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The war on drugs and social control

In this video, Dr. Sheila Vakharia from the Drug Policy Alliance expands on how the war on drugs and social control are intertwined
What we know here in the United States is that drug use has been pretty equivalent across different racial and ethnic groups, meaning that more privileged white classes of people use at comparable rates to other ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. However, what we see is that the consequences for drug use look very different in the sense that because of policing practices, oftentimes minority communities are targeted and then subject to enforcement, including arrest and incarceration.
This inequality can be characterized as being driven by the institution of policing and practices of law enforcement, because
And in the United States specifically, policing has very specific origins in light of our history of the enslavement of African descended people and the transatlantic slave trade. And so the origins of what we consider policing in the United States can be directly linked to the original slave patrols which were meant to find escaped enslaved people and to bring them back to white people who were their owners because they were seen as property that needed to be accounted for.
And so if you look at policing as being a system of social control to particularly protect the interests of the most privileged classes in society, you can get a sense of understanding how the enforcement of certain laws, including our drug laws, also serve that same function. I think another way that our drug war has hurt further entrenched inequality is not only here in the United States, but globally. One of the things that we did early on when we first passed our most stringent drug laws in the 70s that most people can think of is that we started to tie international funding to a country’s willingness to continue to enforce the drug law within their countries.
So that meant that we would give increased military aid in military grade equipment to authorities in different countries who promised to prioritize drug law enforcement and countries that did not show that they were willing to prioritize drug law enforcement in exchange for this militarized support, often were denied other kinds of support from the United States.
by waiving the promise of money and military equipment to these countries. Often many of which needed this extra support and may have not otherwise prioritized drug law enforcement as strongly or heavily had it not been for us encouraging them to do so.
This is a complicated question because even before the Black Lives Matter movement gained social traction and became identified as a movement, we know that black communities were disproportionately targeted both by violent policing and because of our drug laws. And so those disparities existed long before the formalized movement that we know of existed. And that so many people had died at the hands of police, black black community members particularly and had not seen any form of justice. Oftentimes when the police officer was clearly involved in overt acts of violence or clearly to blame or when that violence was unneeded or undue.
And when some of that violence could have been seen as part of an extrajudicial killing in which someone was murdered. And they were never even convicted as being guilty of a crime, and they shouldn’t have been killed for engaging in that behavior. But one of the ways that this intersects with the drug war is that increasingly we hear after the fact now, after a police involved shooting, after a police involved murder, that sometimes in retrospect, after getting forensic testing, that in retrospect the potential presence of drug metabolites in the blood or the system of the person who who was killed… The victim often was used in retrospect to justify such harsh violence.
So what we can see is a clear example is in the George Floyd killing was that the police were called because he had used a counterfeit bill. He had supposedly used a counterfeit bill, and yet he was subsequently asphyxiated to death. A police officer kneeled on his neck and after several minutes of having no air to breathe, he was pronounced dead. Later on, a forensic test resulted in him appearing positive for several drugs. And one of the things that law enforcement used to try to justify their actions and that overt act of force was that he was under the influence of drugs and perhaps that was probably why he deserved such force.
Perhaps in different countries, the racial and ethnic history and dynamics might be a little bit different. The structure of power and class may look different, but some of those very dynamics are still the same. Police are used to disproportionately policing and enforcing laws and subjecting certain communities, whichever communities might be marginalized in that country to the very same disproportionate enforcement that we see here in the United States. And so some of that is very clear. And we know that coming from countries like Brazil, you know, about this happening in the U.K.
and Wales, and we hear about these kinds of disparities also in countries like Manila, in the Philippines, where we know there’s class disparities, but also disparities among various social groups.
Ending the drug war isn’t going to help protect poor people and other marginalized communities from police harassment. But what we know is it can take one of those tools, one of those instruments of harms out of their domain. And then what we need to think more broadly is that we need to think about broader solutions to reduce inequities in society. And we really need to rethink the role that police have in broader areas of social control and our ideas of community and public safety. And we really need to think about reinvesting in policies and programs that prioritize health and wellness.
That prioritize human rights, that prioritize access to housing and food and other essential supports to enhance community health and safety, and to provide valid forms of livelihoods that can help people provide for themselves, their families and their communities.

The previous step introduced a range of human rights principles and made it clear that the war on drugs and repressive drug polices exacerbate social inequalities. Naomi mentioned in the previous step that there is substantial evidence that the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted black and brown communities, resulting in profound racial injustice.

This session expands on the social inequalities in regards to drug policies. We will hear from Dr. Sheila Vakharia about the impact of the war on drugs on how the police operate in many places and how this is directly related to social control. She provides a specific focus from the USA but this session will also briefly examine a global perspective. Foreign support programs are sometimes only provided if countries agree to implement certain repressive drug policies.

Maybe this resonates with your local context? Please use the comment section to share with your fellow students if you recognise how the war on drugs have led to a social control element in your context.


In Week 1 we addressed the misconception of dependency and talked about ‘rat park’. Below there is a link to a TEDMED talk by Professor Carl Hart, a psychologist and neuroscientist. In this talk “Let’s quit abusing drug users”, Professor Hart reflects back on his childhood, growing up in a socially disadvantaged neighbourhood with high rates of drug use.

Carl Hart is a professor of psychology at Columbia University and is known for his research in drug abuse and drug addiction.

In the previous step, Naomi mentioned Dr. Kojo Koram. He teaches at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London, and writes on issues of law, race and empire. We have attached a link below to one of his articles in the Guardian, but you can find many more should you wish to explore further.

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Drug Use and Harm Reduction

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