The African American War On Drugs
Attorney General Eric Holder – the first African American to hold the Federal government’s top law enforcement post — called this week for Federal drug laws to be reformed or repealed.
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said, according to his prepared remarks.
America’s forty-year national drug war has led to the incarceration of millions of black men, many imprisoned for decades for non-violent low-level crimes
Those laws have been described by many critics as oppressive, racist and even genocidal policies — comparable to the European Holocaust, to slavery, and to the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South.
But America’s modern war on drugs was established at a time of growing African American political power.
Many of the toughest crime laws were crafted based on ideas and political mobilization that came from the black community itself.
This timeline illustrates the surprising story of how many prominent black Americans — including writers, poets, civil rights activists, elected officials, clergy, and their close allies in the Democratic Party– frequently supported the drug war, despite growing misgivings and controversy.
Our research also found evidence of significant if sporadic opposition to the drug war within the conservative white community, which seemed to inform the larger discussion in interesting ways. That, too, is documented here.
This timeline is a work in progress. We’ll be adding factual data, texts, video and images to the timeline as more information becomes available.
1965. August 6. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. There are five black members of Congress, no African American members of the US Senate. That day, President Johnson met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1967. African American Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts, the first black man elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction.
1968. In Harlem, Reverend Oberia Dempsey recruits “volunteers from among retired policemen, guards and others who had been trained and held pistol permits” in order to patrol local streets and break up drug activity, according to the New York Times. In 1968, Dempsey publishes an op-ed in Harlem’s Amsterdam News , an African American newspaper, calling on local blacks to “please join the war on dope.” In a sermon broadcast that year, he argued that “the greatest challenge facing America is not North Vietnam. The greatest challenge facing America is crime.”
1968. November 4. Richard Nixon is elected to the White House after running a campaign that mingled messages about “law and order” and states’ rights. Asked by an African American voter whether these were code phrases for white bigotry, Nixon said it was a “very troublesome question for every American.”
“I don’t go along with people who say that law and order is a code-word for racism,” Nixon argued. “My studies of this situation indicate that black Americans have just as great a stake in a law and order society as white Americans.”
1969. January 8. New York Times reports that an NAACP official in Harlem likens Harlem “to the Wild West” and warns that blacks are resorting to “vigilantism” in an effort to stop drug-related crime.
“A warning was issued yesterday that Harlem could become a community of gunfighters, reminiscent of the Old West, if the law failed to protect black citizens from outlaws.”
1969. After a clinical study offers evidence that large numbers of Washington DC jail inmates have heroin in their blood stream, the city’s African American Mayor Walter Washington allows pioneer methadone treatment program.
President Richard Nixon embraces the program and backers of the program cite evidence that drug therapy program cuts crime in half, but suspicion runs high in the black community.
“It was enslaving the black underclass,” says Dr. Robert DuPont, the founder of the study, citing rumors common at the time during an interview with PBS.
“It was robbing, it was the narcotic, the opiate of the masses, being given out by the government for political purposes, to make docile the revolutionaries who were otherwise going to free themselves and change the society. That’s the way people thought, what some people thought. And it was done for political purposes. I was the agent of Richard Nixon and it was anti-black, anti-poor.”
1969. December 3. President Richard Nixon convenes a gathering of nation’s governors to talk about drug crisis. Says that part of the solution must be treatment and rehabilitation.
“When you’re talking about thirteen year olds and fourteen year olds and fifteen year olds, the answer is not more penalties. The answer is information. The answer is understanding,” Nixon says.
According to CBS News, Nixon administration is considering reduced penalties for marijuana possession, along with more education, in an effort to convince young people to avoid “experimenting with still stronger drugs.”
However, administration also pushes states to adopt tougher drug laws.
1970. June. Ebony magazine publishes article titled “Blacks Declare War on Dope.”
“Most community groups agree that the first offensive must be against black pushers and distributors who, as one father of a 19-year-old addict says, ‘come brazenly into our neighborhoods and murder and cripple our children with that junk’,” the article argues, noting that a year earlier 224 New York City teen-agers died from heroin overdoses or drug-related infections.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm is quoted describing the drug epidemic in her district as “comparable to the bubonic plague.”
