Since it was declared by Nixon in 1971, the War on Drugs has been destroying communities everywhere. But no communities have been hit harder than Black ones.
You name an illicit substance, and the United States has it. Federal and state crackdowns on these substances affect millions. But it has disproportionately affected Black people. This is due in large part to thoughtlessly crafted laws, like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created a sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine that primarily affected Black Americans. Instead of supporting evidence-based approaches, the U.S. has made decades of the same damaging legislative mistakes, perpetuating a slew of societal ills, including racial and social bias, and the influence of drug traffickers in America.
Today, Black communities are still disproportionately affected by incarceration, STDs, mental health problems, homicide rates, denial of the right to vote and harassment by law enforcement, despite past and recent legislative efforts.
It happens over and over again, every year. In 2018, the Trump administration passed a temporary class-wide scheduling of fentanyl related substances (FRS) resulting in severe mandatory sentencing for sellers and users alike — regardless of whether or not they are aware their drugs are combined with fentanyl. The majority of offenders arrested under this program are Black, street-level dealers at the end of the drug’s distribution chain. Very few incarcerations have mitigated the available supply of FRS. As of 2019, 75% of individuals prosecuted and sentenced for fentanyl offenses were people of color.
But the cherry on top of all of this? The Biden administration quietly extended the Schedule I fentanyl policy — twice — in 2021 and 2022, despite findings that many FRSs do not make users high and instead could be lifesaving treatments.
The 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment is clear: Illicit substances are primarily trafficked into the U.S. from foreign sources through heavily governmentally-surveyed points of entry, such as Mexico. What’s more, the production of illicit substances spans worldwide. Most illicit substances in the U.S. originate from South America, Africa, Afghanistan and China. Despite U.S. foreign policy, and regulations implemented by foreign nations, countries such as Afghanistan and China increasingly cooperate with Mexican cartels, exploiting existing weaknesses in U.S. points of entry.
Enterprising individuals can obtain and distribute illicit substances directly via the dark web, Facebook and labs via U.S. postal services through UPS, FedEx and DHL. The U.S. government doesn’t want to acknowledge it but prohibition-based policy has done about as much to curb drug use as abstinence-based sex education has to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDs. This philosophy towards illicit substance abuse has been counterproductive and continues to exacerbate racial bias, drug overdoses, diseases, corruption, domestic and international violence, drug cartels, and stronger and deadlier drugs.
Better solutions exist. It’s time for the U.S. to take responsibility for the drug epidemic and support a combination of the following treatment and evidence-based approaches:
1. Provide funding and support for drug legislation with a foundation in public health and evidence based-approaches.
2. Provide easy access to test kits without fear of repercussions.
A study from John Hopkinsfound that 86% of injected drug users would use a fentanyl test strip (Reagent kit), if available. Strips are inexpensive, easy to use and can save lives. However, many states still criminalize fentanyl testing devices, citing the harm reduction strategy as condoning the use of illicit drugs.
Individuals reporting test strip data also supports early detection of emerging drug trends. The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education, with law enforcement and public health agency partners, has created the Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Discovery tool. The goal of the organization is to identify drug trends to revise approaches to drug overdoses and provide lifesaving treatment.
3. Decriminalize the use of drugs and focus enforcement efforts on supply origins.
Over decades, the evidence supporting decriminalization has only increased while prohibition policy has failed to make any meaningful, positive change. Portugal’s success with decriminalization of all drugs and other studies have demonstrated the suitability of decriminalization as a model for U.S. policy. Benefits include public health and safety, decreased incarceration, reduced government spending and promotion of racial equality. Facing a similar fentanyl health crisis, British Columbia recently shifted to decriminalizing small amounts of drugs. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize small amounts of illicit substances.
The facts are clear, yet the U.S. refuses to break the ineffective cycle of prohibition legislation, ignoring over 700,000 deaths caused by illicit drugs. It’s time for the federal government to take responsibility and provide the public safety all Americans deserve.
Finesse Moreno-Rivera is an expert in Criminal Justice Reform and research analysis. Moreno-Rivera has worked with federal and state institutions such as the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.