jail prison

Since the origin of drug prohibition is steeped in racism, the drug war has been very effective at achieving this goal

If you think the drug war was actually about stopping drugs then it would appear to be a failure. Despite tens of thousands of murders caused by the cartels, the price of illegal drugs in Americans have steadily gone down while purity has gone up. If instead you realize that the origins of drug prohibition and most drug laws are steeped in racism, you realize the drug war has been very effective at achieving this morally reprehensible goal.

A new NBER paper by Derek Neal and Armin Rick shines light on how effective the War on Drugs has been at hurting the economic prospect of African-Americans. From the summary:

More than two decades ago, Smith and Welch (1989) used the 1940 through 1980 census files to document important relative black progress. However, recent data indicate that this progress did not continue, at least among men. The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a few years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. A move toward more punitive treatment of arrested offenders drove prison growth in recent decades, and this trend is evident among arrested offenders in every major crime category. Changes in the severity of corrections policies have had a much larger impact on black communities than white communities because arrest rates have historically been much greater for blacks than whites.

One of the biggest causes of this dramatic growth in incarceration rates and the increase in punitive treatment of offenders during this time period was the War on Drugs.

There are two small points of good news on this front. The first is the insane incarceration rate has ebbed slightly in recent years. The second is there appears to be growing acknowledgement of how destructive the racially bias drug war has been. Books like the New Jim Crow and this widely cited report from the ACLU, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, have cause policy makers at all levels to start seriously looking at fixing the problem. We have seen some important reforms at the state level and there is bipartisan support for real reform in Congress.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy

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