From Retro Reports comes this 14-minute mini-documentary on how the heroin epidemic of the 1960s led to the development of the failed behemoth we now know as the war on drugs:
“In the late 1960s,” the video begins, “America’s inner cities were hit by a wave of violent crime and heroin addicts seeking money for drugs.”
The drug epidemic soon began fading away on its own accord as children and teens who had observed the effects of heroin firsthand kept their distance from the addictive drug.
But responding to rampant fears meant electoral success, so politicians ignored the epidemic’s decline and passed ever stricter laws against drug use.
“As the heroin epidemic was petering out [on its own], we brought in these laws [of harsh mandatory minimums, etc.],” explains Samuel K. Roberts, a historian at Columbia University. “There’s something very sad about that, in that we set in motion this whole system for a generation that perhaps was not necessary.”
One of the early advocates of such laws was Republican John Dunne, a member of the George H.W. Bush administration who ultimately recanted his initial support for severe drug war penalties after visiting federal prisons.
While visiting inmates, Dunne noticed that “those who engaged in nonviolent, drug-related crimes really constituted the vast proportion of those who were being sent to prison” thanks to the laws he’d supported. Dunne began working for change in the early 2000s—well before criminal justice reform was the mainstream cause it is today.
Dunne added, “The rate and relative percentages of [drug war] incarceration among minority communities has had a devastating effect” that is far disproportionate to the harm caused by drug use itself.
Today, he’s finally seeing public consensus catch up with his efforts to repeal the drug laws he once supported, even as one in three new prisoners in America is jailed on drug charges.
Dunne says that punitive measures aren’t the answer, but he also adds that drug use is no longer seen as a distant, inner city problem. The long-term failure of the drug war is so extensive that the current spate of increased heroin use is affecting white, middle-class Americans who are realizing firsthand that long jail sentences won’t fix the problem.
Unfortunately, for many, reform is too little, too late. “The lives that could have been saved, the families that could have remained intact—the war on drugs was pretty devastating to the United States,” comments former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke. “Hopefully we’ve seen the error of our ways.”