1970. September-October. MAJOR FEDERAL DRUG WAR LEGISLATION PASSES. Three of the nation’s ten African American lawmakers vote in favor of Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act, the first major piece of Federal legislation laying the groundwork for the national war on drugs.
Senator Brooke from Massachusetts, Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York, and Rep. Robert Nix Sr. from Pennsylvania support the measure. Only two black congressman, including Rep. John Conyers from Michigan, vote against the bill. Five members of the black delegation don’t vote.
1970. October 27. President Richard Nixon signs the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act. The law criminalizes a wide range of drugs, including cocaine, heroine and marijuana, and broadens Federal enforcement powers.
“Those who have a drug habit find it necessary to steal, to commit crimes, in order to feed their habit,” Nixon said, at the signing ceremony. The new law, he argued, would give Federal agents “jurisdiction that we have not previously had. The jurisdiction of the Attorney General will go far beyond, for example, heroin. It will cover the new types of drugs, the barbiturates and the amphetamines that have become so common and that are even more dangerous because of their use.”
1970. November. A total of thirteen African American members of congress elected in mid-terms, nearly tripling black representation from 1965.
1971. February. The Congressional Black Caucus founded on a motion by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY).
According to historian Marguerite Ross Barnett, the group quickly made “a transformation from a small, relatively powerless, and ignored group of representatives to a national cynosure.” Through most of its history, the CBC would advocate actively for tough drug war legislation.
1971. March 25. The Congressional Black Caucus secures a closed-door sit-down meeting with President Nixon in the Cabinet Room. During the session, the group demands more action to stop the flow of narcotics into urban neighborhoods. Members acknowledge that they are risking their credibility meeting with Nixon. The session is secretly recorded by the President.
Rep. Charles Rangel, a newly-elected Democrat from New York City and a former Federal prosecutor, urges Nixon to do more to fight drugs without waiting for further congressional action, warning that support might soon build for drug legalization.
“You do have the power and we implore you to use it as you would if this were a national crisis and I think we’ve reached that,” Rangel insists.
Before departing, the Black Caucus presented Nixon with a manifesto of sixty priorities for the African American community. It included the demand that “drug abuse and addiction be declared a major national crisis” and a call to use “all existing resources” to stop the trafficking of drugs.
1971. May 24. In a private meeting with White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman, Nixon is said to be “very much concerned about handling of the drug situation.”
“[The President wants the whole thing taken out of HEW [Health Education and Welfare Department]. He makes the point that they’re all on drugs there anyway, but he wants it handled in Justice. He also wants [HEW Commissioner Robert] Finch and [White House advisor Donald] Rumsfeld to quit emoting about the drug problem, which only builds it up. We should be talking about our solutions, not about the enormity of the problem.” – HR Haldeman, Diaries
1971. June 17. In a historic address, President Richard Nixon takes to the airwaves to declare a war on drugs. At times he seems to echo Rep. Rangel’s words from the March meeting.
“Public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” he says solemnly. “In order to defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
1972. March 10. National Black Convention held in Gary, Indiana. Despite turmoil, delegates issue statement of demands, including a call to eliminate the death penalty and “grant local community control” to court system and prisons.
1972 March 22. Nixon’s “Shafer” commission, made up largely of conservative white elected officials, recommends legalization of marijuana. “Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety,” writes co-author Gov. Raymond Shafer, a Republican from Pennsylvania. Measure receives no support from black lawmakers in Congress.
1972. August. Four months after hosting National Black Convention in his city, Gary Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher requests Federal aid in combating drug crime in his city, according to the Associated Press. Drug crime has left 22 people dead in his community “since January.”
1972. In an interview during a campaign swing through New York, President Nixon promises to continue funding for drug war, despite budget pressures in Washington.
