There Should be Payback to the Victims of the Government's Mindless War on Drugs


With marijuana legalization and de-criminalization trends sweeping the nation, speculation has risen about their future ramifications.

But while most people discuss business and revenue possibilities, Michelle Alexander is addressing another topic: reparations. The attorney and author has spent years documenting the racial injustices that fuel America’s War on Drugs, culminating in her 2011 book The New Jim Crow. What she’s seeing now – in places like Colorado, Washington and the District of Columbia – is definite progress, but also a failure to reckon with the devastation criminalization has wrought over the past few decades.

In a March 6 conversation with Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, Alexander said the following: “In many ways, the imagery doesn’t sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big — big money, big businesses selling weed — after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”

Here she’s referring to the widely discussed disparities in black and white marijuana arrest rates, as well as their long-term ramifications. Dylan Matthews assembled a few charts to illustrate this for the Washington Post:

Image Credit: The Washington Post

The irony is especially stark considering Colorado stands to make $134 million in marijuana tax revenues this fiscal year. Most profit so far has come from just 59 recently legalized businesses.

But the real impact of marijuana criminalization does not end with prison time: “We arrest these kids at young ages, saddle them with criminal records, throw them in cages, and then release them into a parallel social universe in which the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them for the rest of their lives,” Alexander added. “They can be discriminated against [when it comes to] employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They're locked into a permanent second-class status for life.”

Basically, the drug war has led to the disproportionate mass incarceration of black Americans, who are then released into society facing harsh restrictions on their ability to function as citizens. This is a troubling issue that raises plenty more questions, one of which is whether compensation for drug war victims is feasible:

“After waging a brutal war on poor communities of color, a drug war that has decimated families, spread despair and hopelessness through entire communities, and a war that has fanned the flames of the very violence it was supposedly intended to address and control; after pouring billions of dollars into prisons and allowing schools to fail; we’re gonna simply say, we’re done now?” asked Alexander. “I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused.”

The issue of marijuana sentencing reduction has been floated, but reparations take the conversation to another level. Should they be considered a legitimate possibility? The distinctly ethnic and class-based victimization patterns of the War on Drugs suggests yes. Evidence goes back as far as the original impetus for marijuana criminalization, which largely stemmed from William Randolph Hearst’s smear campaign linking the drug’s use to “crazed black men raping white women” and other similarly racialized concerns.

Years later, once Nixon’s War on Drugs was fully underway, America’s largely black and Latino inner cities were hit the hardest. From disproportionate arrest rates to steep sentencing disparities, the racial component of these government policies – in addition to their long-term effects – cannot be ignored.

These issues are also linked to the rehabilitative failure of prisons in general, and America’s baffling inability to reintegrate former prisoners into society. But the main question here concerns how reparations could be practically implemented. Alexander suggests we begin with Truth and Reconciliation hearings, similar to those held in post-apartheid South Africa. Designed to “elicit truth” about the past rather than sweeping it under the rug, these measures allow perpetrators and victims alike to publicly acknowledge the legacy of national tragedies. Such hearings are an important first step in what will be a long healing process.

Financial compensation seems unlikely, but as ripples of nationwide marijuana legalization turn into tidal waves, it seems important to incorporate some form of redress for past wrongs into the process. Victims of all colors and backgrounds have suffered because of our government’s ignorant marijuana policies, which retrospectively seem foolish even to them. Lives have been ruined, perhaps never to be fully repaired. The least we can do is legitimize and recognize these struggles through a larger conversation.

Then the real healing can begin.