of a drug-related conviction on his record. headtopics.com

Even with his sunny disposition and close to 30 years of sober living, Lucas, at age 54, cannot pass most criminal background checks. His wife, whom he’d met two decades ago at a fatherhood counseling conference, said his past had barred him from doing something as innocuous as chaperoning their children on school field trips.

“It’s almost like a life sentence,” he said.___Although Nixon declared the war on drugs on June 17, 1971, the U.S. already had lots of practice imposing drug prohibitions that had racially skewed impacts. The arrival of Chinese migrants in the 1800s saw the rise of criminalizing opium that migrants brought with them. Cannabis went from being called “reefer” to “marijuana,” as a way to associate the plant with Mexican migrants arriving in the U.S. in the 1930s.

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By the time Nixon sought reelection amid the anti-Vietnam war and Black power movements, criminalizing heroin was a way to target activists and hippies. One of Nixon’s domestic policy aides, John Ehrlichman, admitted as much about the war on drugs in a 22-year-old interview published by Harper’s Magazine in 2016.

Experts say Nixon’s successors, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, leveraged drug war policies in the following decades to their own political advantage, cementing the drug war’s legacy. The explosion of the U.S. incarceration rate, the expansion of public and private prison systems and the militarization of local police forces are all outgrowths of the drug war.

Federal policies, such as mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, were mirrored in state legislatures. Lawmakers also adopted felony disenfranchisement, while also imposing employment and other social barriers for people caught in drug sweeps.

The domestic anti-drug policies were widely accepted, mostly because the use of illicit drugs, including crack cocaine in the late 1980s, was accompanied by an alarming spike in homicides and other violent crimes nationwide. Those policies had the backing of Black clergy and the Congressional Black Caucus, the group of African-American lawmakers whose constituents demanded solutions and resources to stem the violent crack scourge.

“I think people often flatten this conversation,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit organization pushing decriminalization and safe drug use policies.“If you’re a Black leader 30 years ago, you’re grabbing for the first (solution) in front of you,” said Fredrique, who is Black. “A lot of folks in our community said, ‘OK, get these drug dealers out of our communities, get this crack out of our neighborhood. But also give us treatment so we can help folks.’”

The heavy hand of law enforcement came without addiction prevention resources, she said.Use of crack rose sharply in 1985, and peaked in 1989, before quickly declining in the early 1990s, according to a Harvard study.Drug sales and use were concentrated in cities, particularly those with large Black and Latino populations, although there were spikes in use among white populations, too. Between 1984 and 1989, crack was associated with a doubling of homicide victimizations of Black males aged 14 to 17. The increases tapered off among Black men in older age groups. By the year 2000, the correlation between crack cocaine and violence faded amid waning profits from street sales.

Roland Fryer, an author of the Harvard study and a professor of economics, said the effects of the crack epidemic on a generation of Black families and Black children still haven’t been thoroughly documented. A lack of accountability for the war on drugs bred mistrust of government and law enforcement in the community, he said.

“People ask why Black people don’t trust (public) institutions,” said Fryer, who is Black. “It’s because we have watched how we’ve treated opioids — it’s a public health concern. But crack (cocaine) was, ‘lock them up and throw away the key, what we need is tougher sentencing.’”

Another major player in creating hysteria around drug use during the crack: the media. On June 17, 1986, 15 years to the day after Nixon declared the drug war, NBA draftee Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced heart attack on the University of Maryland campus.

Coverage was frenzied and coupled with racist depictions of crack addiction in mostly Black and Latino communities. Within weeks of Bias’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives drafted the Anti-Abuse Act of 1986.The law, passed and signed by Reagan that October, imposed a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 20 years, and a maximum life imprisonment, for violation of drug laws. The law also made possession and sale of crack rocks harsher than that of powder cocaine.

The death of Len Bias could have been one of the off-ramps in Lucas’s spiral into crack addiction and dealing. By then, he could make $10,000 in four to five hours dealing the drug.“One of the things that I thought would help me, that I thought would be my rehab, was when Len Bias died,” Lucas said. “I thought, if they showed me evidence (he) died from an overdose of smoking crack cocaine, as much as I loved Len Bias, that I would give it up.”

“I did not quit,” he said.He was first introduced to crack cocaine in 1986, but kept his drug use largely hidden from his friends and family.“What I didn’t know at the time was that this was a different type of chemical entering my brain and it was going to change me forever,” Lucas said. “Here I am on the verge of being the right-hand man to DJ Nabs, to literally travel the world. That’s how bad the drug did me.”