1973. January. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a longtime member of the NAACP with close ties to the black community, rolls out drug laws that would set a new standard for tough sentences, even for low-level non-violent drug offenders.
“I have one goal and one objective and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim,” Rockefeller declared, at a press conference.
He is joined at the podium by prominent black leaders from New York City who support the measure and urge Rockefeller to adopt even more stringent penalties including the death penalty for “pushers.”
“Our young people are dying, they’re being destroyed,” says Glester Hinds, who leads an organization in Harlem called the People’s Civic and Welfare Association.
“And unless you back this bill, New York state is doomed. And not only the state of New York, but all the other states are watching to see what New York is doing.”
1973. May 8. Governor Rockefeller signs laws setting minimum prison sentences of 15 years to life for possessing even small amounts of illegal narcotics, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine.
1973. July 28. President Nixon creates the Drug Enforcement Agency (the DEA) within the Justice Department.
1972. August 10. Jet magazine publishes a cover story describing drugs as a form of “Slavery.”
1974. May. Jet magazine profiles Angela Davis and her efforts to reform America’s prison system. Article treats the “severity of the country’s prison situation” and Davis talks about the death penalty and the “severe forms of oppression that the country has experienced.”
In a speech in 2012, Davis argued that “we have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”
“Those behind bars have not had a chance at education. Why don’t we start a long-range plan in this country to remake our educational system?”
1974. August 21. Congressional Black Caucus meets with President Gerald Ford at Ford’s request. During the meeting, Rep. Charles Diggs (D-MI) “lauds” the appointment of New York Gov. Rockefeller to serve as Ford’s Vice President.
1974. December 19. Nelson Rockefeller confirmed and sworn in as Vice President of the United States. Congressional Black Caucus splits vote on confirmation.
1975. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduces legislation to create a Federal Sentencing Commission. Measure fails. Initially conceived as an effort to introduce fairness into sentencing, the concept would later be adopted by Reagan administration as a way to insure tougher prison terms.
Intentions aside, Kennedy was an early supporter of the idea of stripping sentencing discretion from judges.
“We believe that Senator Kennedy was wrong in assuming that Federal judges were generally arbitrary and discriminatory in their exercise of sentencing discretion. Indeed, it appears that deny judges the discretion to mitigate sentences on the basis of social disadvantage has worked against poor and minority defendants.” — Yale Law School Study, 1993
1976. California’s Democratic legislature passes and liberal Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signs SB 42, establishing tough new mandatory minimum sentencing laws comparable to those approved by New York state three years earlier. According to a Rand study, the law produces prison commitment rates in California that have “increased substantially,” contributing to “major problem of prison crowding.”
1977. August 2nd. President Jimmy Carter proposes easing Federal marijuana laws. Measure fails to find support in Democratically controlled Congress.
“I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. This decriminalization is not legalization. It means only that the Federal penalty for possession would be reduced and a person would received a fine rather than a criminal penalty. Federal penalties for trafficking would remain in force and the states would remain free to adopt whatever laws they wish concerning the marijuana smoker.”
1978. California’s Democratic party approves a second measure toughening incarceration and parole rules, called the Public Protection Bill. Governor Brown signs the measure into law. In a press statement, Governor Brown boasts that “for most crimes the bill triples the maximum period a person released from state prison can be placed on parole and subjected to conditions of parole and supervision by a parole officer.”
1982. Just Say No. Nancy Reagan launches a national campaign designed to “inoculate” young people against the temptations of narcotics. Program is criticized by some within the black community as unrealistic and “naive.” But thousands of community and school based programs form and “Just Say No” is popularized by African American entertainers including Michael Jackson.
1982. February. Congressional Black Caucus releases “Black Leadership Family Plan for the Unity, Survival and Progress of Black People.”
The document, penned by civil rights icon and Washington DC non-voting representative Walter Fauntroy, includes criticism that “diminished drug enforcement increases [black youth] vulnerability to drug abuse.”
