Back to the Future, Back to the War on Drugs

In the current political climate, largely characterized by a chaotic no holds barred presidency, it seems like every issue is a hot button. Drugs are no exception. Even as the country as a whole moves towards a more progressive treatment of low risk drugs–namely, with the legalization of recreational marijuana in several states–our administration seems to trudge on with dated ideas about how to fight, and win, the undying and incredibly problematic war on drugs.

For those unfamiliar, here’s some brief historical context: The war on drugs kicked into full swing back in the 1970s with Nixon’s presidency. Nixon announced that drugs were “public enemy number one.”

A hard-line approach to narcotics policing took form under Nixon. This was continued throughout  the administrations that followed him: particularly Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and–in an attempt to turn away from the stereotype of the “soft democrat”–Bill Clinton. It’s clear today that harsh reactionary policies, like Reagan’s “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentencing, and increased jail time for crack over powdered cocaine (an arbitrary distinction that disproportionately affected black Americans) were not only ineffective in addressing the problems they claimed to address, they were also detrimental to the already vulnerable communities they targeted.

In the years since, it has been further clarified that the war on drugs and the tactics it employed were a continuation of racist characterization and criminalization of people of color. This time, they were simply disguised in a new, more abstract iteration than the Jim Crow and segregationist policies that preceded it.

Last year, excerpts from a 22-year-old interview with a Nixon aide were published in Harper’s Bazaar, in which Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told writer Dan Baum in plain language what had already come to be known: that the war on drugs was nothing more than a smokescreen for ruthless political posturing and racist scapegoating.

Ehrlichman said that Nixon’s White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Ehrlichman said that by vilifying these groups they could arrest their leaders, all with the support of Americans who came to view these people as criminals due to the characterizations by the government and the media. He continued, “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Nixon’s drug war has cast a long shadow with incredibly damaging ramifications. A shocking statistic notes that one in three black men in America will serve jail-time. Now, fast forward to the present day. During the Obama years, America’s drug position was quietly reshaped: Obama decreased jail time and pardoned a significant number of those incarcerated.

Although the prison industrial complex continued to see the mass incarceration of more than 2.3 million Americans (figures that were largely maintained under Obama’s presidency), there was a notable shift from dealing with drugs punitively, to treating them as a public health and safety issue.

Today, however, we have President Donald Trump. Lest we forget that not only is Donald Trump fucking old, he’s old-school. And when it comes to American history, old-school largely translates into racist. This trend is visible in Donald Trump’s own past: lawsuits accusing the real estate mogul of housing discrimination have followed him around. Not to mention his infamous snafus throughout his candidacy and presidency: calling Mexican people “rapists” and “murderers,” failing to swiftly and unequivocally denounce the Ku Klux Klan after they endorsed his bid for presidency, and his monolithic classification of minorities.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s attitude towards drug use in America tends to take a similar tone. More often than not, Trump’s critiques of America’s drug consumption are couched in an age old rhetorical tactic: blame and criminalize black and brown people, whilst approaching white people with more leniency. Trump’s ostensible concerns about the current opioid epidemic are largely a vehicle for him to justify his xenophobia. In Trump’s mind: those who are afflicted by heroin addiction (arguably a problem that has gained more attention and sympathy because of the way that it has come to afflict white Americans) are victim to the violent and greedy predilections of drug-smuggling immigrants. Needless to say, this is an extremely reductive approach to a deeply complex issue.

Trump’s solution, it seems, is to ramp up law enforcement and build his storied wall. The blunt, fear-based cadence of his sentiments echo those of Nixonian times. He’s said: “We’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice.”

Furthermore, it’s common knowledge that Attorney General Jeff Sessions longs for a return to a war on drugs mentality. During his confirmation hearing, he was quoted in saying that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”  And, years ago, Sessions allegedly joked that the only reason he ultimately closed the book on the Ku Klux Klan is because he found out that some of them smoked pot.

This is a man who was deemed “too racist” to be a judge in 1986, and he is now the chief law enforcement officer in the country. Sessions also laments what he considers to be one of the main failings of the Obama administration: their lax treatment of marijuana. Sessions said, “It reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Nancy Reagan started ‘Just Say No.’”

It is difficult to predict precisely what new problems will arise with Donald Trump’s presidency, but it seems fairly certain that old ones will be reinvigorated. When it comes to narcotics in America, it’s a good bet that Trump’s lack of nuance and atavistic attitudes will yield unfortunate, yet familiar, results. This will come in the shape of disproportionate incarceration and unnecessarily harsh sentencing for poor people of color, which only maintains the stratification of society and fans the fire of prejudice and hate that has persisted in the U.S. for the entirety of its existence. Donald Trump is president, and the war on drugs is back.