The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs: the self-perpetuating machine

THE WAR ON DRUGS: A campaign of prohibition of drugs, military aid and military intervention , with the stated aim being to define and reduce the illegal drug trade.

“You should not be able to enter a hospital ward full of new-born babies and predict with near certainty on the basis of class, background and race where these kids will end up in life” – Charles Oggletree

For the disadvantaged youth of Inner-city America, life often hinges on two things: death and prison. Indeed, these two factors are intrinsically linked in these communities, with both arguably being equally as prevalent. The War on Drugs does not necessarily compel these youths to sell or take illegal substances. However, the environment it helps to create engenders the continuation of conflict and inequality, through gang warfare and the disproportionate incarceration of Black people. This inequality and conflict, caused in large part by the War on Drugs, leads to the existance of the “machine”, young men are fed into it and are then locked into a near inescapable cycle.


72 percent of Black youths are raised in single-parent households, the vast majority of these children growing up without a father, often due to the War itself either through the death of the father or his imprisonment. This situation encourages involvement in gangs, as a substitute for the family life, which they have not experienced. As a result, people over the age of 24 make up a mere 13 percent of gang members. There are more gang members aged below fifteen in the US on average than those aged above 24.

Gang warfare, perpetuated by the conflict for control of drug markets has deadly consequences. In 2011, 8,900 of the 11,100 of the gun homicides in the United States were attributed to gang warfare with urban youths experiencing exorbitant casualty rates due to their involvement in these groups. These deaths, often caused by one group encroaching on another’s market, are evidence of the existence of the “machine”.  A death leads to reprisals, reprisals lead to further reprisals, and the cycle continues. Something that started as a conflict for markets grows into a community-wide fracture. Business gets personal.


Incarceration is big business in the US. Ronald Reagan began the process of privatising the industry in the 1980’s (at the same time initiating the War on Drugs) and since then crime has decreased while prison population levels have increased. America now houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. 2.3 million people are imprisoned in America, just less than a quarter of these for non-violent drug offences. To put this in to context, before the commencement of the War on Drugs in 1980, this number stood at 42,000 whereas it is currently 500,000. What’s more, whilst African-Americans only account for 13 percent of the population of the US, they made up 45 percent of the inmates convicted on drug offences in 2012. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of judicial policy in terms of prosecuting the losers of the War on Drugs is the issue of sentencing. For example, before 2010 those caught with five grams of crack cocaine (a cheaper, more readily available variant of powder cocaine) received the same penalty as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. Whilst this sought to eradicate crack cocaine more actively as it has a more detrimental effect that powder cocaine due to its wider usage, black communities were disproportionately affected, as crack cocaine usage was more prevalent in that environment. Although the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 changed the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1, it is still clearly weighted against the inner-city communities.  However, Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the incarceration of people involved in the drugs trade is that it perpetuates the very system it seeks to destroy. On leaving prison, convicts have little choice but to return to the life that put them in prison in the first place. 66.7 percent of those incarcerated on drug charges reoffend, inevitably leading to more death and further imprisonment.

The War on Drugs, and the prohibition it enforces, pushes the sale of illegal substances underground, leading to gang warfare for control of the lucrative markets it creates and punishing those involved in these activities. It does not eradicate the problem. It does not stem the flow of drugs from the countries surrounding the US. It does not help the communities that it seeks to help. Instead it engenders and enables the process that it seeks to destroy, and in doing so it ensures its continuation. A certain demographic of the youth that it was initiated to protect are often driven to either selling or taking these drugs, situations that lead to either prison, death or both. This system must be reformed to ensure that the youth of the future are not raised in such circumstances as it is, perhaps, too late for those in the present.



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