Document complains about “police brutality” and warns that the “incidence of crime in black communities is increasing because of intentional and unintentional failure on the part of law enforcement agencies to provide adequate protection.”
Plan urges police to “increase drug enforcement efforts and include community sources of information and cooperation.”
1982. Conservative Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and Democratic Sen. Joe Biden — both members of the House Judiciary Committee — partner on a new anti-crime bill penned initially by Biden’s staff.
“I told him and I told my Democratic colleagues, ‘I’ll make a deal. If you keep your right-wing guys from killing this bill, I’ll keep the liberals off the bill,” Biden said, in an interview about the effort.
The measure passed Congress, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill.
1982. November 2. California voters approve bond act authorizing $495,000,000 expenditure on new state prisons. Also pass Victims Bill of Rights toughening prison sentences
1984. October 12. Ronald Reagan signs Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Creates tougher penalties for marijuana possession. Also creates a new Federal Sentencing Commission, first proposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy. Measure passes with overwhelming margins in House and Senate.
1986. July 15. Fauntroy testifies before a Committee hearing, describing crack cocaine as “the plague.”
“Every area of our life, every institution of our society is being affected by this tragedy and high cost of drug abuse,” he says.
Fauntroy laments the fact that prisons are “clogged” with drug offenders and cites a study suggesting that “65% of the persons arrested at the present time have some form of illegal drug in their system.”
“Drugs — and now ‘crack’ – are indeed the source of threat to all civilized society and each of us must accept 100% of the responsibility for eliminating this threat in our midst,” Fauntroy concludes, describing the drug war as a “terrible struggle.”
“Just as in the past we fought slavery and we fought racism, we are going to fight drugs and the total indifference of those in power,” Davis said.
New York City councilman Wendell Foster tells a gathering of 200 people that drugs “are a new form of genocide” for the black community.
“As devastating as drugs may be in the white community, they are ten times worse in the black community,” Foster declares.
1986. August. New York’s Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo introduces sweeping drug war legislation that escalates Rockefeller-era penalties, particularly for crack cocaine.
“Governor Cuomo’s proposal last week for penalties of up to life in prison for drug dealers convicted of selling even a small amount of crack – three vials, or $50 worth – has renewed a two-decade-old debate in New York State,” the New York Times reports. “Do severe penalties reduce drug dealing or are they political responses to appease an outraged public?”
Public pressure in support of the measure is intense. ”I’ve never seen anything like it,” said District Attorney Mario Merola of the Bronx. ”Hardly a week goes by that we don’t have an anti-crack rally in the Bronx.”
1986. October. MAJOR FEDERAL DRUG WAR LEGISLATION PASSES. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 passes Congress, enacting far tougher Federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders, including those caught with marijuana. Establishes a 100-to-1 disparity in punishments for crack cocaine compared with powedr form of drug.
The measure is supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, though some members want even harsher penalties for drug crimes. Sixteen of nineteen African American members of the House — including Texas Rep. Mickey Leland and California Rep. Ron Dellums — co-sponsor of the bill.
1986. October 27. President Ronald Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
“The magnitude of today’s drug problem can be traced to past unwillingness to recognize and confront this problem,” Reagan argues. “And the vaccine that’s going to end the epidemic is a combination of tough laws—like the one we sign today—and a dramatic change in public attitude. We must be intolerant of drug use and drug sellers.”
In his remarks, Reagan singles out his wife, Nancy Reagan, for her anti-drug efforts, as well as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY).
1987. January. Concerned about spiraling cost of drug war, President Reagan proposes significant cuts to spending on interdiction and treatment efforts. The measure draws fierce criticism from Rep. Charles Rangel.
“Reagan got in trouble with Democrats-and some Republicans-last week when he proposed cutting $913 million from drug education, enforcement and prevention programs because the action was at odds with his past rhetoric,” the Washington Post reports. “[Charles B. Rangel] and others said the proposed cutbacks don’t have much of a future on Capitol Hill.”
