By Sophie Lovering
Sophie Lovering is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs, increasing sentencing and enforcement actions for low-level drug offenses . In the following decade, President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan not only continued but also built upon Nixon’s initiative, passing new policies and starting the “Just Say No” campaign . This war on drugs categorized substance abuse as a criminal justice issue in the minds of many Americans. With the concurrent expansion of drug law enforcement, this led to a massive increase in the number of people incarcerated.
During his time in office, Nixon created the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) . Despite a brief lull in enthusiasm following Nixon’s presidency, the war on drugs continued: 15 years after Nixon’s call to action, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related crimes .
Despite its good intentions, the American government, in establishing these regulations, created the crisis of mass incarceration. Since the 1970s, the federal prison population has increased sharply every year . The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center focused on reducing incarceration in the United States, estimates that, between 1980 and 2014, the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes grew from 41,000 to 488,400: a whopping 1000 percent increase . Since 1980, the number of Americans arrested for drug possession has tripled, and today one-fifth of the prison population is serving time for a drug-related charge . Incarceration rates for non-drug related crimes have remained fairly stable, thus the cause of this increase can be attributed to increasingly strict drug regulations .
The war on drugs has implications not only for how many Americans are incarcerated, but also for which Americans are incarcerated. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act specifically targeted black Americans, as sentencing for offenses involving crack cocaine, used more often by black Americans, were one hundred times more severe than sentences for offenses involving the equally dangerous drug powder cocaine, used more often by white Americans . Even when charged with the same offense, prosecutors are twice as likely to seek the mandatory minimum sentence for a black defendant than they are for a white defendant . Despite equal substance abuse rates, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than white men . Today, the number of black men in American prisons has surpassed the number of male slaves in 1820 .
Although some Americans continue to support the war on drugs, the general consensus in academic and political communities is that the initiative was ultimately a failure; despite this agreement, little has been done to right its wrongs. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), reducing the sentencing discrepancy between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1 . Throughout the United States, many states have legalized medical marijuana, and some have gone as far as legalizing recreational use of the drug .
Despite these advancements, tens of thousands of Americans, especially Americans of color, continue to sit idle in prisons. Although changes in legislation may eventually change the perception of drugs and drug-related crimes, incarceration itself leaves a scar on society. Many previously incarcerated individuals can legally lose custody over their children, equal employment opportunities, and access to public housing . Today, one in thirteen black Americans, otherwise eligible to vote, are disenfranchised by their felon status .
While it is agreed that the initiative failed, few know where to go from here. One thing that we do know, however, is that something needs to change, and it needs to change now.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
 Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress. June 27, 2018. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice /reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/.
 HISTORY.COM Editors. “War on Drugs.” May 31, 2017. https://www.history.com
 Carroll, Lauren. “How the war on drugs affected incarceration rates.” Politifact. July 10, 2016. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/ju
 Boyd, Graham. “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” ACLU. July/August 2001. https://www.aclu.org/other/drug-war-new-jim-crow.
 Drug Policy Alliance. “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race.” January 25, 2018. http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish.
 DISA Global Solutions. “Map of Marijuana Legality by State.” https://disa.com/map-of-marijuana-legality-by-state.
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