Drug War

How the War on Drugs Fails Black Communities

Despite generally higher usage rates among white Americans, black Americans are three times likelier to be arrested for possession.


Keiko Hiromi/Polaris/Newscom

As recent events have demonstrated, more than 50 years after much-delayed civil rights legislation was passed by Congress and signed into law, very different views on the persistence of racism still exist in America. According to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of whites believe that "our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites," but just 8 percent of blacks agree.

Here's something that all Americans should agree on: Many policies have a disproportionately negative effect on black families—and, by extension, on all of us. The most insidious of them all, however, may be the war on drugs.

Writing for the Cato Institute, John McWhorter noted: "It has become a norm for black children to grow up in single-parent homes, their fathers away in prison for long spells and barely knowing them. In poor and working-class black America, a man and a woman raising their children together is, of all things, an unusual sight." The drug war plays an oversize role in this trend.

Keeping drugs illegal makes selling them more profitable than they would otherwise be. As such, the war on drugs creates incentives for young black men to seek employment in the drug business rather than seek lower-paying legal employment. This incentive structure unfortunately starts a vicious circle of incarceration followed by "a failure to build the job skills for legal employment that serve as a foundation for a productive existence in middle and later life," McWhorter continued.

And for what? By all accounts, the decadeslong war on drugs has failed miserably. Despite our spending over $1 trillion to stop the stoner scourge, overall drug consumption has barely changed, and some drug prices are falling because of technology and increasing supply. Also, drug addiction has gone up while seeking treatment has become riskier.

In addition, incarceration rates for drug offenses have skyrocketed since the 1980s because of mandatory sentencing laws, which rigidly determine who goes to prison and for how long. Nonviolent drug offenders account for about one-fourth of inmates in the United States, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. It destroys families and leaves children to be raised in single-parent households. This is particularly true for low-income black families. Despite generally higher usage rates among white Americans, black Americans are three times likelier to be arrested for possession.

A byproduct of the war on drugs is civil asset forfeiture, which gives police officers the ability to seize private property that they claim is connected to illegal activity without actually charging the property owner with a crime, much less convicting him. The abuses that come with the practice have been widely documented. Studies also show that black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately targeted. A recent analysis of high-dollar forfeiture cases by Oklahoma Watch found that officers, knowingly or not, use racial profiling when deciding whose vehicles they will search and whose money and assets they will seize.

The Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, is talking about legalizing marijuana as a first step to ending the drug war, but neither the Republican (Donald Trump) nor the Democratic (Hillary Clinton) candidate is. The lack of interest in the issue is shocking for Clinton, who belongs to a party that claims to care about low-income Americans and receives an overwhelming majority of the black vote. Yet it would also serve Republicans well to oppose the drug war, because they claim to naturally oppose big-government policies that dictate what individuals can or cannot choose to consume—whether it be soda, salt or sativa.

The drug war isn't the only policy that disproportionately hurts African-American families. Minimum wage laws keep low-income Americans from getting jobs, and Social Security redistributes money from minorities to white Americans. Both are also overlooked as a source of unfairness to the black community.

However, as McWhorter noted, "what will turn black America around for good is the elimination of a policy (the drug war) that prevents too many people from doing their best." When that happens, with the help of time, we will make black lives better and, in turn, make America better.


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  1. inb4 RACIST!!!1!! becuz… drugs and negros and rape and… something something reefer madness

    Seriously, awesome write up. It all comes back to incentives.

    1. You might be first, but they will create a thread of bigotry further down the page. It will be a great circle jerk of hate and ignorance.

      1. Racists gonna race.

        1. Well, before they show up, lemme just say it’s nice to see some African-American Metallica fans.

          1. +1 Black Album

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  2. Morality is the crowbar while the term ‘war’ approves the total deficit of ethics and reason.

    Unfurling social/political strategies under brutal terms swathed in murky principles is paramount to governing success.

    The chromatic and distracting jester of ideals dancing on the dreams of the bleeding in courts of the proper.