1987. March 5. Veteran civil rights activists begin political fast to demand Federal action to slow illegal drug use, according to the Associated Press.
Two veteran civil rights activists have begun a 40-day fast to protest drug abuse. The Rev. Hosea Williams and Dick Gregory, the comedian, camped out at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave here Wednesday and said they planned to spend two days each outside the White House, the United States Capitol and the New York Stock Exchange. The two men said they would send a telegram to President Reagan asking him to commit more Federal money to the fight against drug abuse.
1987-88. La Toya Jackson becomes a spoke-person for the Federal war on drugs. Her single “Just Say No” begins with the warning that “people are dying” because of drugs.
In an interview with Newsday, Jackson says she dedicated her album to the “children of the world” because she is”involved with the anti-drug campaign ‘Just Say No,’ which is designated to children between the ages of 3 to 7 and tries to prevent them from ever starting to take drugs.”
1988. May 17. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) publishes an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Legalize Drugs? Not on your life.” He chastises President Reagan for not doing enough to battle illegal narcotics and calls crack “the worst drug epidemic in our history.”
“Here we are talking about legalization, and we have yet to come up with any formal national strategy or any commitment from the Administration on fighting drugs beyond mere words,” Rangel argues. “We have never fought the war on drugs like we have fought other legitimate wars – with all the forces at our command.”
1988. July. Presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson gives speech at Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia and calls for “a real war on drugs” demanding reforms to interdiction efforts.
“You can’t just ‘say no’,” Jackson tells Democrats. He suggests that “bankers” and other high-placed individuals are enabling the drug trade and blames the drug epidemic on poverty. “Some of us take drugs as anesthesia for our pain.”
Jackson suggests that the Federal government hasn’t made a sincere effort to stop the drug trade. “We must end the scourge on the American culture,” he says.
1988. October 22. MAJOR FEDERAL DRUG WAR LEGISLATION PASSES. House of Representatives approves the Anti-Drug Control Act of 1988, a bi-partisan bill which further toughens narcotics penalties, adding the death penalty in certain cases, and creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy — establishing a so-called ‘drug czar’ for the first time. Also enables a Federal media campaign designed to curtail youth substance abuse. Passes House on 346-11 vote.
Many African American House members don’t vote on the measure. However, Julian Dixon, William Gray, August Hawkins and Charles Rangel vote in favor of the Reagan-backed bill. The only African American “No” votes are cast by John Lewis and John Conyers.
1988. November 18. Ronald Reagan signs Anti-Drug Control Act of 1988. The New York Times quotes Rep. Rangel, chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control,praising the provision of the law establishing a national director of drug policy.
”Now Congress and the American people will know who is in charge of dealing with the nation’s drug crisis, because this individual will be responsible full time for developing and coordinating all aspects of our war on drugs,” Rep. Rangel says.
1989. Poet and essayist Ishmael Reed publishes essay “Ground Zero” about life in a drug-wracked neighborhood, portraying pushers and dealers as “black terrorists” and “crack fascists.”
“The patrolman who arrives after the second break-in of your car within the month of October says that the Oakland police can’t cover all of the posts, and that stopping the cocaine epidemic is like stopping sand,” Reed writes. “You hear this from most of the people you interview: the drug war is over and the bad guys have won. The chief of police cites all of the arrests that he’s made, only to conclude that “the problem is getting worse. It’s horrible.”
1989. March. Ebony magazine publishes an article describing Rep. Rangel as “The Front-Line General In the War On Drugs.” Rangel talks about the “cancerous epidemic” of drugs hitting black communities in America.
Rangel chastises the administration of President George H.W. Bush for not doing enough to stop drugs. Blasts the White House for moving with “turtle-like speed” to tackle narcotics.
“We need outrage,” Rangel says, “I don’t know what is behind the lackadaisical attitudes toward drugs, but I do know that the American people have made it abundantly clear: they are outraged by the indifference of the US government to this problem.”
According to Ebony, Rangel “credits” Richard Nixon with “taking positive steps to deal with the problem.”
