“War on Drugs” a War on its People

Dismantling Laws Begins with Understanding its Origins

By: Asmaa Hagi

My Personal Encounter with Systematic Discrimination

The guidelines given by the Teacher Candidates of Color (TCC), was to submit an ‘artwork’ that reflected our lived experiences as a person of color. Additionally, to go beyond the peripherals our understanding of racism as isolated occurrences of injustice, and to see how it is embedded in many institutions. From my own personal experience, a time I realized structural racism existing in my own city (as Kendi refers to racist policies) was a story my friend had told me. My friend was volunteering at a low income public school (K to 6) with an after school literacy help program. My friend had seen these two college students who were enrolled in the police foundations, volunteering in the program as well. The college students had told her that they were there as part of their community service hours, to build relationships with the students (mind you were in grade 6 or younger) in case they bumped into them in the future. There were so many problematic things that were said in that statement. For one, having the inherent belief that these children (who were mainly racialized minorities) were criminals, really speaks to the existing racial inequality that lives in our institutions today. When following trends and patterns of crime rates among certain demographics, it would be more conducive to question why racialized minorities face higher chances of committing offences and what inequalities they face to cause that. Rather than seeing racialized minorities at fault, a progressive mindset would be to question systematic barriers and racist policies, and ways that this is sustained to continue injustice.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that the college students had racist ideologies, I am merely making the point how racist polices function consciously or subconsciously to place blame at the marginalized group. Often times, this goes unnoticed because these polices are build on our everyday lives. As a Sociology Major, I have had the privilege of constantly analyzing and uncovering how polices, have produced/sustained inequalities.

This event my friend had witnessed, brings me to the bigger conversation of criminalization among BIPOC and how this is rooted in racist policies. As a Black person, I always knew that racism existed, but only when I began studying ways BIPOC are/were criminalized in institutions did I begin to understand the complexity of this ‘system’ that is built on colonial beliefs that still exists today. With this critical piece, I will relate to my personal encounter of institutional racism to the “War on drugs in the US ''. Specifically, this critical piece will look at how racist ideologies manifest to racist policies, which in turn, produce normalized and harmful narratives against BIPOC. I will end with what I believe can be done to dismantle racist policies against BIPOC.

Jay Z - The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush

Racist Ideology: Nixon's War on Drugs

America’s infamous “War on Drugs” campaign was used as a weapon of political violence specifically targeting black people and other minorities; to deprive them of their basic human rights (Sirin, 2011, p.84). It served as a legal front to attack the black power movements and people with anti-war sentiments as their views conflicted with the governments political agenda (Sirin, 2011, p.84). At a time when drugs grew to be associated with social disturbances, political opposition and “youthful rebellion” in the 1960’s, the American government decided to place scientific research on drug safety and efficiency on a standstill for it conflicting with their political agenda. Then, America’s 37th president, Richard Nixon, declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971 (Sirin, 2011, p.83). Nixon increased the federal drug control agencies’ size and presence dramatically, and profusely lobbied for the legislation of no-knock warrants (a judge issued warrant permitting law enforcement to break and enter a property without notifying the residents prior the search of their property) and mandatory sentencing (necessitates that the offender serve an already defined period of time for specific offences) (Wikipedia) (Drug Policy Alliance). More than 40 years later, it produced fruitless results and the ramifications are heavily felt in modern day society. Instead, it bore acute racial injustices and disparities that damaged society’s social structure and depleted economic resources in the billions count (Sirin, 2011, p.83). Exceedingly punitive policies that are disproportionately enforced on a targeted demographic have subsequently caused the disenfranchisement of an entire population as a result of the devastating rate of incarcerations (Sirin, 2011, p.83).

Author Dan Baum, a researcher on drug prohibition policies, located Nixon’s former domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, who had this to say about Nixon’s war on drugs campaign:

“You know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Garza 2016)

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Racist Ideology Transforming to a Racist Policy: The Prison Industrial Complex

Moreover, Nixon’s war on drugs turned instead into a war on race and minorities. Causing communities of color severe grievances from broken homes, inescapable socio-economic disparities leading to a brutal cycle of poverty and crime, which have by and large diminished the triumphs of civil rights movements and largely undermined the essence of egalitarian democracy (Sirin, 2011, p.83). Racial injustices and disparities have been fueled further by administrations after Nixon, most notably by Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush (Drug Policy Alliance). The incarceration rate for nonviolent drug related offenses more than octupled during the presidency of Reagan, thanks to his record expansion of the drug war (Drug Policy Alliance). Political hysteria surrounding drugs made way for the enactment of draconian penalties in Congress and state legislatures which resulted in the inflation of incarcerations. Severe drug policies barred the development of syringe access programs and alternative harm reduction policies that were meant to moderate the sweeping spread of HIV/AIDS causing major setbacks in rehabilitation and prevention. (Drug Policy Alliance).

