It was former First Lady Nancy Reagan who famously said, “When it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say ‘No’.” She was speaking to “her young friends,” as she put it, right before the War on Drugs was about to reach a fever pitch. During the ‘80s, the crack cocaine epidemic ravaged America’s poor neighborhoods and minimum sentencing laws locked up non-violent offenders for extremely long periods of time.
An interview from 1994 with an aide to former President Nixon was recently published in Harper’s Magazine. In the interview, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, more or less explained that the War on Drugs was used as a political tool.
“You understand what I’m saying?” Ehrlichman said. “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.”
Although Ehrlichman’s surviving family denies that he was a racist, his quote proposes a very bad notion: the War on Drugs was used as a political tool to target anti-government sentiment, and the mass incarceration of minorities was done with the intent to damage communities and keep the opposition down.
Two candidates from this cycle have made this issue a big part of their campaign: Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul. Both have spoken at length about how the War on Drugs has unfairly targeted minorities. During one of the Republican debates Paul said, “The people going to jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”
If only Paul had stuck to this instead of bickering with Donald Trump, his campaign might have stood a chance.
Sanders has been the true champion of the victims of the War on Drugs, and this is where his human side truly comes out.
Sanders has advocated for the legalization of marijuana and, instead of prison sentences, he has pushed for rehabilitation of those who are drug-dependent.
This is why it should be the accepted view that the War on Drugs was both a failure and founded on false pretenses. It was supposed to be about public health and keeping drugs out of the hands of kids, but it has only made the situation worse. As of June of 2015, 46.5 percent of all of those incarcerated in federal prison are imprisoned on drug-related charges, and the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
This is an issue Bernie Sanders should stand on to differentiate himself even more from Hillary Clinton. This is an issue that could win Sanders a lot of key votes in communities who have been left vulnerable. Those votes are up for grabs. He wants to enact meaningful criminal justice reform to protect those who have been swept up in a system that has historically failed.