How Hip Hop Has Redefined America’s “War on Drugs” For the Better

America has a complicated relationship with mind altering substances. Given that we are constantly inundated with beer and liquor ads, it seems preposterous to think that alcohol was illegal in the fifteen years following the end of World War I. Moralists invaded Washington and established the 18th amendment out of fears that booze would lead the country off the rails in the wake of a global quagmire. The government took such a hard-line approach that they wound up intentionally killing at least 10,000 people with poisoned alcohol during prohibition.

By 1933, we realized what a ridiculous position this was, and added the 21st Amendment to the constitution, as its sole purpose was to declare that the 18th amendment was silly and misguided. Americans rejoiced as our preferred carcinogen emerged from the darkness (it never left, just ask the Kennedys), even as we continued this war in other theaters.

The War on Drugs is largely associated with its most vehement proponents, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, but their actions came in response to the most fervent supporters of a War on Drugs: most Americans. In 1951, polls showed that a majority of Americans favored either 6+ years in jail, life imprisonment, or the death penalty for selling drugs to teenagers. Nine out of ten favored sentencing the offender to the maximum limit of the law. The entire country was basically a hundred million Helen Lovejoys.

Not to say that selling drugs to children is not something to be seriously concerned about, but this hyper-focus on punishing one aspect of an impossibly broad issue was one of the key contributors to the escalation of the War on Drugs. US drug policy is about enforcement more than treatment, and our taxes pay for a bureaucratic nightmare that engulfs millions of young, mostly non-white Americans.

Harry J. Anslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from its inception in 1930 until 1962, and he made the famous claim that marijuana caused some people to “fly into a delirious rage and many commit violent crimes.” If that truly were the case, Snoop Dogg would have turned into the Hulk several times over by now. Gallup first asked if the use of marijuana should be legal in 1969, and 84% of Americans said no. Richard Nixon was elected with a “law and order” mandate, and subsequently declared the War on Drugs while creating the DEA to head up the efforts in 1973.

Ronald Reagan quadrupled down on Nixon’s bet, and dramatically escalated the War on Drugs with his Zero Tolerance policy, stating “It’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.” His eight years in office established a precedent that extends into modernity. From 1973 to 2009, the US prison population grew by 1100 percent, accounting for a quarter of the world’s prisoners even though we contain only 5 percent of the global population.

This influx of “customers” to America’s newly partially privatized prison system (is there a more sinister phrase in the English language than “privatized prison?”) did not come from Wall Street or frat row, but from exactly where you would expect given this country’s history. By 2008, 58 percent of all our prisoners were African American or Hispanic, despite comprising 25 percent of the total population. One of the few silver linings of this new round of pain being inflicted on America’s traditional victims is that it produced an art form which has come to dominate popular culture through its sound and its message.

Hip hop essentially grew in tandem with the War on Drugs. Not only did it communicate the despair of living in an abandoned city, but it highlighted the facts on the ground for the rest of the country tucked safely away in our suburbs. Perhaps no one has spoken more eloquently on the unique role of Hip hop in the 90’s than self-professed Tupac superfan, and former/future Presidential candidate Marco Rubio in an interview with Buzzfeed in 2013:

“In some way rappers, they’re like reporters, especially in that era in the 90’s people kind of picked up on it the wrong way. They thought that these were folks that were condoning a certain lifestyle, maybe there was some of that in there, but mostly they were reporters, and in particular at that time from the west coast, there was a lot of reporting on what life was like in South Central and the LA area.”

If you went back to 1993 and told Tupac that a serious Republican Presidential candidate was going to openly profess his love for the message of his music, he might have died of laughter right then and there. Public opinion in America has shifted remarkably on this topic, mirroring our progress with homosexuality. Many credit shows like Ellen, Will and Grace, and Six Feet Under for helping to accelerate America’s tolerance for the gay and lesbian community, and Hip hop has played a similar role in constructing the opposition to the War on Drugs.

