The Drug War Produces a Negative Health Impact on Communities of Color

By David Jenison on March 21, 2019

Prohibition can add mental health disorders to the list of unnecessary risks it heaps upon society.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have reported that African-Americans are arrested for cannabis crimes four times more than non-Hispanic Caucasians despite similar usage rates. Nearly 90 percent of these "crimes" are for simple possession. Likewise, sentencing for cocaine possession differs significantly based on its form, with crack (more popular with African-Americans) receiving profoundly harsher sentences than cocaine powder (more popular with Caucasians).

“African Americans' Perceptions of the Impact of the War on Drugs,” a doctoral dissertation by Walden University student Tammy Drayton, explored the real-life impact of this racial disparity on 30 participants who were affected by the drug war. The findings report that “many African Americans experience mental health issues (specifically depression and anxiety) due to direct and indirect consequences of drug penalties.”

Drayton stresses the impact of drug-related incarceration is not limited to time lost behind bars. For example, incarceration weakens marriage by reducing resources, increasing stress, limiting opportunities to legally accumulate wealth or achieve home ownership. Moreover, such families become less likely to interact with homeowners or wealthy individuals in their social networks. For children, the incarceration of a parent can produce the emotional equivalent of a parental loss, with mental health implications that continue into their adult lives. African-American children are nearly eight times as likely to have an incarcerated parent as Caucasian children are. Drayton writes, “This experience can be very traumatic for a child and can define who they become in the future.”

Those are just a few of the negative consequences that come from a deeply flawed drug war biased against communities of color. “The data collected showed there is indeed an impact on the [African-American] community due to the drug policies, some of which have been discussed in the past such as poverty, lack of employment and now the mental health of the offenders and their families,” Drayton concludes.

The painful irony is that mental health risk is a common justification for prohibition, yet enforcement negatively impacts mental health for the individual user and their entire family. Add in the exponentially heightened risk for African-Americans, and the mere threat of unjust sentencing and racially motivated profiling creates an atmosphere that breeds mental health issues and, in turn, increases the risk of illicit substance use.

Drayton listed several changes that are desperately needed, including fair sentencing, drug policy reform, cannabis decriminalization, commuting drug-related sentences, better rehabilitation services and increased access to mental health services for both the offender and their family. She also stressed the need for African-Americans to come together to impact social change in their communities.

“Physical and mental enslavement is the end product of [the] current impact of the War on Drugs in the United States,” the paper concludes. “It is with hopes that the experiences and sentiments shared by participants [in this study] will assist with inspiring others in the [African-American] community and political leaders to create positive social change.”

Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr.

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