“The War on Drugs”: an examination in light of the #BLM movement

First Lady Nancy Reagan speaking at a "Just Say No" Rally in Los Angeles, 1980s. Photo Ronald Reagan Presidential Library / Public domain.

The “war on drugs” is a phrase historically coined by President Nixon that resulted in the dramatic increase in the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

Ultimately, it was intended to put an end to the era of the ‘60s, where drugs served as a symbol of youth, youthful rebellion, social upheaval and political dissent.

The media frenzy over drugs and negative portrayal of drug users led to a drug hysteria and skyrocketing incarceration rates, with first lady Nancy Reagan (in 1981) beginning a highly publicized anti-drug campaign, using the slogan “Just Say No.”

Although Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was elected on the platform of advocating for treatment instead of incarceration during his 1992 presidential campaign, after only a few months in office he reverted to continue the rhetoric of aggressive tactics that ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of drug addicts and small-time drug dealers.

Impoverished low-income Black and Hispanic communities were hit hard by such policies.

Recently, the rhetoric has been focused on recognition of addiction as an illness, advocating for policies that place an emphasis on providing treatment and less strict sentences to de-criminalization of drugs, such as marijuana.

This was due to the increase of drug addiction among mainly white middle-class and high-income households. However, the marginalized communities that have been impacted by the “war on drugs” haven’t reaped the benefits of such advocacies.

In actuality, the systemic barriers continue to prevent marginalized communities from acquiring fair services involving the police, justice system and social security and health systems.

Although the “war on drugs” rhetoric seems to be mainly American, is reflected in Canadian systems.

Studies show that white persons in Canada are actually documented to be more likely to sell and use drugs than Black. Yet Black lives have been disproportionately represented in surveillance, drug arrests and incarceration since Brian Mulroney declared a “war” on illegal drugs in the late 1980s. The ‘war’ on drugs has not been a metaphor for Black persons in Canada, and it is easy to see why it is referred to by so many as the ‘War on Blacks,’” read the Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System.

A recent study of the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal arrests of Black and white youth in Montreal found that Black “youth are seven times more likely to be arrested for possessing or selling marijuana than white teenagers. This was found to be caused by the over-surveillance of Black youth, not by their over-involvement in the behaviour.”

This is supported by a leaked internal police report, revealing that, “in 2006-7, at least 30-40% of all Black youth in St. Michel and Montreal-Nord had been subjected to ‘random’ identity checks, as compared to 5% of whites.”

A 2011 investigation by the Commission des droits de la personne et droits de la jeunesse Quebec found “that young Black persons had difficulty accessing public space such as parks or metros without being harassed or told to disperse.”

Similar practices in Toronto have been compared to South Africa’s apartheid-era passbook laws by Ontario criminologists and Justice Harry Laforme.

Criminalization of Black communities has led to the justification of heavy policing. Contrary to the evidence that exists in 2009, only 1.6 per cent of reported crime was related to street-gang activity.

Nonetheless, over-policing has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black communities whereby Black individuals represent three times their percentage within the Canadian population, and Black incarceration rates have skyrocketed, having increased by 69 per cent between 2005 and 2015.

The inherent anti-Blackness and systemic de-evaluation of Black lives in Canada and the world has led to yet another Black life lost, Jean-Pierre Bony. The 47-year-old Black man was shot in the head by a rubber bullet by the tactical squad of the SPVM in Montréal-Nord.

As the Black community mourns the loss of cis-gendered Black men, it is important to remember that Black women and trans folk also face police brutality.

Amidst such atrocities, the Black Lives Matter-TO (BLM-TO) has shone a light to the systemic injustices faced by Black communities. It has essentially served as an agency for the commonly supressed Black voices across Canada.

BLM-TO has made great strides, and among its achievements are the recent coroner’s examination of Andrew Luko’s body (a South-Sudanese refugee shot and killed by the Toronto police), and the recent agreement of the Province of Ontario to having an open public meeting to discuss anti-Blackness in policing.

Despite media attacks and efforts to deter the message carried by the movement, the admirable dedication to fighting injustices and the amazing goals achieved by the movement have been recognized by fellow Torontonians. A recent poll showed that the majority of Torontonians agree with the goals of the BLM-TO coalition.