September 27, 2023

Reparations Movement Profiles: Repair and Redress for the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night in the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, in a 1994 interview1

The War on Drugs, initiated by President Richard Nixon, transformed America as states began to institute harsh mandatory sentences for drug possession that could range from 15 years to a lifetime in prison. It paved the way for the police surveillance of Black people and decades of mass incarceration that directly tore apart Black communities.

At the war’s peak, drug convictions jumped from 15 adults with convictions per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost 10-fold increase. Still today, close to 80 percent of federal and 60 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for drug offenses are either Black or Latinx, the vast majority of them for nonviolent crimes like possession or small-time dealing.

Michelle Alexander famously dubbed this age of mass incarceration “the New Jim Crow” as a wake-up call to the reality that millions of Black people are systemically locked away and then relegated to permanent second-class status in America. People with convictions are routinely discriminated against legally and denied many of the same rights that the civil rights movement fought for and presumably won, including the right to vote along with access to employment, housing, education, and public benefits. For instance, according to The Sentencing Project, one in 19 voting-age Black adults are stripped of their right to vote, often for life, because of a felony conviction. In some states, especially in the South, that number jumps to one in 10.

Now, more than 50 years and more than $1 trillion later, the War on Drugs is increasingly seen by many—both liberals and conservatives alike—as a massive and expensive failure. It’s also one that has harmed millions of Black individuals, their families, and all US communities. Because of that context, some see a clear connection between transforming our criminal legal system and the fight for reparations and a culture of repair. Take, for example, Equity and Transformation (EAT), an organization founded by and advocating for formerly incarcerated people that focuses on reparations for survivors of the War on Drugs in Illinois.

“People often make the connection between New Jim Crow and mass incarceration, but they don’t take the next step to talk about how that impacts access to employment,” says Richard Wallace, EAT’s founder and executive director. “We flip the script to make incarceration an eligibility criterion in the work at EAT. In doing so, we’ve educated our communities in Chicago about what reparations really mean.”

In 2019, EAT and other Black organizers helped pass the state’s cannabis legalization law, which was once hailed as one of the most equitable in the nation. Some officials even used the word “reparations” at its passage. However, implementation of the law has not lived up to the intentions organizers hoped for. In 2020, the state of Illinois reported $669 million in sales from the cannabis industry, generating more than $124 million in tax revenue, yet there was only one Black-owned cannabis dispensary in the entire state. That same year, the American Civil Liberties Union named Illinois as one of the states with the highest racial disparities in marijuana-possession arrest rates, with Black people 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.

Now, EAT and a coalition of more than 17 organizations in the area are leading “The Big Payback” campaign, with the goal of ensuring some Illinois cannabis tax revenue goes directly to survivors in the form of direct cash payments. Through a combination of grassroots organizing and political education on the effects of the War on Drugs; pilot programs to directly transfer resources to impacted people; and policy advocacy informed by community members most affected, EAT is providing an example of what repair for government failures could look like. Similar efforts to invest cannabis tax revenues into communities impacted by the War on Drugs are taking shape in other states across the United States, including New York, Connecticut, California, and Alaska.

EAT recently scaled its pilot program, the Chicago Future Fund, from an initial group of 30 participants. The program now provides $500 a month for 18 months to 130 formerly incarcerated people from the West Garfield Park, Englewood, and Austin neighborhoods in Chicago. These neighborhoods were a major target of the War on Drugs and today have some of the city’s lowest average per capita incomes at about $16,000 to $22,000 a year. Wallace says localized efforts for reparations are critical and offer significant opportunity for impact for philanthropy. “I think each pilot, each initiative, essentially adds to the narrative change around reparations. These efforts are part of the larger push for some of the federal policy changes, but that work has to be influenced by what’s bubbling up across Black communities,” says Wallace. “We can have a base of people that may be divided by state lines but collectively in agreement by the demands and the purpose of reparations.”

Organizations pursuing reparations and building a culture of repair to remedy the perennial effects of the War on Drugs (this list is not exhaustive, nor have the organizations been independently vetted by the authors):

Freedom Community Center | Marijuana Justice | Chicago Torture Justice Center | Drug Policy Alliance | Terence Crutcher Foundation | Abolish Slavery National Network | Equal Justice Initiative | Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement | Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition

More on Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair

1 This quote was first featured in a 2016 article in Harper’s Magazine by Dan Baum, alleging that Ehrlichman said these words to Baum during an interview for his book in 1994. Ehrlichman’s family questions the truth of this retelling. See Tom Lobianco, “Report: Aide Says Nixon’s War On Drugs Targeted Blacks, Hippies,” CNN, March 2016; Dan Baum, “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2016; Alicia Inez Guzmán, “The War on Drugs Failed, But the Suffering It Caused Continues, Rolling Stone, November 2021.

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