30th Anniversary of the Most Racist 1980s Drug Law

By David Jenison

30th Anniversary of the Most Racist 1980s Drug Law

Last Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of arguably the worst new drug law of the 1980s. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 marked a critical moment when the government moved from a rehabilitative system for drug offenders into a punitive one that included new mandatory minimum sentences. The legislation is best known for its racial bias. 

The Reagan administration dramatically revamped the Nixon Drug War, and it found the perfect poster boy for the cause in University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Two days after becoming the second overall pick in the talent-stacked 1986 draft, the small forward died from cocaine intoxication. Congress used the headlines to draft and pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which Reagan signed four months after Bias’ death. Among the law’s many punitive mandates, it called for felony charges and mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine possession. 

What made the law so racist? The law triggered mandatory sentences (starting at five years) for distributing five grams of crack cocaine, a lower-cost version more commonly associated with African-Americans, but the weight threshold rockets to 500 grams for someone distributing cocaine powder. The latter, more commonly bought and sold by whites, benefited from a 100-to-1 weight disparity. 

A decade ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report about the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and said, “In 1986, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.” Moreover, 73 percent of individuals charged with crack distribution were low-level participants (e.g., street dealers, lookouts, couriers), meaning the law made little impact on major traffickers.  

Adding to the tragic nature of the disparity, the ACLU noted that African Americans are indeed more commonly associated with crack and make up more than 80 percent of those serving sentences for the drug, but 66 percent of crack users are actually white or Hispanic. 

Two years after the initial law passed, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 amended it to add mandatory minimum sentences for a first offense of crack possession. This amendment only applied to crack. The 1988 law also established the Office of National Drug Policy, whose founding director famously said, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were the sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country and the crime rate would go down.”

Where the fuck do they find these assholes? 

So, what else did this peach of a drug law do for Americans? Here are a few highlights from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which are as follows:

  • Established criminal penalties for simple possession, including cannabis

  • Enhanced the spending power of the Assets Forfeiture Fund

  • Provided more funding for the Drug War domestically and overseas

  • Placed criminal restrictions of drug paraphernalia like bongs and pipes

  • Opened the door “for the imposition of the death penalty” for drug offenses

  • Imposed restrictions on U.S. aid to countries that produce illicit drugs

  • Created roadblocks to revoking diplomatic passports for DEA agents

The law also authorized the government to pressure the entertainment and written media industry to “refrain from producing material which glamorizes the use of illegal drugs and alcohol,” and it required “a list identifying Federal buildings under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense which could be used as detention facilities” to make room for the expected increase in nonviolent drug arrestees. 

President Obama fortunately helped reduce some of the pain felt by the 1986 law. He granted clemency to hundreds of non-violent drug offenders, including many convicted of crack cocaine possession, with a record-setting 325 clemencies in August 2016 alone. Likewise, he signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which eliminated the five-year mandatory sentence for possession of certain drugs and reduced the powder-to-crack weight disparity from 100-to-1 down to 18-to1. 

As one might expect, most of the organizations and lobbyists who opposed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 actively support cannabis prohibition. 

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