Hip-hop artist and business mogul Jay Z narrates a new video that traces the history of the war on drugs and highlights the way that it has disproportionately targeted black Americans.
“Rates of drug use are as high as they were when Nixon declared this so-called war in 1971,” he says in the video published by The New York Times on Thursday. “Forty-, it’s time to rethink our policies and laws. The war on drugs is an epic fail.”
The video, which features illustrations by New York artist Molly Crabapple, begins by looking at how former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan focused on drugs instead of larger social issues affecting cities.
“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, who has previously spoken about about dealing drugs as a teenager. “Young men like me who hustled became the sole villain and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude.”
The video goes on to highlight the way that a federal distinction between powder and crack cocaine unfairly targeted black Americans and how the adoption of mandatory sentencing laws caused the prison population to soar.
“Then the Feds made distinctions between people who sold powder cocaine and crack cocaine — even though they were the same drug. Only difference is how you take it,” Jay Z says. “And even though white people used and sold crack more than black people, somehow it was black people who went to prison. The media ignored actual data. To this day, crack is still talked about as a black problem.”
“The war on drugs exploded the U. S. prison population, disproportionately locking away black and Latinos,” he continues. “Our prison population grew more than 900 percent. When the war on drugs began in 1971, our prison population was 200,000; today it is over 2 million.”
President Barack Obama has called for an overhaul of mandatory sentences for drug offenders and in August commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners incarcerated on drug charges.
Politicians have talked about needing to treat addiction more humanely, but they typically don’t use the same language when referring to drug dealers, the video says. No politician may illustrate this better than Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who has claimed that “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” were coming to his state to deal drugs and impregnate white women. He has urged residents in his state to shoot drug dealers.
The war on drugs lives on. More than 80 percent of the 1.5 million drug-related arrests in 2014 were for possession, and half were for marijuana, Jay Z says. In New York, where you can no longer be arrested for having marijuana, citations for possession in black and Latino neighborhoods are more common than they are in white ones.
“Kids in Crown Heights are constantly stopped and ticketed for trees. Kids at dorms in Columbia, where rates of marijuana use are equal to or worse than those in the hood, are never targeted or ticketed,” he says.
There are also still racial disparities within the legal marijuana industry, a BuzzFeed investigation pointed out in March. Felony drug convictions have prevented many black Americans from opening licensed dispensaries. Although there are no official statistics on ownership of storefront marijuana dispensaries, BuzzFeed estimated that about 1 percent of them are owned by black people. The industry is expected to be worth $50 billion in 10 years.
The New York Times’ video was the result of a collaboration between Revolve Impact, a social impact agency, and the Drug Policy Alliance. Dream Hampton, the co-author of Jay Z’s book, Decoded, approached the alliance last year about doing a project to highlight how white people were poised to profit off of drugs when black Americans had long been targeted for possessing them.