The prison complex is expanding due to mass incarceration, capitalism and the privatization of prisons. These as well all fuel the concealment of harsh and poor conditions; cutting off the social factor (prisoners access to society and vice versa), the public have no knowledge of the injustices the prisoners face inside the prisons, which prevents them from interfering with the logistics, acting out or protesting such cruel practices. The prisoners are also in isolation and are secluded from outside social interactions. Davis claims that we must contemplate on the methods that global capitalism has altered the world for us to apprehend the structural implications that bridge the criminalization of black people and the criminalization of immigrants together.

What we are witnessing at the close of the twentieth century is the growing power of a circuit of transnational corporations that belong to no particular nation-state, that are not expected to respect the laws of any given nation-state, and that move across borders at will in perpetual search of maximizing profits (Davis, 2011, p.44).There lies a strong correlation between the rising punishment industry and the rising capitalist economy due to the exponentially increasing incarceration rate; more prison complexes are required to be built promptly. Davis says that prison construction is the most developed sector of contemporary construction since prison expansion opens a job market for the prison construction niche. This entails that there exists a rising demand for architects that are able to design new prisons, as well as engineers who are capable of developing new technologies catering to the needs of the corporations in charge, as well, there is also a demand for the construction materials needed (Davis, 2011, p.48). Angela Davis says, “Rather, the prison system as a whole served as an apparatus of racist and political repression, fixing its sights not only on those who were incarcerated for unambiguously political reasons, but on the majority of the incarcerated population” (Davis, 2011, p.37-38). But we have not learned how to talk about the centrality of prison in our lives. We do not integrate discussions about this institution into our daily conversations. We rarely teach about the prison system, except in specialized courses that rely on academic discourses that bolster the idea that prisons and their attendant regimes of repression are necessary institutions in a society that promises security. We have not learned how to talk about prisons as institutions that collect and hide away the people whom society treats as its refuse. (Davis, 2011, p.50). Although uncomfortable, I believe that change can begin when we can call out racist policies that deprive marginalised people from simply living.

Harmful Narratives that have Become Normalized

Mass increation among BIPOC has been deemed so normal that it has produced and created harmful narratives against many oppressed groups. When these harmful narratives make their way into mainstream culture and transform into societal norms, people perpetuate them subconsciously and on a conscious level even, knowing there will be little to no reprehensions for their actions (Sirin, 2011, p.84-85). The law does not interpret itself rather, it is continuously interpreted by human beings, and this gives way to structural violence (Sirin, 2011,p.85). These fallacies and fables will seep into socio-economic, cultural, and political realms and become embedded in the structural functioning of a society. The ramifications are still felt to this present day (Sirin, 2011, p.84-85). The dominant group in society no longer questions the morality of the people in power after being fed false narratives that have become normalized (Sirin, 2011, p.87). The influential dominant group will contort the reality and create rhetoric of stereotypes and tropes, vilifying and criminalizing innocent people trying to survive off a broken system (Sirin, 2011, p.85). Laws have been passed to punish black and other people of color demographic harshly, sending them to be locked up, while simultaneously contributing to the expansion of the prison-industrial complex (Davis, 2011, p.42-43). “[R]espective communities have already been rendered vulnerable by the impact of racism. In the public imagination they become personifications of the enemy, the racialized public enemy” (Davis, 2011, p.44). These terms have negative connotations and an implication to criminalize, dehumanize and demonize a targeted demographic of individuals. In analyzing who this is affecting and who this is benefiting we must look at the commodification and commerce of black and immigrant bodies, their objectification, for the purpose of gaining capital is maintained by private corporations, the state, and the complicit public and these in turn nourish the global capitalist market; both in their convolution, supply each other’s needs and the black and immigrant communities are left to suffer. This is the result of state sanctioned violence.

