The “war on drugs,” beginning in the 1980s, represented a profound shift in the way in which the United States practiced law enforcement, and ushered in a new era in American policing.
Overall, between 1980 and 2003, the number of drug offenders in prison or jail increased by 1100% from 41,100 in 1980 to 493,800 in 2003, with a remarkable rise in arrests concentrated in African American communities. This precipitous escalation began as the result of a tangible shift in law enforcement practices toward aggressively pursuing drug offenses.
This report analyzes the implementation of the drug war on the “ground level,” and how it has played out in arrest patterns in the nation’s largest cities. Our examination reveals broad disparity in the use of discretion regarding the scope of drug arrests, and consequently its effect on the communities most heavily impacted by these practices. We also look at the consequences of the policy choice made to respond to drug abuse through mechanisms of law enforcement rather than a public health model and discuss how this decision has affected American society, particularly communities of color.
This study represents the first longitudinal analysis of drug arrests by race at the city level, analyzing data from 43 of the nation’s largest cities between 1980-2003, the period during which the “war on drugs” was initiated and expanded. A city-level study offers a number of advantages in helping assess the impact of the “war on drugs.” Most importantly, national level data obscures variations that exist among jurisdictions, while a city-level analysis of drug arrests can more effectively outline the contours and local nuances of drug enforcement. This is of paramount importance, as the analysis in this report will show that the discretion intrinsic to domestic drug enforcement fosters an environment in which local decision making plays a defining role in shaping arrest patterns.