How the war on drugs is precipitating the decline of American cities

The war on drugs has been a costly, bloated failure. Its ramifications are felt nationwide in the United States’ absurdly large prison population and punitive sentencing laws. While the drug war is an issue that affects Americans from all walks of life, America’s cities, in particular, have borne the brunt of its consequences. Across the U.S., the war on drugs has precipitated the decline of once great American cities.

It is important to understand the conditions that allow drugs to seep into America’s inner cities. Education and employment conditions in these areas essentially create a vacuum of legitimate economic opportunity for their residents.

If we look at cities with notoriously bad drug problems, there is a pattern of rampant unemployment and low-performing public school districts. Washington, D.C., where crack and cocaine continue to plague poor communities, has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country at just 73 percent.

The city also has a huge disparity between upper and lower class employment rates. In the district’s wealthier hubs, unemployment sits at just 4 percent, while that rate reaches 22 percent in lower-income neighborhoods.

Where dire economic conditions persist, people will turn to drugs to make ends meet. Cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Gary, Ind. once had thriving manufacturing industries. As those blue-collar jobs disappeared, a new economy of drug dealing appeared in its place.

An appropriate response to the drug epidemic would be investment in low-skilled labor in these cities that would remove the need for alternative economies. Rather, the government has pursued policies that exacerbate the problem.

Drug crimes are sentenced extremely punitively. Mandatory minimum sentences give judges very little leeway to offer reduced jail time to those who are charged with drug crimes. Furthermore, once in jail, there is almost no focus on rehabilitating and readjusting inmates to common society. According to the Bureau of Justice, 66.7 percent of drug offenders released in 1994 were arrested again within three years.

Not to mention residents of inner cities, especially minorities, essentially have a target on their backs. In Washington, African Americans comprise an astonishing 90 percent of drug arrests, according to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.

Efforts to punish drug offenses, many of which are victimless possession charges, perpetuate an underclass of American citizens. The war on drugs has undermined the economy of American cities by rendering urban residents unfit to be a part of any legitimate workforce.

America’s cities have issues that extend far beyond the enforcement of drug laws, to be sure. But understanding the consequences of the drug war is integral to understanding the decay of American cities.

People talk about cities like Detroit as if they went from booming metropolises to ghost towns overnight. In actuality, the decline was a long one that occurred as generation after generation was marginalized by an economy that had no place for it. Drugs would not be the problem they are today if not for the absence of urban economies that contain insurmountable barriers to entry.

Similarly, fixing America’s cities will not occur overnight. A good start, however, would be a comprehensive redress of sentences for simple possession charges. Eliminating mandatory minimums, too, would reduce time spent in jail for hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

Finally, increased investment in the types of jobs that can sustain a middle class will prevent people from resorting to the drug trade to make ends meet. Those types of jobs made America’s cities great once, and they can certainly do so again.