Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Let's travel back 50 years to the summer of 1971.
Richard Nixon: America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're listening here to President Richard Nixon declaring the war on drugs, but what did that mean? Where were the front lines? Who was the enemy and how would we know if we were winning or losing? A little evidence comes actually from just five years ago. Back in 2016, when Beyoncé's husband, also known as Jay-Z, offered an answer to some of those questions in a narrated video created in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance.
Jay-Z: In 1986, when I was coming of age, Ronald Reagan doubled down on the war on drugs that had been started by Richard Nixon in 1971. Drugs were bad, fried your brain and drug dealers were monsters, the sole reason neighborhoods and major cities were failing. No one wanted to talk about Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets with the funding of schools and the loss of jobs and cities across America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You see, Jay is actually the ideal ambassador for this message because President Richard Nixon's drug war is the older sibling of hip hop, born just two years before that famous Sedgwick Avenue house party. Like hip hop, public policy needs rhetorical strategy and even as Black Americans in the late '60s were pressing for full citizenship in the Civil Rights Revolution, lawmakers were stepping into the cipher to test cultural deviance as a battle strategy for public opinion.
Citing drugs and communal pathology, these lawmakers shifted public attention away from structural inequities and toward a new Monster, drugs and drug users. Now, if the goal of the war on drugs has been to spend trillions and incarcerate millions, then we are right on track, but given that more than 93,000 people died of drug overdose in the US last year alone, if the war on drugs has been to eliminate or reduce drug use, then--
Jay-Z: The war on drugs is an epic fail.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now is Aaron Morrison, national race and ethnicity writer at The Associated Press. Aaron, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Aaron Morrison: It's good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 1971, where did this policy come from? Why did Nixon declare this war on drugs?
Aaron Morrison: He saw it as a way to go after the "hippies" and Black activists that were not only standing up against the Vietnam War, but were continuing to assert their rights and fight for their liberation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think one of the things I'm most done by looking at this history is how quickly there were suggestions, basically, from all policy sectors at a minimum, to decriminalize marijuana. By 1973, you've got government entities, you've got researchers saying, "Well, marijuana should certainly not be Scheduled 1." Why did that not happen 50 years ago?
Aaron Morrison: That's because there was a political advantage for Nixon and some of his successors, to really demonize the use of drugs as a proxy for getting at those folks who were pushing for progress and change across the country. That's all it took because at the same time that drugs were being used more recreationally, more so marijuana, you also saw increases in violent crime. They were starting to prop up in urban areas, so that was an easy scapegoat. It's like, "Well, if we get the drugs out of either of these communities, we can decrease the violence." However, we know today, it was a lot more complicated than that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just because there's a correlation, simply because there is drug use and crime is rising does not mean that there's a causation. It's not necessarily the case that drug use caused an increase in crime?
Aaron Morrison: Absolutely, but it's an easy message, especially when you've got the media willing to play that game as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Let's dig in on the media part a bit. I appreciated the piece that Jay did back in 2016 and all of the work that the Drug Policy Alliance has been doing now for a decade, but I also wonder about the ways that sometimes the narrative is almost exclusively male and having grown up right in the same era, as a young Black woman, I'm always thinking about Kemba Smith, about all the Black women who also got caught up in the criminalization net of the drug war. Talk to me a little bit about how media hysteria impacted both Black men and Black women.
Aaron Morrison: Let's just be clear, it was easy back then, to paint the picture of, particularly, young Black men and Latino men, as the public enemy number one in their communities because of the uptick in violence in the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1989, the crack cocaine was associated with a doubling of homicides of Black males aged 14 to 17.
That meant that the communities at the same time that they were experiencing pain and hurt from the violence that they were seeing, they were also crying out for a solution.
Another point on that is Black women, perhaps, were the most impacted because not only were they seeing their sons and fathers and uncles and brothers dying or going to jail, they were also being left home to care for the family in the wake of the drugs sweeps and the violence. At the same time that Black women were also incarcerated at higher rates than white and Latino women. They were also shouldering the burden of being left behind as a lot of their men went away.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There'd be nothing, the partisan aspect of my brain and heart would like to do, than to put it all on Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and call this all a blame game on Republicans, but that would be not only unfair, but also inaccurate. Can you talk about how Democrats and Republicans have been pretty bipartisan and even the Congressional Black Caucus in aggressively pursuing this war on drugs for decades?
Aaron Morrison: For the piece that I did for the Associated Press about the drug war, I just spoke to the Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. She made a point to me that I felt was really, really important. She said that if you were a Black leader, in the 1980s, the mid-1980s, back then, you were searching and grabbing for any solution, to not only reduce the violence that you were seeing in your community, but also the huge addiction problem that you were seeing in the community. It's that context in which we have to think about the support for drug war policies back in the 1980s.
