50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black

WASHINGTON: 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.
But rather than jet-setting with Fowler, Lucas discovered drugs and the drug trade at arguably the worst time in US 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.
“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.
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 US 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 US 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.
The 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 US, 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.
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 US in the 1930s.
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 HW 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 US 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.

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