The Price We Paid: Race, Reparative Justice and the Drug War

Crack cocaine seized during a drug raid by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration


To date, President Barack Obama has granted 774 commutations. That is more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined, and more commutations than any other individual president in nearly a century.

The majority of people receiving commutations were convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to egregious mandatory-minimum sentences. The announcement of commutations is commonly greeted with floods of adulation from media and advocates for fair sentencing that are laced with rhetoric calling America a nation of second chances. This conveniently frees from accountability policymakers and elected officials who stoked the flames of the war on drugs, and places the onus to change on those who have been oppressed by life sentences in federal prisons because of draconian drug policy.

dea raid, opinionBut when it comes to the drug war, it is America that needs a second chance. The blame belongs to the nation that criminalized substance use, liberally doling out punishment to those who needed care.

With the increase in deaths from opioid-related overdose, many policymakers and elected officials are embracing an evidence-based, public health approach to addressing individuals suffering from addiction. The call for a “gentler war on drugs” is the result of the perceived new face of heroin and opioid use, since nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in this decade were white. The deaths of white, suburban young people has led to conversations centering the humanity of people who use drugs.

Law-enforcement programs around the country are realizing that America can’t arrest its way out of this problem.

This more compassionate approach to drug use did not exist for communities of color that struggled with the effects of poverty and cocaine addiction in the ’80s and ’90s; nor did it exist for black and Latino heroin users in the ’60s. There wasn’t and isn’t empathy for people of color who lost their homes, their families and their freedom because of the zero-tolerance drug policies (pdf) that seeped into every administrative system. While there is some public acknowledgment of the differential response to white drug use and the overall failure of the drug war, there has been little in the way of a political response, and no action to account and atone for the failures of the past and present. It’s time for that to change.

The New York Policy Office of the Drug Policy Alliance is launching a reparative-justice campaign, Color of Pain, to reduce the harms associated with drug use, reduce the harms of draconian drug policy and repair the harms caused by the drug war in communities in New York state. To launch a campaign of this nature and magnitude in New York is critical because New York lawmakers were national leaders in implementing punitive drug policies (pdf) that other states quickly followed, and that led to the rampant incarceration of black and Latino people for low-level drug offenses (pdf), the proliferation of communicable diseases and the loss of life to drug overdose.

These decisions continue to have a negative impact on people of color in low-income communities who face a multitude of collateral consequences, including barriers to accessing public housingemployment and higher education because of of previous involvement with the legal system. Many believe that the “new approach” toward drug use, albeit late, will benefit anyone who uses or misuses drugs. But history has taught us repeatedly that rising tides don’t lift all boats.

The opioid epidemic has underscored what we have always known about drug use and misuse: Addiction is not specific to a racial group or economic class, but supposedly “race neutral” or colorblind drug policy has had a disparate impact on communities of color. We need new thinking in drug policy that owns that truth and atones for the harm done.

The drug war’s racial impact was by design, and any policy to change it must address racism or it will not benefit those who are persistently marginalized.

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