A California government task force released an interim report on reparations for black Americans on Wednesday that delves deep into how marijuana criminalization and the broader the war on drugs has been weaponized against minority communities and contributed to a cycle of mass incarceration.
The report from the Reparations Task Force, which was established under a law enacted in 2020, is nearly 500 pages, and the document includes an extensive analysis of the origins of the drug war and how its enforcement has intentionally and disproportionately targeted black people for political and racist means.
The task force is comprised of nine members, five of whom were appointed by the governor and four of whom were appointed by leaders in the Senate and Assembly. Members “are drawn from diverse backgrounds to represent the interests of communities of color throughout the state, have experience working to implement racial justice reform, and, to the extent possible, represent geographically diverse areas of the state.”
The new report states plainly that the “American government at all levels criminalized African Americans for social control, and to maintain an economy based on exploited Black labor.”
“Mass incarceration, another tool of racist social control, has also had the consequence of breaking up Black families.”
A clear example of the racist political intent behind the push to increase penalties over drugs came out of the Nixon administration, with the report citing a statement from one of the former president’s top advisors, who claimed that Nixon’s plan was that “getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, [the administration] could disrupt those communities.”
The report notes that black people and white people use drugs at virtually identical rates, while people of color are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for it.
Drug criminalization, and the resulting convictions that disproportionately affected communities of color, has also led to widespread voter disenfranchisement, the report says, emphasizing that “although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are Black or Latino.”
Today the California Reparations Task Force released its interim report detailing the harms of slavery and systemic discrimination on African Americans.
I urge every American to read this report.
— Rob Bonta (@AGRobBonta) June 1, 2022
Facing a drug conviction can also deprive people of eligibility for public benefits, exacerbating the systemic and generational harms.
It can also separate families and leave children without parental bonds.
“The criminalization of African Americans through the ‘War on Drugs’ also contributed to increasing numbers of Black children being removed from families and placed into the foster care system, as Black men in particular were disproportionately arrested for minor crimes, breaking apart families and often leaving children in the care of extended relatives or strangers,” it says.
While President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan are most commonly associated with pushing punitive drug policies, the report makes clear that “tough on crime” platforms have been bipartisan hallmarks of administrations across the political spectrum, including that of President Bill Clinton, who signed into law the 1994 Crime Bill that significantly increased drug related penalties and bolstered mass incarceration.
“During the post-civil rights era, both Republican and Democratic politicians ran on ‘tough on crime’ or ‘law and order’ political platforms that popularized especially punitive criminal laws—particularly laws prohibiting drug sales, distribution, possession, and use—to gain support from voters,” the report states. “These political campaigns often relied on the negative stereotypes of African Americans as criminals built by the previous three centuries of American law and order.”
The report also highlights the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine that were enacted by Congress during the Reagan administration—and also specifically supported by then-Senator Joe Biden—as an example of how drug policies were crafted in a way that has a disparate impact on black communities.
“Police crackdowns and incarceration for drug possession did not relieve the social conditions that spawned the crack cocaine epidemic, but rather created harmful consequences for African Americans. State actions exacerbated them by treating drug addiction as a crime, as opposed to a public health issue.”
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 also “expanded the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related offenses and imposed new mandatory minimums for drug offenses.”
Another section of the report addressed the country’s approach to substance misuse disorders. Rather than treat such disorders as health issues that should be handled with treatment, the federal government has historically “chosen to respond to rising drug addiction as a criminal justice issue,” which has “resulted in state action against Black people in need of substance abuse services.”
“Rather than treat drug use as a public health issue, the American government chose to treat illegal drug use as a criminal justice issue. Federal and state governments chose to punish drug users rather than offer medical help. The war on drugs, which continues today, is a cause for the high numbers of imprisoned African Americans, as evidence exists to suggest that African Americans use drugs at approximately the same rate or less than white Americans.”
“African Americans have experienced marginalization, physical harm, and death, at the hands of the American criminal justice system at both the federal and state level beginning in slavery and continuing today,” the task force said.
A key takeaway from the report is that these problems and policies are not isolated in history; punitive drug laws are still on the books, and racial disparities in enforcement persist. It’s not limited to the criminal legal system, either.
For example, the report talks about how, to this day, “many African American Olympic athletes are discriminated against [by] being suspended for legal marijuana use.” That calls to mind the Olympic suspension of black U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson over a positive THC test last year, which prompted international condemnation.
Another modern day example of this systemic issue is the fact that, despite state-level cannabis legalization spreading across the country, many black entrepreneurs face unique challenges in entering the legal industry, the report says.
A final report with recommendations on reparations for the black community will be released by July 1, 2023.