    1. Amen, brother.

    2. I think we can all agree that Agile is the least racist entity here. Which leads me to think that the way to solve America’s race problem is to put acid in the water supply.

  3. Radley Balko has documented some exceptions to this rule, but the POlice don’t just roll into your apartment building or home for kicks and giggles.

    Who is calling 911?

    I am guessing it is not suburban Chinese moms with a child who scraped his knee during soccer practice. The police are going to come with the full force of law or they are going to eat donuts. Maybe there should a 711 number to call for a social worker.

    1. Wiget: Who is calling 911?

      30% of calls to police are for a black suspect.

      And, within 2%, 30% of arrestees are black, as are 30% of those shot by police.

      And the percentage of people in state jails and prisons for drugs is the same for whites, blacks and mestizos, namely 15%.

      1. I like data, thanks. But I am asking for the demographics of who calls 911, not the demographics of the suspects.

        And I might be able to get off my ass and look this up myself but I haven’t.

      2. And four times as many men than women are in prison for drug crap. No doubt due to anti-male discrimination, right?

        1. actually, yes thats almost certainly plays a role. whether its drugs or domestic violence, men overwhelmingly are arrested despite solid evidence that women indulge in drug consumption & battery toward romantic partners at similiar rates as men. most police making the arrests are men, but the disparity could be policy driven as well as driven by ‘white knight’ behavior. plus there ia that whole police coercing women into sex to escape arrest trend thats been well documented here at reason. anyway, im not sure what the point of your comment is, but whatever the reason for massive demographic arrest disparities they imply problems.

    2. the POlice don’t just roll into your apartment building or home for kicks and giggles.

      Victimless crimes generally don’t involve calls to 911.
      When the Cops bust down someones door looking for drugs, it’s not because someone called the police.
      It’s because the police informant told them about a drug deal that was going to take place.

  4. My neighbor across the alley sits in his driveway and smokes a bowl some evenings.

    I sit in my house with the curtains drawn and smoke a bowl.

    I will not be surprised when he gets a visit from the police. I would be very surprised if I ever got a visit from the police (about weed, at any rate. As for the hobo murders…)

    What I’m trying to say is, I know one black guy who is pretty careless, so I logically assume that this behavior applies to every single person who is darker than, say, caramel.

    1. Solid point. I would like to add that while I was at a crosswalk yesterday I saw a black/possibly Puerto Rican person jaywalk and didn’t see a white person jaywalk, I think I’m beginning to see a trend in lawlessness.

      1. And I saw a guy in a hoodie walking suspiciously with some apparent rhythm, like he was up to no good.

    2. Fuck you for not sharing!

      1. A Jew condemning me for not giving something away for free.

        Truly this is a day of wonders.

      2. Let me guess your the guy in the weed circle that grabs the bowl being passed to someone else and shout interception before you take a hit?

        1. It is preparing me for the presidency.

        2. That behavior alone should have disqualified Obama from office. Don’t bogart the weed, ass hole!

          1. You agree with my burnout brother-in-law, then.

          2. Seriously, if someone had kicked Barry’s ass for his “interceptions”, he might not be the asshole he is today.

    3. Buying it is the problem, sort of. I could go on and on about buying cocaine. I don’t even like coke but the thrill of buying it from a cholo in a side alley next to a park in LA kept me going for some time.

      1. It’s not the destination; it’s the journey!

    4. I don’t trust anyone darker than Seal’s teeth.

      1. Or older than his girlfriend?

    5. Do note that, careless or not, your neighbor across the alley is not harming anyone.

    6. That’s why I vape my THC. No smell. Looks like every other e-cig/vaporizer everyone uses for nicotine.

    7. It’s funny. I can tell that same story.

      About friends, about people in parks, about people walking down streets.

      I know, personally, dozens of black people who are WAY more careless about where they do drugs than white people.

      I’ve seen hundreds of black people who are WAY more careless about where they do drugs than white people. But I don’t know them personally.

      Logically, one cannot assume this behavior applies to all black people.