1989. August. Ebony magazine publishes an issue with a front-cover illustration declaring “War: The Drug Crisis.” “The drug crisis in Black America has become a deadly, uncontrolled plague that has turned some neighborhoods into war zones.
In a letter to readers, publisher John Johnson describes the coverage as “one of the most important issues we’ve published.” According to the article, “a deadly plague rages in the streets” of black communities.
The series includes flattering depictions of black law enforcement officers combating street dealers, s well as a profile of Vincent Lane, the African American head of Chicago’s Housing Authority titled “High Noon.”
The article describes “paramilitary” sweeps which Lane has organized in the Chicago projects. “Drugs drive crime and drug dealers have found a haven for their business in public housing,” Lane says. “What we’re doing is akin to knocking off the classroom bullies.”
1991. The Debate Rages On. Rep. Charles Rangel insists in a televised debate that the drug war should continue in a debate with conservative William F. Buckley Jr., wants drugs legalized.
“What do you want to do with the [800,000] people that you convict?” Buckley asks. “Do you want to torture them to death?” He argues that the drug war is leading to 800 deaths per day.
Rangel acknowledges that the “criminal justice system has not worked and has not been a deterrent to drug abuse in this country.”
But Rangel goes on to insist “I still believe that it should be there” and argues against legalization. He argues that someone “like Colin Powell” should be placed in charge of the effort.
“In order to fight this war, you need all of these factors working together. You should not allow people to distribute this poison without fear that they could be arrested and put in jail,” Rangel says.
1993. February 7. House votes 237-180 to disband the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, which is chaired by Rep. Rangel. “I recognize that select committees are not intended to continue indefinitely,” Rangel tells the LA Times, adding “unfortunately, the drug problem is not about to go away.”
1994. New York’s Republican Governor George Pataki proposes modest reforms to state’s Rockefeller drug laws, but changes face opposition in GOP-controlled state Senate.
1994. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passes Democratically-controlled Congress with overwhelming margins based on Democratic support, with significant Republican opposition. (Republicans opposed gun control measures within the bill.)
Major backers include Senate Judiciary chairman Joe Biden and New York Senator Charles Schumer. Measure is supported by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
Goal is to expand police staffing with 100,000 new recruits nationwide. Establishes “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing rules. Expands death penalty to include drug trafficking crimes and also eliminates Federal funding for inmate education programs.
“No basic grant [for education] shall be awarded under this subpart to any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution,” the law reads.
1994. September. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed by President Bill Clinton during a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
“The law abiding citizens of our country have made their voices heard,” President Clinton says. “If the American people do not feel safe…then it is difficult to say that the American people are free.”
“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools,” Clinton argues, claiming that the law will help fund enough prisons to keep “100,000 criminals off the street.”
1997. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) elected chair of Congressional Black Caucus. Pushes for hearings into rumors that US government and CIA have cultivated drug trade, harming black neighborhoods.
“Mandatory minimum prison sentences interfere with judicial authority and impose “one size fits all” penalties without considering specific circumstances,” Waters says. “In addition, mandatory minimum sentences – especially those related to drug possession – and laws that impose more severe penalties for crack cocaine than powder cocaine have resulted in the incarceration of a disproportionate amount of African Americans.”
1998. June 9. NAACP president Kweisi Mfume signs a public letter in the New York Times calling for a re-evaluation of the war on drugs. Signatories include Walter Cronkite and former Secretary of State George Schulz.
President Clinton’s “drug czar” General Barry McCaffrey responds that the letter “a 1950’s perception” of the struggle against drugs.
1998. Rep. Charles Rangel publishes article in journal “Criminal Justice Ethics” arguing against drug legalization and claiming that “legalization of drugs would be a nightmare…in minority communities.”
