War on Drugs and Race


The following is an excerpt of a revised edition of Crime and Criminal Justice in American Society co-authored with William B. Brown, Randal Fritzler and Karen Miller to be published by Waveland Press this fall. The author wishes to thank co-author William B. Brown for researching and writing most of this excerpt.


As so many have noted time and again, young black males have received the brunt of the “war on drugs.” These numbers tell the story best; in 1980 the national rate of all drug arrests was about the same for black and white juveniles. During the 1980s, however, the arrest rate for whites dropped by 32%, while the rate for blacks increased by 249%. By 1989, the arrest rate for blacks was five times the rate for whites. Currently, more than one-third of the people under the age of 18 arrested for drug abuse violations are black.

The major fronts in the drug wars have been low income, minority neighborhoods. The spread of crack cocaine in the early 1980s contributed to the distribution of law enforcement efforts. Neighborhood residents appalled by the crime and violence that accompanied the sale of crack sought police protection.

Crack cocaine in black neighborhoods became a lightning rod for a complicated and deep-rooted set of racial, class, political, social, and moral dynamics. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, to the extent that the white majority in the U.S. identified both crime and drugs with the “dangerous classes”—i.e., poor urban blacks—it was easier to endorse, or at least acquiesce in, punitive penal policies that might have been rejected if members of their own families and communities were being sent to prison at comparable rates.

The war on drugs continues to adversely affect African Americans. In 1992, about 3 in 5 defendants charged with drug sales were black. In 2002, 53% of defendants charged with drug trafficking were black. The race-specific arrest rates for blacks over the age of 18 were approximately 3.5 times higher than for whites from 1993 to 1998. They declined slightly the next two years and were about 3 times higher in 2001. The most recent data show that in 2007 drug arrest rates for blacks remained 3 times higher than whites, according to a Human Rights Watch Report.

The war on drugs has adversely affected women as well. In 1986, there were less than 92,000 arrests for drug violations; in 2005, the number of arrests was more than 202,000, an increase of 220%. The increase in the number of arrests for men during those two decades was 53%. The police, following directives to stop drug violations, have significantly increased the numbers of arrests. The increased numbers have disproportionately affected minorities.

One method of measuring more than 40 years of drug war engagement is to examine the number of youth who use illicit drugs.  Illicit drug use by American youth reached an extremely high level in the late 20th century.  In 1975 the majority of youth (55%) had used illegal drugs prior to leaving high school.  While there have been declines of youth using illegal drugs prior to leaving high school over the years, the percentage of youth who used drugs prior to leaving high school was at 50% in 2011 – reflecting a 5% decrease since 1975, according to a recent Monitoring the Future report. If we can reach a 5% decrease every 40 years, the ongoing war on drugs appears to have a lifespan of about 400 more years. With an estimated cost of $25 billion per year spent combatting drugs, we will spend $10 trillion over the next 400 years.