Take the 1991 hit “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” by the Geto Boys for example. The song is about how their surrounding conditions lead them to constantly live in fear. Scarface sets the scene as he sits “alone in my four cornered room staring at candles.” Later he admits:

I know the Lord is lookin’ at me
But yet and still it’s hard for me to feel happy
I often drift while I drive
Having fatal thoughts of suicide
Bang and get it over with
And then I’m worry-free, but that’s bullshit

Contrast those words with Scarface’s line in “Still” where he threatens

Pick out our victims when the time is right
We get they ass up off the corner cause they dyin’ tonight

And the full picture of the despair of the ghetto begins to take shape. Congress and the rest of old, stuffy white America tried to define an entire genre by songs resembling Scarface’s latter line while ignoring the truth existing in lyrics like the former. As technology made a wider array of music easily accessible, the battle began to shift. Americans rushed to their local Sam Goody, Tower Records, or some other relic to listen to these messages in droves while Congressmen ranted about their version of morality to no one on CSPAN. Nuance was now being widely introduced into an issue that had been framed as black and white for decades.

Eminem exploded on to the scene in the latter half of the 90’s, with corporate America anointing him as Hip hop’s great white hope, but he could see the cynical game he was being coopted into, as he outlined in “White America:”

Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half
I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that
But I could rap, so fuck school, I’m too cool to go back
Gimme the mic, show me where the fuckin’ studio’s at
When I was underground, no one gave a fuck I was white
No labels wanted to sign me, almost gave up I was like, “Fuck it”
Until I met Dre, the only one to look past
Gave me a chance and I lit a fire up under his ass
Helped him get back to the top, every fan black that I got
Was probably his in exchange for every white fan that he’s got
Like damn; we just swapped: sitting back, looking at shit, wow
I’m like my skin is just starting to work to my benefit now?

By the 2000’s, Hip hop began to get much more public backing of academia on this issue as Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Harvard Law school:

“At the state level, people have to deal with the fact that HIV and hepatitis are spreading; it’s going to add to hospital costs. They have to deal with the fact that building new prisons and new jails is a major cost. When you get to the national level in Washington, that’s where you see a lot more of the rhetoric, a lot more of the disregard for both the human cost and the fiscal cost of the policy.”

Robb London, Chief of Communications at Harvard Law, reported in that same 2005 article “Of the approximately 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., about 500,000 are there for drug-law violations-more than the total number of people jailed for all criminal offenses in Western Europe, although the U.S. has 100 million fewer people.”

The facts of decades of failed policy were becoming unimpeachable, even if people like William Bennett, the drug czar under George H. W. Bush (and Secretary of Education under Reagan), refused to acknowledge reality. But that’s the thing about the War on Drugs, given the costs and the lack of tangible benefits, it feels like it has to be a front for an alternate, more sinister agenda, which Bennett may have revealed on his radio show in 2005:

“If you wanted to reduce crime, you could – if that were your sole purpose – you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”

He defended his statement by saying he was raising a hypothetical question while also dismissing its inherent bigotry. There could be a situation where that might be a reasonable explanation, but when your theory leads to the conclusion that black people = crime, you don’t really deserve the benefit of the doubt. This is a man who was one of the faces of the War on Drugs, and even when he was explaining why he was not a racist, he was being racist. If this is the public face of this policy, can you imagine what the people lurking in his shadows are like?

Given America’s history and the fact that we have proof that the United States government murdered its own citizens during the prohibition of alcohol, Tupac’s theory in “Words of Wisdom” doesn’t sound as preposterous as some might make it seem

Say no to drugs but the government’s kept it,
running through our community killing the unity,
  the War on Drugs is a war on you and me

At the very least, it’s reasonable to see how someone who grew up trapped within the vicious consequences of another failed US embargo could come to the conclusion that the deck must be intentionally stacked against them.

And even if the game is not deliberately rigged against young non-white Americans, it surely is against non-Americans, as the War on Drugs has taken its greatest toll on Latin America, which supplies every corner in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. More than 60,000 Mexicans have lost their lives to this war in the last decade, significantly more than the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Starting in December of 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón began an offensive to capture or kill as many high level cartel leaders as possible. As these organizations faced dramatic upheaval, violence splintered out in all directions as a struggle for power on a scale not seen on this continent in over a century took root. At one point, one of the most famous people in Paraguay, soccer player Salvador Cabañas, was shot in the head in a Mexico City bar by Jose Jorge Balderas; a midlevel grunt simply trying to establish his territory. Cabañas made a miraculous recovery, but his stellar career on the pitch ended that fateful night.

Critics have claimed that the effort against drugs costs in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, argued that legalizing all drugs would generate $65 billion in revenue per year for the US. Another study by the RAND Corporation posited that marijuana legalization in California alone would rob Mexican drug cartels of 20 percent of their annual income, which is estimated to be somewhere around $6 to $10 billion per year.

