In the summer of 2014, after serving 18 years of a life sentence on felony drug charges, Jason Hernandez of Denton, Texas became the first Latino to receive clemency from the Obama administration. His life became intertwined with the failed war on drugs when, as a teenager, he began selling marijuana and crack cocaine to meet the growing demand in his neighborhood. Jason’s incarceration did not stymie the flow of drugs into Texas nor did it make his community any safer, it simply created a vacuum for someone else to fill while also perpetuating the criminalization of an already afflicted community.
Jason had yet to be born when President Richard Nixon declared that America’s public enemy number one in the United States was drug abuse. In response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign for civil rights, Nixon linked crime to civil disobedience. In 1968, Nixon said: “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.” Consequently, incarceration rates began their unprecedented rise during Nixon’s second term.
Nixon would go on to create the Drug Enforcement Agency and profess to the world that "this Administration has declared all-out, global war on the drug menace." Still, 45 years since then, we have come to realize that his “all-out” global war has succeeded in menacing immigrant communities and communities of color—as intended—but has been an abject failure in reducing the proliferation of drug consumption in the United States.
In 2014, nearly 1.3 million arrests were made for drug possession while nearly one-quarter of a million people were deported between 2008 and 2014 for drug convictions. The majority of those arrested and prosecuted for drug violations are people of color even though they engage in drug use at similar levels as their white counterparts. People of color also receive harsher sentences than white people for the same violations.
Rita Becerra is one of the many Latinxs caught in the crosshairs of failed drug policies. In the early 1990s, Rita was a single mother in Texas working hard to provide for her children when she met her boyfriend. After moving in together, Rita discovered he was involved in the drug trade. Rita and her boyfriend were both arrested, but due to her minimal involvement in the illegalities, she could not plea bargain with information for the prosecution. Rita’s boyfriend was sentenced to 9 years in prison; Rita was sentenced to 27 years.
Although Rita is due to be released from federal prison in November 2017, she will be transferred to an immigrant detention center immediately after serving her time. Her felony conviction—conspiracy with intent to distribute—made her eligible for deportation because she is a legal permanent resident, non-citizen. Hence, Rita is expected to pay for her crime twice. In reality, she has been condemned to a life sentence—deportation to a country she left more than 50 years ago while her entire family and support network reside in the United States.
Rita’s case is disturbingly common, as highlighted in a report released last year by Human Rights Watch, “A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses.” The report showed that the number of people being deported for old or minor drug convictions has increased over the last few years due to the draconian legislative efforts of the 1980s and 1990s that reenergized the war on drugs. As a result, today’s immigration laws work much like harsh mandatory minimums do in the criminal legal system, giving immigration judges little discretion in deciding outcomes. Thus, people with drug convictions who are legal permanent residents like Rita, or undocumented individuals with strong ties in the U.S., are statutorily bound to deportation and barred from reentering.
Jason’s and Rita’s stories illustrate some ways in which the war on drugs has perpetuated pain in communities of color and destroyed families. If the drug war were truly about going after drug users and eradicating consumption, white communities would see the same levels of criminalization as communities of color, but they have not. So, we cannot say “no more drug war” without first standing with the Black Lives Matter and Not One More campaigns.
It is no surprise that communities of color have disproportionately carried the consequences of failed drug policies. The roots of the drug war can actually be traced back to the white American xenophobia present at the turn of the twentieth century—the same xenophobia we see running rampant throughout our political discourse today—and the policy solutions enacted into law that sought to foster the criminalization of the “others.”
However, since Michelle Alexander released her groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow,” and exposed the drug war as a catalyst for the mass incarceration of people of color—particularly black Americans—we have seen greater advocacy efforts grow in response. State level legislation seeking to repeal destructive mandatory minimums, along with the advancement of marijuana decriminalization and legalization, are picking up steam and are commonly viewed as common sense solutions to a significant mass incarceration problem.
In the Latinx community, national Latinx advocacy organizations have also begun to understand the impact of the drug war in the lives of Latinxs. In November of last year, dozens of Latinx advocacy organizations gathered in Washington, DC to discuss the role of Latinxs in creating policy solutions to repair our broken criminal justice system. More recently, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), composed of 40 of the leading national and regional Hispanic civil rights and public policy organizations, called for the advancement of drug policy reforms in their 2016 legislative policy agenda.
Nearly a century since the passage of marijuana prohibition in Texas and half century since the inception of the war on drugs, we must take advantage of this momentum and continue to dismantle the structural racism that supports the criminalization of communities of color.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Open Society Foundations.