By 1988, Fowler’s music career had outgrown Durham. He and Lucas moved to Atlanta and, a few years later, Fowler signed a deal to become the official touring DJ for the hip hop group Kris Kross under famed music producer Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def record label. Fowler and the group went on to open for pop music icon Michael Jackson on the European leg of the “Dangerous” tour.

Lucas, who began trafficking crack cocaine between Georgia and North Carolina, never joined his best friend on the road. Instead, he slipped further into his addiction and returned to Durham, where he took a short-lived job as a preschool instructor.When he lacked the money to procure drugs to sell or to use, Lucas resorted to robbing businesses for quick cash. He claims that he was never armed when he robbed “soft targets,” like fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Lucas spent four and a half years in state prison for larceny after robbing nine businesses to feed his addiction. Because his crimes were considered nonviolent, Lucas learned in prison that he was eligible for an addiction treatment program that would let him out early. But if he violated the terms of his release or failed to complete the treatment, Lucas would serve 12 years in prison on separate drug trafficking charges under a deal with the court.

He accepted the deal.After his release from prison and his graduation from the treatment program, Fowler paid out of his pocket to have his friend’s fines and fees cleared. That’s how Lucas regained his voting rights.On a recent Saturday, the two best friends met up to talk in depth about what had largely been a secret that Lucas intentionally kept from Fowler. The DJ learned of his friend’s addiction after seeing a Durham newspaper clipping that detailed the string of robberies.

Sitting in Fowler’s home, Lucas told his friend that he doesn’t regret not being on the road or missing out on the fringe benefits from touring.“All I needed was to be around you,” Lucas said.“Right,” Fowler replied, choking up and wiping tears from his eyes.

Lucas continued: “You know, when I was around you, when there was a party or whatnot, my job, just out of instinct, was to watch your back.”In a separate interview, Fowler, who is two years younger than Lucas, said, “I just wanted my brother on the road with me. To help protect me. To help me be strong. And I had to do it by my damn self. And I didn’t like that. That’s what it was.”

___Not everyone was as lucky as Lucas. Often, a drug offense conviction in combination with a violent gun offense carried much steeper penalties. At the heights of the war on drugs, federal law allowed violent drug offenders to be prosecuted in gang conspiracy cases, which often pinned murders on groups of defendants, sometimes irrespective of who pulled the trigger.

These cases resulted in sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, a punishment disproportionately doled out to Black and Latino gang defendants.That’s the case for Bill Underwood, who was a successful R&B and hip hop music promoter in New York City in the late ’70s through the ’80s, before his 33-year incarceration. A judge granted him compassionate release from federal custody in January, noting his lauded reputation as a mentor to young men in prison and his high-risk exposure to COVID-19 at age 67.

As the AP reported in 1990, Underwood was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole for racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and narcotics conspiracy, as part of a prosecution that accused his gang of committing six murders and of controlling street-level drug distribution.

“I actually short-changed myself, and my family and my people, by doing what I did,” said Underwood, who acknowledges playing a large part in the multimillion-dollar heroin trade, as a leader of a violent Harlem gang from the 1970s through the 1980s.Underwood, who now is a senior fellow with The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit pushing for an end to life imprisonment, testified to Congress in June that his punishment was excessive.

“As human beings, we are capable of painful yet transformative self reflection, maturity, and growth, and to deny a person this opportunity is to deny them their humanity,” he said in the testimony.Sympathy for people like Underwood can be hard to come by. Brett Roman Williams, a Philadelphia-based independent filmmaker and anti-gun violence advocate, grew up watching his older brother, Derrick, serve time in prison for a serious drug offense. But in 2016, his brother was only a month out on parole when he was killed by gunfire in Philadelphia.

“The laws are in place for people to obey, whether you like it or not,” Williams said. “We do need reform, we do need opportunities and equity within our system of economics. But we all have choices.”Rep. Cori Bush of St. Louis, following similar action by several members of Congress before her, last month introduced legislation to decriminalize all drugs and invest in substance abuse treatment.

“Growing up in St. Louis, the War on Drugs disappeared Black people, not drug use,” Bush, who is Black, wrote in a statement sent to the AP. “Over the course of 2 years, I lost 40 to 50 friends to incarceration or death because of the War on Drugs. We became so accustomed to loss and trauma that it was our normal.”

___The deleterious impacts of the drug war have, for years, drawn calls for reform and abolition from mostly left-leaning elected officials and social justice advocates. Many of them say that in order to begin to unwind or undo the war on drugs, all narcotics must be decriminalized or legalized, with science-based regulation.

Drug abuse prevention advocates, however, claim that broad drug legalization poses more risks to Americans than it would any benefits.Provisional data released in December from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show overdose deaths from illicit drug use continued to rise amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. And according to the latest Drug Enforcement Administration narcotics threat assessment released in March, the availability of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and cocaine remained high or plateaued last year. Domestic and transnational drug trade organizations generate tens of billions of dollars in illicit proceeds from sales annually in the U.S., the DEA said.

