Landscaping was not his lifelong dream.

As a teenager, Alton Lucas believed that basketball or music would tear him away from North Carolina and take him across the world. By the late 1980s, he was the right-hand man to his musical best friend, Youtha Anthony Fowler, who many hip hop and R&B chefs know as DJ Nabs.

But rather than jet-set with Mr. Fowler, Mr. Lucas discovered the drugs and drug trade at the height of the so-called war on drugs. It was a time when drug abuse in communities of color was not seen as the public health problem that opioids are today.

Facing decades of imprisonment, Mr. Lucas received a little mercy. He got treatment, early release and what many would consider a fresh start.

Mr. Lucas later started a landscaping business, he said, “because nobody would hire me because I have a crime.”

Mr Lucas has been caught in a system that places life limits on most people who have served time for drug crimes, without giving too much thought to their ability to rehabilitate. In addition to being denied employment, people with criminal records may be limited in their access to business and educational loans, housing, child custody rights, voting rights, and gun rights.

Fifty years ago this summer, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Today, as the United States is mired in a deadly opioid epidemic that has not abated during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, it is questionable whether anyone won the war.

Yet the losers are clear: Blacks and Latin Americans, their families and their communities. A key weapon was the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in prison sentences. Decades later, these harsh federal and state sanctions led to an increase in the prison industrial complex that has seen millions of people, mostly of color, locked up and excluded from the American Dream.

An Associated Press review of federal and state incarceration data shows that between 1975 and 2019, the U.S. prison population grew from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans. Of these, about 1 in 5 have been incarcerated for a drug offense listed as their most serious crime.

Racial disparities reveal the uneven toll of the war. After the adoption of tougher penalties for crack and other drugs, the rate of black incarceration in America exploded from about 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000. In the same time frame , the rate of the Latino population rose from 208 per 100,000 people to 615, while the rate of incarceration of whites rose from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.

Gilberto Gonzalez, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, said he would never forget to be encouraged by residents of a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood near Los Angeles as he took drug traffickers away. drug handcuffed.

“We then realized that in addition to the dismantling [drug trafficking] organizations, there was also a real need to clean up communities, go to where the crime was and help the helpless, ”Gonzalez said.

Yet the law enforcement approach had many enduring consequences for those who have since reformed.

Even with 30 years of sobriety, Mr. Lucas cannot pass most criminal background checks. His wife, whom he met two decades ago at a fatherhood counseling conference, said his past had prevented him from doing things as harmless as chaperoning their children on school trips.

“It’s almost like a life sentence,” he said.

War on drugs

President Nixon declared war on drugs on June 17, 1971.

By the time the former president called for re-election amid the anti-Vietnam war and black power movements, the criminalization of heroin was a way of targeting activists and hippies.

Nixon’s successors, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, and Bill Clinton, leveraged the War on Drugs policies over the following decades to their own political advantage, cementing the legacy of the War on Drugs. The explosion in the incarceration rate in the United States, the expansion of public and private prison systems and the militarization of the local police force are all consequences of the war on drugs.

But national drug control policies have been widely accepted, mainly because illicit drug use has been accompanied by an alarming increase in homicides and other violent crimes nationwide. There was even support for it in the black community.

“If you are a black leader 30 years ago, you are entering for the first time [solution] in front of you, ”said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes decriminalization and safe drug use policies.

The heavy hand of law enforcement came without drug prevention resources, she said.

Crack use increased sharply in 1985 and peaked in 1989, before declining rapidly in the early 1990s, according to a Harvard study. Between 1984 and 1989, crack was associated with a doubling of homicides of black men aged 14 to 17.

At the federal level, the United States House of Representatives drafted the Anti-Abuse Act of 1986. The law, passed and signed by Reagan, imposed mandatory federal sentences of 20 years in life in prison for violating human rights laws. drugs. The law has also made it harder to own and sell crack cocaine than powder cocaine.

The hysteria surrounding the crack age did not deter Mr. Lucas, who first discovered crack in 1986.

By 1988, Mr. Fowler’s musical career had passed Durham. Mr. Fowler has signed a contract to become the official touring DJ of hip hop group Kris Kross under the So So Def label of famous music producer Jermaine Dupri. He and the band opened for pop music icon Michael Jackson on the European leg of the “Dangerous” tour.

Mr. Lucas has never joined his best friend on the road. He slipped further into his addiction, until his incarceration, early release and treatment.

Mr Fowler paid out of pocket to have his friend’s fines and costs paid, which allowed Mr Lucas to regain his right to vote.

In a separate interview, Mr Fowler, who is a few years younger than Mr Lucas, said: “I just wanted my brother to be on the road with me. To help protect myself. To help me be strong. And I had to do it on my own. And I didn’t like it. This is what it was.

And now?

Many progressive supporters argue that the war on drugs will not end until all narcotics are decriminalized or legalized, with science-based regulation. Opponents, however, claim that widespread legalization of drugs would pose major risks.

“I think there has to be another way, without legalizing drugs, to reform the criminal justice system and get rid of inequalities,” said Becky Vance, CEO of Texas-based Drug Prevention Resources, which has advocated for drug and alcohol education for over 85 years.

As much as the legacy of the War on Drugs is a tragedy, so much is it a story about the resilience of those disproportionately targeted by drug policies, said Donovan Ramsey, journalist and author of forthcoming book, “When Crack Was King “.

“Even with all of this, it is still important to recognize and celebrate that we [Black people] survived the crack epidemic and we survived it with very little help from the federal and local governments, ”said Ramsey.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Aaron Morrison reported from New York. AP writers Allen G. Breed in Durham, NC, and Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed.

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