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A wooden gavel. Concept for U.S. drug policy and criminal justice.
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, the U.S. has seen a massive increase in drug-related incarcerations.

Between 1982 and 2007, incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses increased from less than 500,000 to over 1.5 million, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. As of this year, the Prison Policy Initiative reports, 1 in 5 incarcerated people are inside for a drug offense. 

When Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, it authorized $1.7 billion in spending to fight the war on drugs. Notably, the law established a series of mandatory minimum prison sentences for various drug offenses, including the consequential decision to impose harsher sentences on people selling crack cocaine than those selling the powdered version.

Black Americans were among the most severely and disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, with incarceration rates for Black men convicted of drug-related charges and other nonviolent offenses skyrocketing. 

Even now, in states where cannabis remains criminalized, people convicted of marijuana-related crimes can be subjected to long sentences that critics argue are out of proportion when lumped with crimes involving far deadlier drugs. There is also little help for those in prison suffering from drug addiction. 

The stories collected here highlight the contemporary problems that stem from the war on drugs, including the challenge of drug addiction in the prison system. 

A wooden gavel. Concept for U.S. drug policy and criminal justice.

Rightly Convicted, Wrongly Sentenced” by Corey J. Elder looks at the disproportionate sentences given to people with drug-related convictions, specifically Black people. He doesn’t excuse the fact that crimes were committed but argues that the sentences people received often were harsher than what they should have been.

In “The Failure of Drug Treatment in Prison,” Reginald Stephen speaks about his experience overcoming drug addiction in prison, highlighting the lack of services for people like him.

Illicit drug paraphernalia and pills drive opioid crisis in U.S. prisons

In “Hardened by Prison, Broken by Overdose,” C.R. Addleman shares his heartbreaking story of watching his cellmate suffer from overdose and the emotions surrounding the experience.

Silhouette of a man behind a prison's cell door.

Overdose Deaths and Other Problems in America’s Prison System” by Eric Finley explores the statistics related to drugs and overdoses in prisons with the rise of COVID-19.

The Mass Incarceration of Drug Addicts” by Ryan M. Moser describes the massive toll of the opioid crisis and the effect it has had on him and his family.

Another story by Moser, “The War on Drugs is a War on Addicts,” recounts his experience with opioid addiction while also describing the devastating impacts that the war on drugs has had in the U.S.

The War on Addiction” by Shon Pernice offers a reflective perspective on drug addiction, relating it to the experience of being at war.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Ianna Fenton is a Howard University alumna originally from Florida. She is an editorial assistant at PJP and has covered national broadcast stories including the United We Stand Summit at the White House.