10.2. Current Issues: The War on Drugs and Gangs

David Carter and Kate McLean

The war on drugs, initiated by President Nixon in 1971, was framed as an all-out war to eradicate drugs in the United States. Beyond reorienting governmental policy on substance use toward law enforcement, the war on drugs also led to a profound cultural shift: we became much more punitive towards drugs, treating it largely as a criminal justice issue, rather than a public health issue. (Illicit) drug use was demonized by politicians and the media, which in turn fed the constant intensification of sanctions for drug use. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created in 1973, to provide  the government with a dedicated agency for battling drugs. In the 1980s, recommended and mandatory sentences for drug violations – as enshrined in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 – also skyrocketed, particularly at the federal level. (It is important to note that most statutes distinguish “possession for personal sue” and “possession with intent to distribute” solely the quantity of drugs found on an individual; moreover, some statutes do not require physical evidence of contraband, but may allow a person to be charged for alleged quantities, as reported by co-defendants or police informants.) What were once to 1-5 year sentences became 5-25 year bids, or higher. While drug sentences have plateaued in recent years, following a popular and political backlash, drug offenders still represent significant proportions of state (15-20%) and the federal (45%) prison systems. With over one million drug arrests recorded each year, drug laws also cause a steady churn in U.S. jail populations.

The same period also saw an increased focus on gangs, which were held responsible for the majority of the drug trade in the United States. Gang activity in the United States was prevalent long before the enactment of the war on drugs; indeed, large-scale organized crime was known to control the illicit drug trade through the 1960s, only exiting when the political furor surrounding drugs threatened to ratchet up the costs of involvement with controlled substances. From the mid-century onward, organized criminal control of the drug trade became more decentralized, with newer, smaller gangs taking over distribution in major urban centers. In turn, with less-established organization battling for control of a profitable commodity, drug-related violence also surged, drawing the attention of policymakers who fused their “war on drugs” with a “war on gangs.” Predictably, the latter war not only failed to eliminate new gangs, but also entrenched them with the carceral system, where they continue their control of the drug trade (inside and out). While there are thousands of different gangs operating on different blocks, neighborhoods and cities throughout the United States, gangs in prison are generally organized around racial and ethnic lines, with larger gangs traversing state and federal correctional systems. From “inside” gangs still actively recruit members, communicate with operatives on the streets, and control the drug trade, battling for dominance in both settings. Want to learn more? Check out the Justice Department’s slide show of common gang-related tattoos documented with the federal prison system.


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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