In my view, the very idea of legalizing drugs in this country is counterproductive. Many well-meaning drug legalization advocates disagree with me, but their arguments are not convincing. The questions that I asked them twenty years ago remain unanswered. Would all drugs be legalized? If not, why? Would consumers be allowed to purchase an unlimited supply? Are we prepared to pay the medical costs for illnesses that are spawned by excessive drug use? Who would be allowed to sell drugs? Would an illegal market still exist? Would surgeons, bus drivers, teachers, military personnel, engineers, and airline pilots be allowed to use drugs?
2000. Drop the Rock Coalition forms in New York state, bringing together growing number of activists — including more African American leaders and public figures, including Russell Simmons — who oppose drug war era laws.
Its primary focus being repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws—the State’s notoriously harsh mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that apply to people convicted of drug crimes—the group became the Drop the Rock Coalition.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination,” Henderson tells a congressional panel. “But today, three out of every ten African American males born in the United States will serve time in prison, severely limiting their prospects for legitimate employment.”
2002. State Senator David Paterson — who would later become New York state’s first African American governor — is arrested while protesting in opposition to the state’s “draconian” Rockefeller drug laws.
2000. November. Libertarian Cato Institute publishes “After Prohibition,” a collection of essays urging an end to the war on drugs. Nobel Prize-winning onservative economist Milton Friedman writes the foreword, urging an end to drug war era policies.
2003. March 26. New York Sen.Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials gather in Washington to honor civil rights icon Dorothy Height’s 91st birthday. The former ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is praised for a wide range of accomplishments, one of which is having “led numerous campaigns for the war on drugs.”
According to the YWCA, where Height worked in Harlem and New York City, she “advocated in the war on drugs.”
2006. February 20. NAACP chairman Kweisi Mfume sworn in at a ceremony held at the US Justice Department, hosted by Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.
2007. November. New York Rep. Charles Rangel publishes a memoir acknowledging that he partnered with President Nixon to launch the US drug war. “Nixon was tough on drugs,” Rangel recalls.
“[We] worked closely together on what was the beginning of our international “war on drugs.” The national passion behind the war against drugs, I’m sorry to say, has [faded]. It hit its high point somewhere in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, during the crack
epidemic, and has since petered out. We never did win the war, of course.”
By his account, however, drug interdiction did produce tangible results: “So, to the extent that African-Americans as a whole advanced sharply from the mid 80’s through the Clinton 90’s, a lot of the drug-related bleeding was staunched.”
2008. January. In an interview with Ebony magazine, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promises to “review these mandatory minimum sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders.”
“I will also eliminate the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine,” Obama says.
2008. June 27. Rep. Maxine Waters is interviewed about escalating gang violence in Los Angeles and is asked about “faltering black leadership.”
“Of course we have gang problems in parts of my district,” Rep. Waters said. “I accept the fact that there are gang problems in South Central Los Angeles…and I accept the fact that there needs to be more work more resources.”
2009. January. New York Governor David Paterson, in state of the state address in Albany, calls for repeal of Rockefeller laws. “I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” says the state’s first African American governor.
2009. February 25. US Attorney General Eric Holder — the first African American to hold the post — prosecutes the drug war aggressively. On February 25th, less than three weeks after taking office, he announces major drug-related arrests.
“We simply cannot afford to let down our guard,” Attorney General Holder says. “These [drug] cartels will be destroyed.”
2009. March 25. New York Governor David Paterson reaches deal with state legislature to dismantle “much of what remains of the state’s strict 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the nation,” according to the New York Times.
A spokesperson for Paterson calls Rockefeller repeal “a personal victory” for the governor and says the change reflects his “core principle to focus on treatment rather than punishment to end the cycle of addiction.”
which portrays the drug war as a deliberate political attack on African Americans, an effort to replace Jim Crow-style segregation laws with biased criminal justice laws.
“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind,” Alexander argues.
In her book Alexander is critical of black lawmakers, civil rights leaders and others who supported the drug war.
“The fact that some black people endorse harsh responses to crime is best understood as a form of complicity with mass incarceration — not support for it.”
