Anti-War on Drugs protest
Protesters at an anti-War on Drugs march

Racial justice in the United States means ending the War on Drugs

A new paper co-authored by Dublin City University’s Dr. Jonathan Lewis calls for an end to the war on drugs in the United States, by decriminalising both possession (for personal use) and use of drugs, and ending the practice of imprisoning non-violent offenders for drug related crimes.

The study, Racial Justice Requires Ending the War on Drugs, co-authored by Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University in New York and Brian Earp from Yale University, was published in The American Journal of Bioethics and is based on evidence from existing research into the effects of drug prohibition on users, communities and human rights, and the impact of decriminalisation.

The authors found that prohibition creates conditions for individuals to commit offences such as burglaries to fund their habit. This lowers life expectancy because people end up in prison, and triggers a multitude of health-related costs from unsafe drug use.

The war on drugs has worsened many aspects of public health while inordinately harming certain racialised communities. In addition, the war on drugs has fostered a condescending moralism that conflates drug use with violence or bad character and casts drug users - especially Black and Hispanic drug users - as criminals-in-waiting who deserve to be punished. 

The study argues for ending the drug war and investing in the most heavily affected communities. If managed carefully, this shift in policy will not only improve public health, reduce crime and recidivism, lower unemployment and poverty rates, and save governments large sums of money,it will strike a necessary blow against racial injustice.

It analysed evidence from over 150 studies and reports, concluding that prohibition unfairly affects Black and Hispanic people, damages communities, and violates the right to life.

Lead author Dr. Jonathan Lewis said,

“The war on drugs has explicitly racist roots and continues to disproportionately target certain communities of colour. Drug prohibition and criminalisation have been costly and ineffective since their inception. It’s time for these failed policies to end.

The first step is to decriminalise the personal use and possession of small amounts of all drugs currently deemed to be illicit, and to legalise and regulate cannabis, as has already been done across a number of states. Policymakers should pursue these changes without further delay.”

Dr. Carl Hart said,

“The ideas regarding decriminalisation of drugs have been the consensus or near consensus of people who use drugs, drug policy experts, harm reduction advocates, criminal justice reformers, and others for decades. We’re simply adding our support as bioethicists and allied professionals to this long-proposed policy change while calling for its extension through to legal regulation of all drugs, and highlighting the implications for systemic racism.”

The study highlights the liberal approach of countries such as Portugal where drug-related deaths have fallen and where users are encouraged to seek treatment.

An estimated $58 billion could be generated in federal, state and local tax revenues through the legalisation of drugs, according to the findings. This compares with an annual federal, state and local spend of more than $47 billion on prohibition.

The full paper can be read here.