“Many people think drug prevention is ‘just say no,’ like Nancy Reagan did in the ’80s— and we know that did not work,” said Becky Vance, CEO of the Texas-based agency Drug Prevention Resources, which has advocated for evidenced-based anti-drug and alcohol abuse education for more than 85 years.

“As a person in long-term recovery, I know firsthand the harms of addiction,” said Vance, who opposes blanket recreational legalization of illicit drugs. “I believe there has to be another way, without legalizing drugs, to reform the criminal justice system and get rid of the inequities.”

Frederique, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said reckoning with the war on drugs must start with reparations for the generations needlessly swept up and destabilized by racially biased policing.“This was an intentional policy choice,” Frederique said. “We don’t want to end the war on drugs, and then in 50 years be working on something else that does the same thing. That is the cycle that we’re in.”

“It has always been about control,” Frederique added.As much as the legacy of the war on drugs is a tragedy, it is also a story about the resilience of people disproportionately targeted by drug policies, said Donovan Ramsey, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “When Crack Was King.”

“Even with all of that, it’s still important to recognize and to celebrate that we (Black people) survived the crack epidemic and we survived it with very little help from the federal government and local governments,” Ramsey told the AP.Fowler thinks the war on drugs didn’t ruin Lucas’ life. “I think he went through it at the right time, truth be told, because he was young enough. Luke’s got more good behind him than bad,” the DJ said.

Lucas sees beauty in making things better, including in his business. But he still dreams of the day when his past isn’t held against him.“It was the beautification of doing the landscaping that kind of attracted me, because it was like the affirmation that my soul needed,” he said.

“I liked to do something and look back at it and say, ‘Wow, that looks good.’ It’s not just going to wash away in a couple of days. It takes nourishment and upkeep.”___Morrison reported from New York. AP writers Allen G. Breed in Durham, North Carolina, and Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed.

___ Read more: The Associated Press »

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No fucking shit who do you think they were targeting? Nothing is 'questionable' about it. It was/is a war meant to lock up minorities and it has been massively successful. The only people who should be/have been locked up over it are: Nixon Ford Carter Reagan Bush Clinton Bush Obama Trump Biden. Cartels won, prisons won, the government won. Everyone else lost and paid for it too.

No one wins a war.The collateral damage is always the oppressed. Never the privileged and entitled. What a crazy idea!!!!! If it's so questionable, who are the people you think may have won? Pretty sure the CIA, FBI, industrial prison system and drug cartels won. Drugs won the war on drugs lol That was the intent.

Blacks were jailed and the maturity if the demand happened with mainstream secret users. Sadly so true. And like all good American manufactured Pharma bedtime stories go -- The Sacklers got to get away with all the billions$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ & ZERO jail. And got lawyers to game the system to not admit ANY fault. *Side note - they are white -- shocking I know...*

Black Americans are purchasing more life insurance. Here is why.56 percent of Black Americans have now purchased life insurance policies in the last year, which is the highest rate among all racial groups according to LIMRA. 💔❤️‍🩹 Because they have the money too They keep shooting each other?

Somehow, both drugs and prisons won It’s the new Jim Crow, and it was designed this way. “Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs.” The impact of this policy has dismantled, to this day, so many Black & Brown communities. JRubinBlogger We, the UNITED STATES have a propensity to declare 'war' when we gave NO answer to a problem. Beating our chests & throwing money indiscriminately not the answers! Dont even get me started on wars, military actions & incursions.

People getting 20 years for a joint is a travesty. Heartbreaking. Or don’t do drugs The problem is the word war. War on drugs, racism, violence, etc. implies a total win is possible. That will never happen unless no drugs or weapons exist & people are armless & cannot speak. Tougher on crime would have been better. It implies an effort that can be continuous.

50 years later , Black Folks are locked up, jacked up , families shattered while fat cats and corporations continue to wad their pockets and bank accounts with green. Sad. Nixon was getting suitcases full of money from drug dealers before he came up with this 'War on drugs' scheme. It was a way to fight against 'anti-war hippies' and African-Americans fighting for equality..

Nixon admitted that was the whole point of the war on drugs to begin with

Black Americans are purchasing more life insurance. Here is why.56 percent of Black Americans have now purchased life insurance policies in the last year, which is the highest rate among all racial groups according to LIMRA.