However, Black folks said, "Please help us clean up our communities. Please, come help us with addiction." They didn't say, "Lock up all of our people." They didn't say, "Come in with a heavy-handed law enforcement and don't provide any of those resources to help us deal with the addiction problem."
Melissa Harris-Perry: As we look at this moment and ideally moving forward to address some of the damage that the war on drugs has done, particularly in communities of color. Again, there is actually some bipartisan work happening here, some sense that folks acknowledge the many ways that this has been bad for the country. Can you talk a little bit about some of those bipartisan solutions that are, at least, beginning to emerge?
Aaron Morrison: Today you see a much more bipartisan support for decriminalization of drugs. That's different than legalization of recreational use of drugs. Decriminalization has gained a lot of support and it's because what we've seen with the opioid crisis is that there are now many more white people addicted to drugs, to painkillers, to other things that you can buy on the street.
If you set up an entire apparatus and infrastructure for criminalizing and incarcerating people who are addicted to drugs and those who also sell or traffic those drugs, the current drug crisis, which we know to be around opioids, that means many more white people are going to be incarcerated than others. I think that's also part of why we're seeing a push for decriminalization because we can see a difference in who is most impacted when it comes to public health crisis in drugs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did the war on drugs impact voting and voting opportunities even as we're seeing them now 50 years later?
Aaron Morrison: We're talking about in certain states, because at the same time there was a federal prohibition on drugs, states mirrored those policies and their own legislatures. In certain cases, if you had a drug offense on your record, that affected your access for housing or if you're fighting for child custody rights, the courts and the agencies can see your criminal record. A lot of states implemented felony disenfranchisement, which meant that as a result of your felony conviction, you could not get your voting rights back, unless you paid the fines and fees or restitution associated with your conviction. Then also it precluded a lot of folks with drug offenses from gaining their drug rights back.
I should be clear here that people do regain their voting rights, they do get their gun rights back, but you've got to have the know-how and sometimes even the money to hire a lawyer to help you seal or expunge your record,
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not only voting, but this tie between war on drugs and criminalization and the incarceration system, how also might that, as you reported, has it affected housing, education and work opportunities?
Aaron Morrison: In the story I featured a man by the name of Alton Lucas. In the 1980s he became addicted to crack cocaine and he was also trafficking it for a short amount of time. His life could have gone on two different paths. He was either going to go to college to play basketball or he was going to go on the road with his friend a famous DJ known as DJ Nabs, to go and tour around the world. They were performing with a lot of artists from the So So Def Record label and so he found drugs, instead. He went to prison for drug related crimes, came out and got treatment and early release, actually as a result, something that a lot of people didn't get at the time.
Mr. Lucas, has been, to this point, nearly 30 years clean, 30 years sober, has not been in trouble again. Today, he still can not pass most criminal background checks because he still has a searchable felony conviction on his record. That means when he's trying to apply for any jobs, that could be a question about whether or not they hire him, the same with business loans, that can also be a hindrance for him. We're talking about the ripple effects of the war on drugs and what is happening to people. Sometimes they have a life long consequence from something that happened 30 or even 40 years ago.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if there is a really entirely different way to think about this. I had a conversation with Carl Hart back earlier this summer and he wrote the book Drug use for grown-ups and he's basically like, "Legalize all of it. What are we talking about here people?" The opioid overdose crisis is, for example, has more to do with people having to use it illegally, that we use language like crack and heroin and people just immediately think it's just all horrifying. What if we just back all the way up 50 years, 1971 and just didn't declare war on drugs any more than we would declare war on sugar or alcohol or cigarettes."
In your reporting in talking even in these communities most impacted, is there any taste, any desire for that level of legalization and moving back?
Aaron Morrison: There is definitely support for decriminalization and legalization of recreational use of all drugs, illicit drugs. However, addiction prevention advocates say that that could also be disastrous because at a time where people need to be continuing their development, typically in their teenage years and in their early twenties, the introduction of drugs can throw a lot of people off. It's not to say that it's a lifelong, you would fail at life if you try drugs in your teens and twenties. Addiction prevention experts say, "Look, let's pump the brakes on just blanket legalization of these drugs, if that does not also come with resources to help people who become addicted, but also resources to educate the public about what drugs can do to you." There are things that the public should know about the use of drugs and what it does to your body, the science behind it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aaron Morrison is the National Race and Ethnicity writer at the Associated Press and apparently an advocate for science, knowledge, data and information, who knew? Thank you so much for joining us Aaron.
Aaron Morrison: Thank you for having me.
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