      Logically, one can look at this and think it bears further investigation.

      People desperately discounting this possible behavioral difference are not acting logically.

      1. People desperately discounting this possible behavioral difference are not acting logically.

        But there can’t be any behavioral differences because everyone is exactly the same, except in regards to their level of privilege. Or something.

      2. Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal.

  5. The real problem is that in many neighborhoods a Glock costs less than a book. So until we increase the taxes on Glocks these neighborhoods will continue to be violent.

    1. I live in a glock dessert, glocks cost more than books here but we have a glut of “cheaper than book assault type weapons”.

      1. Glock cheesecake, or Glock-flavored ice cream?

        1. It’s flavor will blow you away. A taste explosion!

        2. Who is in favor of forcing a SJW bakery to make pistol-shaped croissants for my shooting club?

          1. I think it’s unfair just from a technical standpoint. Unless there’s already an origami-like instruction manual for how to fold the dough into a pistol that bakes properly, in which case, game on.

    2. I almost shit myself laughing at the WaPo “fact check” piece on the hilariously untrue Obama claim. For some reason, they think that people have to go to bookstores and that Amazon doesn’t exist.

      1. A racist – but we were self-aware of it – meme by us had me and my friends placing car valuables under ‘anti-Negro devices’ (books).

        1. I hide my C-notes inside a job application.

          1. INSIDE?! look at Mr. Hoitey Toitey here with is more-than-a-single-page job application.

          2. Is there some sort of Trumpkins cultural thing where the ability to enjoy racist jokes marks one as a strong person or something? (Cuz we know like inside your secretly offended, you’re just not showing it, right?)

      2. I live close to one of the most violent cities in New York. The very well-funded library is within close walking distance of every neighborhood, and the Barnes and Nobles is like four miles away. I don’t think the lack of access to books is why the city is so violent, but then again I am not the president, so I don’t have all the facts.

    3. But you can’t point a book at someone and have them give you their money…

      Wait, I shouldn’t tell that joke in a room full of snarky atheists…

      1. Thread winner right there.

  6. The War on Drugs is a travesty, and always has been. It erodes our liberties, drives the militarization of the police, and provides the pretext for endless amazingly stupid films. And the thing that drives me nuts is that when I suggest legalizing virtually everything, people react as if they KNEW every one of their friends and neighbors was kept from being a ravening junkie solely by the laws against drugs. Seriously?!?

    1. You are wrong. Drug war movies are the best movies.


      1. For realz. Without the drug war, where would Mel Gibson be today?

  7. A lot of blacks are poor. That limits them to crappy neighborhoods. Criminals prefer crappy neighborhoods because the targets are easy and they can gain power. Police patrol areas with more crime. Therefore, more blacks are caught with drugs.

  8. Surprisingly , working as intended. Harry.anslinger’s corpse remains right side up.

  9. For some reason, they think that people have to go to bookstores and that Amazon doesn’t exist.

    Listen, you racist rat bagging tea fucker; schools in this country are so starved for funding there are no textbooks. The NRA has shut down all the libraries, and the Chamber of Commerce is giving away a Glock AR47 with every new membership. The Koch Brothers are funding it all.

  10. I’m not discounting the need to decriminalize drugs, although I’m beginning to have my doubts as to what that actually means in practice. But incentives stemming from prohibition explain the what of black market operations, not the why. Young black men, lacking opportunities, turn to drug distribution and related criminality: drug crime is the what, but dismal economic prospects is the why. Decriminalizing drugs would no doubt radically upend the criminal enterprises undertaking their distribution, but it’s not as if those criminals disappear; it’s not as though young black men now go into business for Pfizer synthesizing recreational drugs.

