On this dayJun 17, 1971

President Nixon Declares "War on Drugs" That Targeted Communities of Color

On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be public enemy number one and launched what has become known as the “War on Drugs.”

The announcement of new drug policies marked the beginning of an era in which the use and/or trafficking of drugs became central to the federal government's positions on social policy and crime. The Nixon Administration's priorities shifted the national conversation from eliminating the causes of crime to punishing "the criminal." In July 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to “combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.” Since its inception, the DEA has quadrupled the number of special agents and tripled its budget to $2.02 billion.

Similarly, since Nixon’s announcement, the United States has had a 700 percent increase in the national prison population and become the world's most carceral nation. Although the country accounts for only five percent of the world's population, it confines 25 percent of the world's prisoners. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly 50 percent of people in federal prisons are currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

In addition to criminalizing drug abuse, the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Though rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations when compared to white people. The lifelong penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction render huge numbers of primarily poor people of color into an American underclass that is disenfranchised and prevented from accessing social benefits such as housing, food, and educational assistance. Discriminatory enforcement of drug policy has undermined its effectiveness and legitimacy while contributing to continuing dysfunction in the administration of criminal justice.

About EJI

The Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

Learn more

About this website

Until we confront our history of racial injustice and its legacy, we cannot overcome the racial bias that exists today.

Learn more