2010. February 2. President Barack Obama appoints Bush-era appointee Michele Leonhart — a long-time opponent of marijuana legalization — to head the Drug Enforcement Agency. Leonhart is confirmed and serves in the post despite criticism from pro-legalization groups.
The DEA’s current budget is $2.02 billion annually.
2010. Neil Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, supports Proposition 19 in California, a referendum to legalize marijuana.
2010. July 19. Black leaders in California line up on both sides of California’s Proposition 19, a referendum to legalize marijuana. Dr. Jocelyn Elders, former African American surgeon general, supports legalization. But according to New York Times, “Kamala D. Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, who is black, joined the opposition last week.”
Ms. Harris, who is running for state attorney general, issued a statement saying that the proposition would encourage “driving while high” and drugs in the workplace.
2010. July 28. Black leaders in California acknowledge deep divide in views about marijuana legalization.
Some African American church leaders call for the state’s NAACP chief, Alice Huffman, to resign for her support of legalization. According to NPR, the NAACP supports decriminalization as a strategy to “keep more young, black men out of jail.”
“[W]e agree in the disparities of arrests,” Bishop Ron Allen tells NPR. “That’s another show. And that’s another debate. We absolutely agree with that. But not only are blacks arrested for marijuana, when we take a look at crack cocaine and other crimes that are committed in the black neighborhood, we can see the disparities of arrests there also. So do we legalize crack cocaine? Do we legalize burglary? Do we legalize murder?”
2010. September 21. National Black Church Initiative formally opposes California’s Proposition 19, with the Rev. Anthony Evans promising to “use the full force of the 34,000 African American churches to kill Proposition 19, which he viewed as an ‘unconscionable’ move that would weaken the black church, the black community, and the black family.”
2010. October 16. US Attorney General Eric Holder — the first African American to hold the post — signals strong opposition to Proposition 19. In a public letter, Holder urges rejection of the measure, promising that the Obama administration will continue to vigorously prosecute Federal marijuana possession cases.
“Let me state clearly that the Department of Justice strongly opposes Proposition 19. If passed, this legislation will greatly complicate federal drug enforcement efforts to the detriment of our citizens.”
2011. January 30. Chicago mayoral candidate and former US Senator Carol Mosely Braun — the first African American woman elected to the Senate and an opponent of the drug war — triggers controversy when she accuses black opponent of being “strung out on crack.” Mosely Braun later apologizes.
2011. August 15. University of Michigan poll finds that drug abuse tops concerns for African American parents, when asked about risks to children in their communities. 44% of black parents list drug abuse as a top concern, compared with just 28% of white parents.
“The perception of drug abuse as a big problem matches recent national data showing increasing use of marijuana and other drugs by US teens,” says Matthew Davis, M.D., director of the National Poll on Children’s Health and associate professor in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the U-M Medical School.
2011. In a major reversal, Rep. Charles Rangel co-sponsors the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, a bill that would remove marijuana from the list of illegal drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. The measure also draws support from Rep. John Conyers, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, also co-sponsors. Measure fails.
2012. Conservative Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-Tx) calls for an end to the drug war.
2012. March. Conservative white evangelist minister Pat Robertson supports marijuana legalization. “We’re locking up people who are taking a couple of puffs of marijuana,” Robertson says. “We’ve got to take a look at what we’re considering crimes. I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don’t get me wrong, but [incarcerating marijuana users is] costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people.”
African American on-line journal The Root publishes an article calling for black pastors to follow Robertson’s lead. “The question is,” writes journalist Madison Gray, “why haven’t black preachers spoken out against drug laws that hurt our community?”
2012. April 16. MSNBC commentators urge President Barack Obama to follow libertarian Ron Paul’s lead on drug war policy.
2013. February. Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013 introduced, calling for marijuana to be regulated in the same way that the US government treats alcohol. Rangel and Conyers not included as co-sponsors.
2013. August 12. Attorney General Eric Holder calls for major reforms to drug war era sentencing laws. In an interview with NPR, Holder concludes that the war on drugs has meant “a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”