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War on Drugs - What Does It Look Like Today?

Image from The CTMirror

On October 5th, 2020, California Governor Newsom signed SB-73 into law which ended mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses in California. The law went into effect January 1st, 2021. Previously, the law prohibited judges from granting probation or suspending sentences for crimes relating to controlled substances. Now, it is up to the judge’s discretion to order probation or suspend sentences for non-violent drug offenders instead of automatically sending them to jail or prison.


Recreational drug use rose throughout the 1960s and became the number one issue on everyone’s agenda. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in which he criminalized drug usage and increased the federal presence/funding for drug control agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency. Although most drug offenses are non-violent, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses increased drastically and became the driving force for prison population growth.

This graph from the Sentencing Project compares the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses in 1980 and 2019.

Nixon implemented strict policies like mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences are best described as “a minimum term of imprisonment upon defendants convicted of various controlled substance (drug) offenses and drug-related offenses.” Since drug offenses have mandatory minimums attached to them, judges’ hands are tied, and they cannot exercise their discretion even when it may be an offender's first offense. Mandatory minimum sentences exacerbate mass incarceration by incarcerating non-violent drug offenses and prolonging sentences in jail and prison.

  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.

The War on Drugs Initiative specifically targeted Black Americans and Latinos. Law enforcement focused on communities of color, urban areas, and lower-economic communities to stop and frisk individuals. As a result, more minorities were likely to be busted and charged with a drug offense than white Americans. For example, approximately 2/3 of crack users are white or Latino, yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal courts in 1994 were African American. Although mandatory minimum sentences are, in theory, supposed to be equal among offenders, there are inconsistencies for Black Americans and Latinos. Sticking with the example above, 1 gram of crack carries a minimum of 10 years in prison which is comparable to 100 grams of powder cocaine. Why is this considered a racial gap? Crack is associated with Black Americans, while powdered cocaine is associated with white Americans. What is the purpose of the distinction between crack and powdered cocaine other than to criminalize Black Americans? Additionally, mandatory sentencing negatively affects minorities because prosecutors ultimately determine the sentence by deciding whether to charge offenders with an offense that holds a mandatory minimum or not.

  • Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were Black.


As previously mentioned, during the war on drugs, Black Americans and Latinos have felt the brunt of this war by being arrested more, incarcerated more, and sentenced longer than white Americans for non-violent drug offenses. Since California has eliminated mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses that most Black Americans and Latinos are incarcerated for, this will potentially allow them decrease their numbers in the criminal legal system and reduce the disparities within drug offenses. In addition, instead of criminalizing drug usage, it can be framed as a health issue in which judges can court-order rehab and probation rather than jail and prison time.

California usually gets the ball rolling on reforms in the system while other states end up following in their footsteps. Hopefully, this trend remains true in order to eliminate the racial disparities in sentencing and decriminalize non-violent drug offenses worldwide.


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