It would be easy to say the war on drugs, an initiative that began with President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is no more insidious than its name would suggest. There are boilerplate arguments for public health and safety politicians and police can grandstand to deftly justify cracking down on drugs.
But, with the help of artist Molly Crabapple, rapper Jay Z proves there's no denying it: The war on drugs has always been about race.
In short film for New York Times, the rapper, together with Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, present a crash course on American racism, mass incarceration and how the war on drugs allowed the government to systematically criminalize people of color.
"No one wanted to talk about Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools and the loss of jobs in cities across America," says Jay Z, the narrator.
The film points out how the war on drugs became an excuse to put black and Latino men away for life.
Authorities implemented other laws and regulations to make it easier to nab people of color for drugs, drawing a distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine — the same substance, Jay Z notes, but one is still considered an exclusively "black problem."
Fast forward a couple decades, Jay Z says, and we've made some progress. But there's no shortage of evidence that the war on drugs has left behind a legacy of inequality in the United States.
"People are finally talking about treating addiction to harder drugs as a health crisis — but there's no compassionate language about drug dealers," Jay Z says. "Unless of course, we're talking about places like Colorado, whose state economy got a huge boost from the above-ground marijuana industry."
The film cites Louisiana as an example of a state where authorities are tough on marijuana despite decriminalizing it in certain parts of the state. But Jay Z need not look past Colorado itself to notice a stark double standard: In Colorado, black people are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and all but one of the state's 424 weed dispensaries are owned by white people.
What's more, the hype surrounding the war on drugs has nothing to show for itself in terms of actually eradicating drug use.
"Rates of drug use are as high as they were when Nixon declared this so-called war in 1971," said Jay Z. "Forty-five years later, it's time to rethink our policies and laws."
"The war on drugs is an epic fail."