Cheshire Police in England have won the War on Drugs ✌️ Drugs won the war america won.. They have free slavery in u.s. prisons. Will ap talk about how Biden passed prison bills on drug possession laws that affected poor people & minorities while his son smokes crack & has only been rewarded with a pampered life because joe Biden sells out working class Americans with shady & corrupt back room deals

As long as it affects African-Americans the war will never be won The war on drugs was lost before it ever started. Jan 1964 the war on poverty started. It has not moved the needle one inch. Capitalism won the war on poverty Blacks are more likely to be imprisoned over drug crimes than whites despite both using drugs at about the same rates. Just look at sentencing guidelines for crack vs cocaine and now with opioids

Time to declare victory and withdraw all troops from North America.

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End it now its still happening Is questionable whether anybody won the war on drugs Are you delusional it was a complete fucking disaster the only bigger disaster was of Vietnam 50 years later, the CIA is the largest and most violent drug cartel in the world, using its illicit drug cartel money to fund its off the books black ops.

Learn to say 'No' You have to learn to love yourself before you understand that drugs are not worth destroying your life. Crackheads will still be crackheads!!! It’s the persons problem no one else’s!!! The war on drugs has been lost by those who waged it. It's been certified by various govs, police organizations and even by the UN.

It's not questionable. It's been a total joke. The us government traffics drugs making huge profits for the elite in power..you really think the great world police couldn't stop drugs coming in if it wanted to? The difference between the way we treated crack users and the way we treat Meth/Heroin users is night and day. Crack addicts got massive prisons and expansion of the state and Heroin users get safe injection sites.

Calling people 'blacks' is an insult.

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No. No, it’s not questionable. The “war on drugs” has been an outright failure. This was always the explicit goal: to target black communities and the anti-war movement. Drugs should be free to obtain, just like medicines. The war on crime will be over on this battlefield then. Y'all forgot how to say African American?

Blacks did Not win the suit cases against the pharmaceutical companies instead they were arrested When it starts at the top I assume for way too many Americans the above means: That war was successful, it was only wrongly labelled and not successful enough. /s respectfully, painting the colored man/black man as the villian for +1000 yrs. all drugs that make its way onto the streets come from people in power. Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of selling prescriptions NOT curing the sick. Same with illegal drugs, its business

Black Americans are not the only ones it’s all political how about war on prison reforms which unfortunately unsettling people could have been aware of facts about drugs abuse taking drugs is a choice pouring people with non violent crimes is stupidity gladstein End the 'War on Drugs', and kill the cartels.

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Always somebody else’s fault Everybody make choices that good or bad when you make your choice you have to live with it there’s no one to blame if you want to live a life of drugs but yourself It wasn’t a war on drugs,just an excuse for controlling people and funnel money to friend ind the corporate world. Just like any other wat,it’s all about the money.

gladstein the 'war on drugs' was just back door business deals and creating scape goats to divert racism. the art of war + the art of deception; babylonian style for 1000s of years Duh CRIME IS , a , SUPER POWER ! The statistics are damning because it was a 'war' targeting the 'at risk' victims, the small guy and not the mega-sized financiers, producers, importers & their border protects. Targeting the user and not the producer is obviously a an evil joke, at best

Dude. Drugs won the drug war. What war? The CIA has been busted a few times importing drugs into USA. Look up 'CIA and Contra cocaine trafficking'. The only way we can stop this 'war' is not have a war. Take the money spent on jail after the fact and spend on addiction help to help to never become addicted.

Drug dealers poison and ( often) kill your kids.

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Have you seen the 13th? Excellent movie on Netflix. So you are saying American organisation are kidnapping children and giving them drugs That’s because the war was never actually on drugs, the war was on black people. AND UNCLE JO JO. . .HAS LET 1 MILLION ILLEGALS INTO OUR COUNTRY IN 6 MONTHS. . .LOADED WITH COVID, FENTYNOL, COKE, HASH, CRACK. . .TO KILL AMERICANS. . .BY THE 1,000'S THANKS JO JO !!! YOUR THE BEST !!!!!

That was the whole point, wasn’t it? 100,000 OD deaths this year, most are white, but go ahead AP, pretend black victimization or something CRT. well. the generations of kids that grew up not drug addicts. course mob bought legitimate drug companies. so most of them died withdrawing anyway. cheers The so called 'War against the Coronavirus' will end with the same result.

America just keeps piling on that reparations bill RacistShithole

Well from an ex drug user... 'I knew the risks but the high made me not care.' oh, someone won it alright. Drugs. drugs won the war on drugs.drugs will always win the war on drugs. three biggest recipients of private prison money are some familiar names: Senator Cory Gardner (R), Senator Mitch McConnell (R) and Trump. it’s easy to see why private prisons are spending heavily to elect Republicans this November: The future of their business depends on it.

Every drug user no matter what colour or creed there families and communities are the real losers not just the black community