50 Years Later, a Majority of Americans Want the Drug War to End

Jonathan Wall is currently jailed in a maximum-security federal prison in Baltimore, Maryland, facing 15 years in prison. The 25-year-old man’s alleged crime? Doing what small businesses and multimillion-dollar corporations alike do as members of the nation’s fastest growing industry: Growing and selling cannabis.

Wall’s attorney, Jason Flores Williams, also represents legal cannabis businesses from his office in Denver, Colorado. A couple weeks ago, Williams was on the phone with Wall discussing his potential prison sentence, which could be at least 10 years due to harsh federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have filled prisons for decades. A few minutes later, another client called Williams for advice on investing $1.5 million in a legal cannabis business. Unlike wealthy investors, Williams said Wall could not afford a cannabis license where he worked in California. The feds came after him because his product allegedly crossed state lines — just like billions of dollars worth of cannabis does each year.

Some form of cannabis is legal in nearly every state, and cannabis rich in psychoactive THC is legal for medical use in 34 states and recreational use in 17. In Baltimore, Maryland, prosecutors no longer charge people for drug possession and minor crimes, a move heralded by advocates for reducing incarceration rates and needless suffering in a majority-Black city where 20 percent of families live below the poverty line. Medical marijuana is legal in Maryland, with roughly a half dozen dispensaries located in Baltimore, and recreational marijuana is sold in nearby Washington, D.C. A short drive from the federal prison where Wall awaits trial, cannabis firms are investing millions of dollars in warehouse space to grow weed. Williams says cannabis should be regulated, but locking Wall away for a decade or more is a “profound human rights violation.”

Jonathan Wall's attorney says he is facing 15 years in prison because he could not afford a legal cannabis license in California and his product crossed state lines.
Jonathan Wall’s attorney says he is facing 15 years in prison because he could not afford a legal cannabis license in California and his product crossed state lines.

“This is the only court, this federal court in the City of Baltimore where this could possibly be happening,” Williams said in an interview, adding that his own family was “torn apart” and left in poverty when his father was incarcerated for years on drug charges. “The question is, who will be the last American citizen to be incarcerated for cannabis?”

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon declaring the war on drugs in hopes of squashing rivals in the antiwar and Black liberation movements. Since then, an estimated $1 trillion has been spent waging the drug war in foreign countries, incarcerating millions of people at home and militarizing law enforcement at all levels of government. Drug war violence — the police brutality, the taking of children from parents, the caging of human beings, the deadly stigma and discrimination against drug users — has fallen hardest on low-income neighborhoods and young Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in particular.

As statewide cannabis legalization becomes the norm and progressive locales slowly reduce penalties for small amounts of other drugs, the drug war’s contradictions are becoming impossible to ignore. Communities of color bear the brunt of drug prohibition, but the vast majority of legal cannabis businesses are owned by white people. Former cops who aggressively enforced marijuana prohibition are cashing in on the weed industry. The psychedelic drugs MDMA, psylocibin mushrooms and ketamine largely remain illegal, even as promising, well-funded studies show they are effective at treating various mental health conditions such as PTSD. The government attempted to prevent overdose deaths by cracking down on painkiller prescribing and drug trafficking, but the opioid supply became more unpredictable and dangerous as a result, one of many reasons why the number of overdose deaths are skyrocketing instead.

Today, more than 80 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents agree that the war on drugs has failed, according to a new nationwide poll of registered voters from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance. Two-thirds of voters say drugs are a public health issue and criminal penalties should be removed for all drugs, not just cannabis, so the money spent on drug enforcement can be reinvested into addiction treatment and mental health services. Decriminalizing people involved with drugs and refocusing resources on public health would mark the beginning of the end of the drug war, but federal drug laws prohibiting drugs remain frozen in time. Where they exist, state and local reforms move slowly and are often limited to cannabis or small amounts of drugs.

For decades, ending illicit drug use at home and abroad was the stated policy goal of the United States. That goal proved deeply unrealistic and inhumane. A large swath of the adult population uses drugs without causing much harm to themselves and others. Among those who do develop addiction and other health problems from drug use, millions struggle to get the medical treatment they need.

Researchers say rates of fatal drug overdose have been rising rapidly since the late 1970s (not the mid-1990s when painkiller prescribing became more liberal, as the media often claims) and correlate with economic decline in communities across the country. Five decades after Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” the drug overdose death count reached a terrifying new high in 2020 and is rising fast in Black communities that have long been targeted by police and denied equal access to health care and addiction treatment. Rather than blaming a scourge of drugs that have always been with us, and a growing chorus of activist drug users and public health experts declare, “every overdose is a policy failure.”

If the war on drugs was ever intended to protect us from the harms of drugs, it’s clearly done the opposite. In the meantime, public health experts and activists who use drugs have developed a litany of strategies and community-based services for making drug use safer and helping users take control of their own health. Yet police continue arrest and even kill people for being involved with drugs. Police arrest people for drugs more than any other crime, with more than 1.5 million drug arrests recorded in 2019, according to federal data. Police disproportionately target Black and Brown people for drug enforcement, one reason why racial minorities are vastly overrepresented in the prison system, and Black people are more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during an encounter with police.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and his attorneys attempted to use George Floyd’s drug use as justification for the gruesome murder that sparked nationwide protests last year. Breonna Taylor, whose death at the hands of police also fueled Black Lives Matter protests, was killed during a botched drug raid in Kentucky that reportedly failed to recover any drugs. Protests for Black lives ignited again in April, when police in North Carolina shot and killed an unarmed Andrew Brown Jr. in his own driveway while serving a search warrant alleging Brown sold small amounts of drugs.

People who sell drugs (and may use drugs themselves) are a major focus for law enforcement now that the overdose crisis has helped reframe personal drug use as a public health issue. If we are to end the war on drugs, advocates say, policymakers must abandon the flawed idea that arresting and locking up people who sell drugs makes anyone safer or causes drug markets to shrink. Indeed, incarcerating Jonathan Wall for 15 years won’t put a dent in the illicit cannabis market. A growing number of voters appear to agree; the poll found that only one-third of voters say drugs should be addressed through the criminal legal system. Sixty-one percent support commuting or reducing prison sentences for people incarcerated on drug charges. Grassroots activists have even bigger ideas, such as immediately expunging all drug convictions and paying drug war reparations directly to Black and Brown communities.

Despite decades of violent drug war, demand for drugs has remained consistent. The war is extremely lucrative for law enforcement, and while some politicians will campaign on reform, they are rarely willing to spend political capital on an issue that’s long been stigmatized once in office. Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, campaigned on the MORE Act, a bill passed by House Democrats last year that would finally decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The legislation would also direct tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to programs in communities harmed by prohibition and create a process for expunging federal marijuana convictions, policies supported by racial justice groups. However, Harris has since avoided questions about cannabis legalization, and reports suggest the “tough” former prosecutor may have flip-flopped on the issue.

While the groups that conducted the new poll oppose the drug war, their findings echo other previous surveys that found growing opposition to drug prohibition and changing social attitudes about drugs, even in deeply conservative parts of the country. House Democrats have reintroduced the MORE Act, giving their slim majority in Congress another chance to finally end federal marijuana prohibition. Whether politicians like Harris are willing read the writing on the wall remains to be seen.