The premise of Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In documentary is that the US War on Drugs, other than being a mostly failed campaign, has also disproportionately affected minority communities. A summary of the film's premise is presented on its website:

While recognizing the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have meant it is more often treated as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities. Beyond simple misguided policy, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.

The filmmaker iterates the claim on a recent interview with Bill Maher, where (0:30 of the video) he's answering a question about whether the campaign is a war on minorities as:

It has been a war on people, and its especially been a war on people of colour in America; but that's nothing new, we've had racist drug laws in this country from really the dawn of it in the 1800s...

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, claims:

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.


I was rushing to catch the bus, and I noticed a sign stapled to a telephone pole that screamed in large bold print: The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.

Are there studies, preferably non-partisan, to support the claim that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected or even targeted minority communities?

Related articles:

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    The war on drugs is a talking point not an action. Anything related to countering drugs is simply lumped in as part of it after it happens. You need to focus this question on an actual claim to make this constructive. IE 60% of drug arrests are for low income minorities despite the low income minorities being only 15% of the total population. (NOTE: This claim is a made up example not actual claim) – Chad Oct 15 '12 at 16:32

John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon's domestic policy chief, reportedly told a reporter named Dan Baum in 1994 that The War on Drugs was conceived as an attack on "blacks and hippies" intended to disrupt these groups and lessen their ability to effectively oppose President Nixon politically. He stated that President Nixon perceived these groups to be his political enemies. CNN citation.

The War on Drugs has certainly been devastating to the African American community, and disparities such as the penalty differential between powdered and crack cocaine do appear to be largely driven by an animus towards the African American community, in which it is perceived to be more likely that a cocaine user consumes crack cocaine than is a Caucasian cocaine user.

According to the Hamilton Report, "at the state level, black are 6.5 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for drug related crimes." Given that African Americans constitute only about 12 - 15% of the US population, it is certainly not inconceivable that race plays a definitive role in whether someone convicted of a drug related offense is incarcerated. According to Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (link), "in 2013, among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of current illicit drug use was 3.1 percent among Asians, 8.8 percent among Hispanics, 9.5 percent among whites, 10.5 percent among blacks, 12.3 percent among American Indians or Alaska Natives, 14.0 percent among Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders, and 17.4 percent among persons reporting two or more races".

There are similar statistics stating that the rate at which blacks and white sell drugs do not differ significantly, however blacks are 2.7 times more likely to be incarcerated for the crime. Several reasons are given for this disparity, including the likelyhood that white sellers are far more likely to sell to acquaintances while blacks are more likely to sell drugs to strangers. This would put blacks at a higher risk of being arrested for drugs sales than whites, but does not fully account for the size of the disparity.

It certainly seems that laws criminalizing drug use, possession, and sales - the War on Drugs- have have affected minority communities more greatly than should be the case were those laws enforced without any racial bias.

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    The first paragraph is about a disputed quote. The second paragraph is unsubstantiated. Do you have a link to (or fuller name of) the Hamilton report? You say "Several reasons are given". Where? – Oddthinking Nov 26 '17 at 2:13

Wikipedia has a farily long list of such studies. The more interesting ones are those that try to eliminate confounding factors typically by inserting them as explanatory variable in a regression model. For instance:

A 2015 study concluded that minorities have been disproportionately arrested for drug offenses, and that this difference "cannot be explained by differences in drug offending, non-drug offending, or residing in the kinds of neighborhoods likely to have heavy police emphasis on drug offending."

And the actual study's model & fit:

enter image description here

The reason for age squared in the model is that very old and very young people don't get arrested as much as the middle aged. The "age" variable above is also centered at age 16, i.e. age = 0 means 16-years old. The fact that prior marijuana but not "hard drug" use was significant is explained by the authors as the (prior) arrests being mostly for marijuana possession. And they further note that this is by design of the "War on Drugs", which intended to hold all drug offenders accountable... the majority of which turned out to be marijuana possessors. However the main finding, quoting the study's authors, is that

Simply stated, roughly 85% of African-Americans’ higher probabilities of drug arrest are not attributable to differences in drug use, drug sales, nondrug offending, or neighborhood context. Instead, our findings are consistent with Beckett et al.’s explanation, which attributes African Americans’ higher probability of drug arrest to racial bias in law enforcement. To be clear, these findings do not prove that blacks’ elevated rates of drug arrest are due to racial bias in law enforcement—these findings are simply consistent with such an explanation.

(Emphasis in original.)

This is consistent with other/prior research, which may not have controlled for as many potential confounding variables, but is usually easier to present, e.g. also quoting from Wikipedia:

A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union determined that a black person in the United States was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though both races have similar rates of marijuana use.

So whether the War on Drugs was intended (or not) to target minorities, it has certainly worked as an amplifier for the racial bias in policing.

From a different paper on juvenile delinquents:

A higher incidence of early risk factors accounted for racial differences related to any juvenile arrest, as well as differences in violence- and theft-related arrests. However, increased exposure to early risk factors did not explain race differences in drug-related arrests.

  • Always looking for discrimination and ignoring the other possibilities! Note the chart has nothing about socioeconomic status. The cops go for the low-hanging fruit: street dealing. Whether there's a racial component beyond that is unknown but AFIAK there's no evidence of it. – Loren Pechtel Nov 26 '17 at 4:32
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    @LorenPechtel Once you enter into a regression model a potentially confounding factor (like SES), if the originally presumed explanatory variable (like race) is still explanatory/significant, that means you haven't shown that it (race) is simply a proxy for SES. For an example where something like this was shown, look at my answer on ADHD. There entering methodology as a set of several variables explained away the influence of geographic region (mostly). – Fizz Nov 26 '17 at 5:17
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    The issue here is whether they even attempted to look at whether race is still relevant when you consider SES. – Loren Pechtel Nov 26 '17 at 21:05
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    @LorenPechtel: You missed this part "When examined individually, no risk factors were found to significantly account for the relation between race and drug-related arrest." – Fizz Nov 27 '17 at 1:20
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    Which doesn't mean they didn't account for it in combination. – Loren Pechtel Nov 27 '17 at 1:54

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