    1. If Colorado’s experiment is any indication, not much changes at all: users still use, police still harass them for it, some money gets shifted into legal businesses, but there’s no tremendous economic revolution. Nor would we expect one. And pot is a pretty innocuous drug: growers and dealers are small-time hobbyists (I used to be one, ish). Buyers are on good and often personal terms with their sellers. It’s something of a boutique experience. Legalization really only served to take the heat off it, and even then only a little. That’s not to say it’s not a worthwhile goal or that we shouldn’t applaud efforts to achieve it, but it’s not a panacea for what ails you. And it’s far from obvious that even a total libertarian revolution in which narcotics are available OTC from corner stores whether circumstances would improve for inner-city blacks. The poverty still exists; the rampant drug abuse persists, not merely as a recreational outlet but a way of life. And jail sentences are not the only reason, nor the most common reason, for single-parent households.

      All of the structural problems are baked into the cake. Decrim is a necessary but hardly sufficient step, and it may not even be an obvious first step.

      1. Aren’t single-parent households the result of LBJ’s Great Poverty and War on Society?

        1. +1 “I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.”

      2. I think it goes deeper than minimum wage laws and jobs-stifling regulations. Those don’t help, but the crux of it is the infantilization of inner-city blacks at the hands of progressive political machines going back half a century. These cynical assholes managed to turn around the very real gains blacks had made through the fifties and made them a client caste too poor to get out and too cowed to do anything about it. Some of the most lavishly funded school systems produced a ton of high remunerated bureaucrats and underlings and some of the dumbest graduates and dropouts in terms of academic aptitude. It’s not clear to me how decriminalization helps these people, except I suppose helping them narcotize away the pain of abject social failure their political patrons have cause. They’re a lot like the Appalachian whites Kevin Williamson took to task, which is what peeved John so badly: You wouldn’t say that about blacks! Well, yes, we would. Because it needs to be said. You’re not allowed to say it about blacks because they enjoy the political protection of a very jealous class of political hacks. But it’s no less the truth.

        1. It’s not clear to me how decriminalization helps these people

          I think you’re broadly correct in your observation. Particularly the “I’m beginning to have my doubts as to what [ending the drug war] actually means in practice””

          The problems are that many of the effects are second and third-order derivatives of decades of lawlessness. The problems stack on top of one another, and merely ending one of the most significant driving forces isn’t going to cause any instant virtuous chain-reaction.

          That said, if you simply stop throwing huge numbers of them in jail for drug-crimes, SOME of them will get their shit together and start other businesses, and hopefully after 2 or 3 generations that much of the social damage will start to undo itself.

          1. I’d like to think so. It’s funny, we misanthropic, pessimistic libertarians seem to take a much less jaded view of minorities than the compassionate progressive hivemind.

            Well, not so much funny as predictable.

  11. Would, the one with the sign. Like the fist of an angry god.

    1. Yeah. What about the one with the pearl necklace? Nice variety there.

  12. OT – The pig who murdered Phil Castile took a seminar with the Bulletproof Warrior folks who teach cops to blast away if you feel threatened in a situation.

    The Houston PD recommends against taking the seminar. Other LE departments says it instills paranoia with its curriculum.

    1. If he is Bulletproof, then why is he so paranoid?

    2. I would not want to be a Denny’s waitress when the fat, entitled fucks attending that seminar roll into town.

    3. I think it might have been John who said that cops are taught to be paranoid, and that everyone is a danger to their life, so it’s not surprising when they act on this artificially induced fear. Because statistically, it’s far more dangerous to be a garbageman than a cop.

      1. Someone might try to say to them. “Hey, you signed up for this. You knew that being a cop meant you had to take risks. Deal with it.”

  13. the war on drugs is not the only cause of fatherless families. its due to the fact that the government gives preference points to companies that hire a minority or a woman so if you hire a minority woman you get more points thus this left the men without employment. the other problem is the government will only pay welfare to a woman is if the father is not around another reason to get rid of the man, the government has made it so that men are not needed in society, note this is also happening in the white communities as well now.

  14. Despite generally higher usage rates among white Americans, black Americans are three times likelier to be arrested for possession.