The clear financial and human costs of this war have turned many Latin American leaders against US federal policy, with Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos stating the obvious: “How can I tell the peasant that is growing marijuana in the mountains of Colombia that he will go to jail if smoking marijuana is legal in Colorado or Washington?”

One of the most dramatic failures of the War on Drugs took place in Iguala, Guererro, Mexico in 2014, as 43 students were kidnapped and murdered. Reports are still unclear as to what exactly took place, but the Guerrors Unidos crime syndicate, the local authorities, and potentially the federal government were all involved. Later that year, The William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University released an investigation called “Measuring Success in the War on Drugs.” They opened the paper with a line from a report put together by a group of former heads of state:

“The global war on drugs has failed.”

By 2013, the War on Drugs had wedged its way into the lexicon of political topics Americans pay attention to, as a poll showed for the first time ever that a majority of us favored legalizing marijuana. The attention surrounding this issue almost singlehandedly breathed life into Rand Paul’s Presidential campaign, with him even parroting Hip hop’s thesis during a Republican debate: “The War on Drugs has had a racial outcome.”

Paul’s campaign failed for many reasons, few, if any of them having to do with the War on Drugs, but the fact that a legitimate Republican Presidential candidate and sitting Senator put this issue on his platform validated the idea that Americans largely support marijuana legalization. Less than a majority of each age group sampled in a 2015 Gallup poll confessed to trying weed, so this support for ending prohibition doesn’t seem to be solely borne out of a desire to get baked with the state’s consent.

Hip hop’s next megastar forewarned of this progress on his 2011 song “Hiiipower”

My issue isn’t televised
and you ain’t gotta tell the wise how to stay on beat, because our life’s an instrumental
this is physical and mental, I won’t sugar coat it
you’d die from diabetes if these other niggas wrote it
and everything on TV just a figment of imagination
I don’t want a plastic nation, dread that like a Hatian
While you mothafuckas waiting, I be off the slave ship
Building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs

To Kendrick Lamar, “the wise” is everyone who realizes the complete and utter clusterfuck of the last half-century of US drug policy (and the media’s complicity in its unchecked power), while simple logic and basic human compassion will help us to “stay on beat.”

The War on Drugs fails to address an elemental principle of economics: Scarce resources are expensive, and any illegal substance is by definition, scarce. If the demand exists (and it always will because altering our body chemistry is intrinsic to the human experience) and the state does not control the supply, all we have done is made even more money for the suppliers raising hell across Latin America. Drugs are the most lucrative black market item on the planet, with some estimates putting the trade as large as $300 billion a year.

Because these substances are prohibited, they can be acquired through illicit means, which has directly led to the United States’ gun epidemic. Mass shooters dominate the news, but the bulk of gun deaths are the result of a calamitous policy that has fractured some of our greatest cities to their cores.

Not long ago, using the word quagmire to describe anything blessed by the patron saint Nancy Reagan, let alone her legislative baby, would have been forcefully dismissed. Now, it’s popular opinion. This didn’t happen overnight, but it did transpire quickly. As always, pop culture had a hand in this. Americans may abandon our political responsibilities, but political issues will never retreat from our daily lives. Hip hop’s beats wove their way into pop music and doubled as a Trojan horse for the message emanating from America’s forgotten zones.

Tupac’s hit “Changes” was written in 1992, but given the lack of measurable progress against the War on Drugs since, it sounds like it could have been written yesterday:

And still I see no changes, can’t a brother get a little peace?
It’s war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts giving it back to you
Don’t let ‘em jack you up, back you up
Crack you up and pimp-smack you up
You gotta learn to hold your own
They get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone
But tell the cops they “can’t touch this”
I don’t trust this, when they try to rush I bust this
That’s the sound of my tool
You say it ain’t cool, my mama didn’t raise no fool
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
Cause I always got to worry ‘bout the payback
Some buck that I roughed up way back
Coming back after all these years
“Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” That’s the way it is

Martin Luther King once said that the “arcof the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A shift in popular opinion culminated in the nationwide legalization of gay marriage last year. With the aid of Hip hop, Americans will continue our progress against the War on Drugs, and eventually “that’s the way it is” will become “that’s the way it was.”