How the Drug War Died

Sadye Matula

Sea change: The public has increasingly come to understand that the drug war imposes harms of its own. (Alex Wong) Subscribe to The Nation Subscribe now for as little as $2 a month! Thank you for signing up for The Nation’s weekly newsletter. Thank you for signing up. For more from […]

Annapolis Police Chief Ed Jackson was raised by a single mother in a Baltimore housing project. “Police officers weren’t seen as our friends,” he recalls. He and his five siblings were driven by “never wanting to disappoint” their protective mom, he adds—and this helped keep them in school and off the streets.

After Jackson graduated from college, a buddy who had joined the police force suggested that he do the same. He saw a chance to both do some good and pay down his student loans. He never expected to make a career of law enforcement.

Nor did he ever expect to become an advocate for the more lenient treatment of drug use. He describes himself as originally being a “traditionalist” who saw the War on Drugs as “noble and right.” Even now, he says, “I believe firmly in law and order.”

Today, however, he is also an outspoken member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which favors decriminalizing drugs and treating addiction as a health issue, not as a police matter.

Jackson’s personal evolution mirrors that of much of our political leadership—on both the left and the right. The change since the 1980s and ’90s is striking: Political rhetoric, at least, has done a 180. Back then, mainstream politicians were unapologetically all-in on drug policing, whereas now it has become almost obligatory to say, “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Back then, Democrats and Republicans tried to outbid each other in terms of who could create the longest, harshest sentences for drug offenses and the most onerous corollary consequences, like banning formerly incarcerated people from public housing, student loans, food stamps, and other welfare programs. But today candidates vie to appear more compassionate—even Donald Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill.

In 1989, then-Senator Joe Biden criticized President George H.W. Bush’s call for more police and prisons to fight drugs as not “tough enough.” The year before, polling had shown that 90 percent of the population favored the drug war.

Now, however, 18 states have fully legalized marijuana. Oregon decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2020, with more states looking to follow suit. And a bill for full federal decriminalization has been introduced in the House.

Jackson’s story helps explain this sea change—and what it has taken to challenge America’s unquestioning enthusiasm for a drug policy dominated by law enforcement.

Tough on crime: Joe Biden, who as a senator supported harsher prison sentences to fight drugs, at a 1989 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on drug abuse. (Marcy Nighswander / AP)

Jackson patrolled his first beat in Baltimore in 1983. “Part of academy training,” he says, “is that they indoctrinate you. You learned early on that drugs were evil, drug dealers were evil, and people who were addicted or sold drugs are burdens on society.”

Next Post

Gaia Herbs appoints scientific advisory board

BREVARD, N.C. (March 15, 2022) – Gaia Herbs, a major purely natural herbal solutions model in the United States, nowadays declared the development of its new scientific advisory board (SAB) to assist the company’s mission of connecting men and women, plants and world to build therapeutic. The generation of the […]