    Not to say that there isn’t some degree of racial animus involved with that statistic but maybe… JUST MAYBE it has something to do with the fact that black communities are policed more heavily and with more suspicion because they lead the way, in real numbers and not just rates, of basically every class of crime with the exception of DUIs. Just maybe.

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  16. And who is actually following through on any of their panderings to black communities? No one. So even if the Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians say they understand the disparate impact the drug war has on blacks, actually making policy changes is out of the realm of possibility. There are simply too many entrenched money, political and moral interests, and too few competing interests who count.

    So you can’t use race because beyond lip service no one cares. And you can’t use economics as selling point because no one understands economics, especially when the economics of a public policy is inconvenient. So, unless the prison unions, law & order politicians and soccer moms fall of the face of the fucking Earth, there will be no end to the drug war in your lifetime. Truth bomb.

    1. Go back to the NYT a week or two before the vote on the Harrison act in 1914. An article covers an entire sheet abt how the cops needed bigger guns because of the Demonic Possession of “cocaine negroes” by Satan’s Stimulant. The thing is not difficult to find on the web.

  17. “According to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of whites believe that “our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites,” but just 8 percent of blacks agree.”

    In what way are blacks not equal under the law?

    What current law is written to their disadvantage?

    What law could we enact that would change the nature of man?

    1. What law could we enact that would change the nature of man?

      Perhaps the Knock Whites Down a Peg Act.

    2. There isn’t a whole lot of checking to make sure the laws are actually being enforced equitably.

      IMO, what we need is some monitoring agency that looks at how the police are enforcing laws, and looks for signs of racial bias and discrimination, and attempts to rectify them, either through retraining, or through adjustments to the rules of engagement. There should be really close monitoring of all police interactions with the public. Records kept, statistics generated, assessments made of whether any bias (racial or otherwise) exists, assessments made of whether police followed procedures in every instance.

      This may cost money, but I think spending money to ensure uniform enforcement of the law, uniform protection of rights, is worth doing. It’s a legitimate government function.

  18. Hillary Clinton on the Drug War: Whatever the polls and/or key supporters tell her will make her rich and/or elected

    Donald Trump on the Drug War: Whatever the voices in his head tell him that particular day

    Johnson on the Drug War: Never mind the LP platform, legalize marijuana only

    Jill Stein on the drug war: click here

    Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party: End the federal drug war except for imported drugs, otherwise leave it to the states; he’s personally for decriminalization

  19. the stoner scourge

    Nice band name.

  20. Lots of good stuff in this article. You have to keep in mind though that the black community is actually addicted to the war because they are police officers and other government employees who depend on the drug war meat grinder for their daily bread. So much so that they will even sacrifice their own children. E.g. David Brown Jr, cop-killer / cop-killed. However as a great guy once say, “Do not touch the boy.” And, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided.”

  21. Pompous navel-gazing incoming, but I’m about to leave work and wanted to think about this a little more.

    There is a legitimate discussion to be had about privilege, one which individualists across the conservative/libertarian spectrum (and, I suppose, old-school liberals) might accept: I’ll call it the Peter Parker Principle. Or maybe Uncle Ben’s Dictum. I’m pretty sure you see where I’m going with this. But what other concept of privilege better encapsulates the social responsibilities, to the extent we recognize them, that come with possessing actual inordinate power? The various forms of supposed identity privilege fall apart instantly on contact with reality: in no sense is Emma Watson the social or political inferior of, say, Kelly Thomas, to take an extreme example. White skin and a penis did not vouchsafe Thomas a comfortable middle-class existence. Nor did it preserve him from a shockingly barbaric beating at the hands of several cops. So privilege as an inherent magical aura one wields personally goes right out the window.