How Can We Dismantle This System?

To begin, I use the word dismantle, because I believe it would be insane to continue to build from a structure that is inherently weak. Second, I cannot stress the importance of examining the issue of mass incarnation from a historical standpoint, and how this acknowledges that there exists a problem. Capitalist corporate America benefits from this epidemic in this case due to the Thirteenth Amendment, which in short is a loophole to imprison people and simultaneously put them through free labor, “Amendment XIII, Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (US Constitution) Therefore, slavery was never abolished, this means that the exception to free labour is in the punishment of a crime. A violation of human rights endorsed by the state. With over two million people incarcerated in the US, predominantly black, is an example of the state taking control over the black body. According to my knowledge when the Jim Crow Law was abolished it was a replacement for slavery and the antics of it, the Jim Crow Law was a law that ratified segregation for decades after slavery was abolished. However, as soon as Jim Crow Law was dismantled it was quickly replaced with the thirteenth amendment. At this point many states took advantage of this, and would put people away for extremely minor crimes as a way to use this loophole as an advantageous resource. In modern day however, this is used advantageously as well, putting away black people for a crime like drug use. The key factor in this is that white people use drugs just as much or even more than black people but, the sentencing and conviction rates for black individuals is 10 times more (NAACP).

Therefore, more extensive policy reforms and structural changes are necessary to more effectively remedy such inequalities, there needs to be reform to try and unravel some of the deep rooted disparities. It comes incrementally, the same way that the structural inequalities and violence has been perpetuated and transpiring for years. We must work on not expanding who gets privilege, rather, we must question the entire system all together and why those who have privilege have it and are maintaining it. We, as a society, must strive for justice and liberation, not just equality. Ibram Kendi refers to racism as “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”(44). *I believe that racist policies will only be rebranded in different forms if we fail to recognize the racist ideology that was the driving force behind the racist policy.*

Going back to my personal encounter, I would like to mention that I recognize the importance of building relationships with marginalized children. However, as explained, I don't believe that children are the problem, rather they are placed in conditions which create higher chances of crime rates. As Paul Gorski mentioned, #FixInjusticeNotKids Principle, “no amount of effort should be spent on initiatives designed to fix students of color. All efforts should be spent on initiatives that transform that marginalize students of color. Therefore, it is important to make the distinction that BIPOC are not the ones that need to be fixed, rather it is the system" (Paul Gorski Tweet).

In this reflection, I discussed how racist ideas produced racist policies which ultimately produce harmful narratives. That is why I believe that if we want to truly achieve change and dismantle these oppressive systems, it is important that we take a critical look at our systems producing this oppression and not blame those who are oppressed. Anti-oppression work is to take a critical look at these racist ideologies and how they are deeply rooted in colonial beliefs. Recognizing how these racist ideologies exist/ manifest and operate will make the process of eliminating racist polices done from a justice lens, which will ultimately put an end to discrimination and begin the process towards restorative practices.

I am hopeful, and I truly believe that this could be done. I am willing to have these uncomfortable conversations to be part of the movement to create change…

I was driven to write this reflection when I read the following quote...

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DeMeritt, J. H. (2016). The Strategic Use of State Repression and Political Violence. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved from http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-32

A Brief History of the Drug War. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war

Davis, A. Y. (2011) Libares01.carleton.ca. Retrieved from https://libares01.carleton.ca/ares.dll?Action=10&Type=10&Value=160026.

Garza, F. (2016, March 23). Nixon advisor: We created the war on drugs to "criminalize" black people and the anti-war left. Retrieved from


Ibram X. Kendi. “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Jay z “The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail. (2020, February 9). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kk1ioyjMZZY

Mandatory sentencing. (2020, February 10). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandatory_sentencing

No-knock warrant.(2020, February 15). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-knock_warrant

Paul Gorski Retrieved from http://edchange.org/publications.html

Sirin, C. V. (2011). From Nixon's War on Drugs to Obama's Drug Policies Today: Presidential Progress in Addressing Racial Injustices and Disparities. Race, Gender & Class: Volu,18(3-4). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/stable/pdf/43496834.pdf

Zero tolerance. (2020, February 15). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero_tolerance


I am currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Ottawa!