Those of you who keep up with such things will have noticed a growing consensus in the media: after 42 long, hard years, the war on drugs has failed. This rhetoric is attractive, but misleading. While the war on drugs has been undeniably costly, devastating society while doing little to genuinely address drug use or abuse, the narrative of failure does not address the primary reason the war was created in the first place.
The war on drugs was designed as a tool to win votes. It was never about drugs, but about the exploitation of racial resentment and fear for political power. As such, it has succeeded more than any other political scheme of the last half of the twentieth century.
There is a lot at stake in the political game and politicians on both sides of the aisle (and at all levels) have figured out how to stack the odds. These powerful elite have manufactured and perpetuated a limitless war in order to increase their chances of getting elected, further their political agendas, and surreptitiously return favors to campaign donors. This callous political scheme has built many hundreds of political careers by locking millions of young, disproportionately Black and Latino men in steel cages. For politicians, the high volume of drug crime-based incarceration has the added benefit of artificially lowering unemployment numbers. Prisoners are deliberately unaccounted for in employment statistics, a practice that cruelly foreshadows how this population is overlooked when applying for jobs and social services upon release.
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Right now, Americans are in the midst of a unique opportunity to confront the destructive politics at the heart of the war on drugs, dismantle the current racial caste system in America, and create infertile ground for future exploitation. Calling the drug war a failure undermines this opportunity. Worse, it legitimates the way that the last four decades have been framed by those who have profited the most.
In fact, activists and reformers who go along with the failure narrative are engaging in their own opportunism. In an attempt to sustain anti-drug war momentum, they are compromising truth. This is dangerously short sighted: it may create a release valve, or a weak revolution, but it will not address fundamental problems. We cannot just tinker with the machinery; we have to tear it down.
Even as the drug war’s power as a political rhetorical tool dwindles, similar wars gain strength. As Michelle Alexander puts it, “crack is out; terrorism is in.” Much like the war on drugs, the war on terror uses calculated and coded race baiting and fear to consolidate political advantage. Politicians ingratiate themselves with mainstream voters by taking a ‘tough’ stance on whichever issue is most popular. To avoid charges of bigotry, they use ostensibly color-blind designations that invoke racialized imagery: “illegal immigrants,” “terrorists,” “criminals,” “drug dealers.”
In another 40 years the drug war may be forgotten, but its ills will have been replicated in many forms and its tactics, unless confronted, will remain. Only once Americans recognize that the war on drugs has not failed at all and that, instead, it has been a dangerously successful political tool, does this country have a fighting chance of overcoming the New Jim Crow and undermining the political profitability of future systems of racialized social control.
To quote the eminent Levar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it.” Read widely and critically. If you are not sure where to start digging, begin by reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Study up, stay engaged, and the day when we can celebrate a victory over a truly failed war on drugs may be yet to come.