    1. What about privilege on the aggregate level? Whites are on average wealthier, live longer, have fewer run-ins with police, and are less likely to die by violence. Is privilege then a magical aura pervading whites in general rather than particular white persons? If that’s the view we’re going to take, how is privilege anything but a word (badly) describing all the particular habits and practices and circumstances into which whites are born? How is privilege anything but an obfuscation of white cultural mores which emphasize determination and achievement? Furthermore, if privilege really is some mystical motive force, then it shouldn’t be possible for other ethnicities to emulate white people and expect to achieve anything. After all, if it’s not personal habits instilled by cultural attitudes that matter but something inherent to skin color or sex plumbing, things outside the reach of individuals to change, then “acting white” should no more make a black man successful than putting on blackface made a minstrel performer black. And yet, of course, that’s absurd: black men are perfectly capable of achieving. Achievement is not unique to whites. Many whites don’t achieve. It just happens that whites in the aggregate tend to average better than most (but not all) other ethnicities in many desirable metrics.

      1. Nonetheless, there is room even outside the progressive echo chamber for discussions of privilege. It’s just not a discussion racialists and feminists are interested in having, because it’s complementary and not opposed to the exercise of power in terms of wealth, prestige, ability, skill, insight, charisma. Such things are blessings, to be sure, but they must be cultivated and enriched by hard work and cleverness. An entrepreneur is not merely someone with a great idea but the foresight and industriousness to see it bear fruit. Privilege is not a gift from birth but an undertaking throughout life. So what discussion can we have about privilege? That one must be humble in one’s successes and practice benevolent condescension. Unlike identity privilege, actual privilege does not require guilt or contriteness. In fact, those are anathema to properly exercising privilege. It demeans the privileged and dissuades the unprivileged from aspiring. Privilege, like Uncle Ben’s axiom on power, is something to be wielded responsibly for the betterment of oneself through the betterment of others.

        1. It’s not that privilege doesn’t exist. It’s that so often the word “privilege” is used as a bludgeon to stifle debate on a whole range of subjects, even enforce political orthodoxy on economic issues. Some white person says people can achieve without special government help, and a typical progressive will immediately yell “privilege” and say the white person’s opinion is illegitimate, not to be regarded, and possibly even racist.

          The debate we *ought* to be having is one about systemic social biases, implicit bias and the like, which creates the society where whites are “playing life on the easy setting”, and blacks are playing it on the hard setting. FWIW, I have personally witnessed this kind of thing in the workplace – a young white male freshout from an upper-middle-class family gets promoted over more experienced more capable non-white/male/upper-middle-class colleagues – just because the white-male-upper-middle-class management culture is predisposed to view him favorably. He’s given opportunities that other people are not because he “looks like” the right sort of person, they are more familiar with his type. It’s amazing really, to watch other people see a young white guy in a shirt and tie, and immediately project upon him all sorts assumptions of his trustworthiness and competence, without a shred of evidence.

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  23. I agree that the War On Drugs particularly fails black communities. Still, the headline is two words too long.

  24. I would say that the drug laws fail men even more as a preponderance of males seem to be incarcerated. There is a definite war on men going on and if drugs aren’t decriminalized then the laws should be changed so that an equal amount of women are imprisoned.

  25. So fanatical prohibitionism and financial collapse from its asset forfeiture looting have been a resounding success for WHITE communities? I knew prohibitionism was a ku-klux fetish, but I had no idea why.

  26. Many policies have a disproportionately negative effect on black families?and, by extension, on all of us.

    Wha? If I were more (or less) ‘woke’ or something, would I find this sentence coherent?

  27. Obama continued the racist war on drugs.


    The Obama Administration has officially renewed the War on Drugs. The Fiscal Year 2016 budget plan released earlier this week, shows, despite the illusion of the puppet show in the nation’s capital working to reform failed drug policies, the master is hell bent on spending more money than ever to protect America against the wrath of controlled substances.

    However, the scam is revealed in the numbers. For years, the federal drug control budget has favored law enforcement over prevention, so it is not surprising to see the trinity of federal drug enforcement (the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice) receive nearly $5 billion more than the Department of Health and Human Services. Incidentally, the $10 billion assigned to fund drug prevention and treatment programs is somewhat of an illusion, itself, as the majority ? $6 billion ? will go towards Medicare and Medicaid.


    Six more months and then this jackass is gone.

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