We the Prisoners: Considering the Anti Drug Act of 1986, the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration in the United States

Sophia Scaglioni
Boston University

May 1, 2021

America was founded upon the notions of equality of opportunity, success through perseverance, and the idea that anyone, if they are hard-working and driven, can ascend socially and economically. Currently, however, the United States finds itself diametrically opposed to these ideas. The prison system in the United States contradicts rights guaranteed in the Constitution along with the promise of social mobility and the American Dream. “Mass incarceration” is a phrase frequently thrown about the political arena. These two words, however, represent 2.3 million American citizens who are in jail or prison today. To contextualize the gravity of this statistic, consider this: while the US has about 5% of the world’s population, it has about 25% of the world’s prison population. The majority of the victims of mass incarceration are Black and Latino men, who, despite having been promised equal protection under the law and a right to life and liberty, find themselves trapped in a system marked by racial disparity. One out of every three black boys and one out of every six Latino boys born today will go to prison at some point in their life while white boys born today have a 1/17 chance to go to prison in their lives. Despite being subjected, on average, to lower living standards in terms of housing and schooling, minority men are held to higher standards in the criminal justice system. While African Americans and whites report using drugs at similar rates, there are six times more Black men serving time for drug possession charges.

The United States, a country founded on the notion of opportunity, get to these gruesomely imbalanced statistics through a series of public policy decisions. The minorities who make up these statistics have been disproportionately targeted by one of the Reagan administration’s keystone programs: the War on Drugs. While the policy battle against drugs was certainly started during the Nixon years and Nixon’s policies certainly influenced the oppression of minorities, the most detrimental and consequential laws of the War on Drugs were enacted during the years of the next administration. The Reagan White House, which controlled the executive branch during the 1980s, pushed policies that attacked drug possession and use with stringent criminal punishment. The administration was able to do this by stimulating public support for the War on Drugs; this mobilized Congress to act. The public angst the White House strived to create was based on largely ungrounded facts meant to instill fear in the general public. Impacts of policies implemented through this formula of fear mongering are felt today in the form of racial disparities in the American Criminal Justice System and the institution of mass incarceration.

The Anti-Drug Act of 1986 imposed mandatory minimum sentences on the possession and distribution of certain drugs, allocated $2 billion to the crusade against drugs, involved the military in narcotic control, allowed for the death penalty for certain-drug related crimes and bolstered the authority of law enforcement. This policy was only strengthened in the coming years, and parts of this legislation remain in place today. Going to prison in America as a minority male, even when the crime is minor, constitutes a figurative life sentence due to the punitive nature of the Criminal Justice system, which taints a permanent record, complicates employment, ruptures family units and removes voting clout for prisoners. One of the most detrimental legacies of the War on Drugs, however, is the ostracization of former prisoners by American society. The institution of mass-incarceration is the outcome of policies like The Anti-Drug Act of 1986; this paper will analyze how this policy was born, implemented and how its hateful roots permeate the American society today. The legacy of The War on Drugs today is seen in the racial-biases in every step of the American criminal justice system: from investigation to sentencing to serving time.

The shameful condition of American Criminal Justice doesn’t need to exist. Hundreds of thousands of people do not need to be imprisoned for minor charges, namely drug possession. In fact, this essay will argue, the American conscience cannot be clear so long as the institution of mass incarceration and its suffocating consequences are allowed to continue. The pillars and promises of our democracy must be restored and the way to do this is found in Portugal. Portugal’s drug legislation took a completely opposite perspective than the United States’ did when faced with a similar drug crisis; this essay will try to answer why that is the case. On July 1st, 2001 the country chose to “decriminalize the use and possession of all illicit drugs” and has since successfully reduced “problematic use, drug-related harms, and criminal justice overcrowding.” The values promulgated by this public policy emphasize recovery, safety and above all else, human dignity. By passing similar legislation, America would ameliorate the shameful condition of our discriminatory prison system and thus hold true to the roots and morals it was founded upon and has now seemingly forgotten.

The United States’ current social, economic, and political climate makes the passing of such legislation unlikely. The institutional and cultural factors which influenced the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 (and their contribution to mass incarceration in the United States), compared to the same institutional or cultural factor when applied to Portugal, makes American unwillingness to rectify its broken criminal justice system evident. Ultimately, this reflects a very deep inconsistency between the notions American was founded upon and the values its government actually promulgates. The vantage points through which this essay will consider the opposite policy reactions of the United States and Portugal to drug use and possession are (1) Party Systems, (2) Welfare States, and (3) the role of religion in politics in America and Portugal.

This essay will compare America and Portugal within the scope of three lenses: party systems, welfare systems and religious foundations. The vantage points will reveal Portugal’s proportional representation system is more responsive than the American two-party system; its universal health-care system has stronger infrastructure with which to implement a widespread drug policy; the common Catholic faith brings communities together and unifies public opinion. These factors combine clearly when considering the policy decision Portugal implemented in June 2001. A morally-unified public saw a clear issue in the rise of heroin use and asked their coalition-style government for a solution. Legislators turned to and trusted technical expertise to find a creative solution: decriminalization of drug possession and use. The country’s National Health Service was readily prepared and built on pre-existing welfare infrastructure, to implement the policy’s prevention and recovery programs. Once implemented, the public supported it fully. Now, drugs have ceased to be a controversial issue in Portugal and any mention of returning to a War on Drugs style approach is shot down.

Party Systems Literature Review
Two common forms of party system structures are a proportional representation system and a two-party system. The names are rather self-explanatory: a proportional representation system awards political parties seats in a country’s representative body in proportion to how many votes they receive, while a two-party system has two dominant groups in a representative body. Historically, proportional representation systems are superior to the two-party system when it comes to creating credible commitments because, since more than two ideologies are represented in the legislature, creating a majority coalition requires compromise. The negotiation and communication this requires fosters trust and understanding that bypasses the pettiness often seen in two-party systems. A multiparty system suggests that the negotiation and deal-making involved in the country’s policy decisions are collaborative, balanced, and focused on long-term gains. Conversely, in a winner-take-all two-party system, a lack of openness and communication is expected, and policy is likely to be directed towards short-term gains.

The United States’ government fits the mold of a winner-take-all two-party system; the polarizing, negotiation-adverse effects of the system are felt in the Anti-Drug Act of 1986. To understand the negotiation-adverse climate which the 100th Congress faced, circumstances of the political climate must be considered. Firstly, the House and Senate were divided: the House was controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans. Divided government is a common feature of two-party systems which can obstruct meaningful cooperation. According to scholars, when two conflicting ideologies must cooperate it is much harder to reach win-win outcomes than if the negotiators held similar views. The state of the American Congress in 1986 was characterized by divided and increasingly competitive split party control. This made the starting point for negotiation on drug-policy already compromised.

Further research on negotiation tells us that the entirety of the policy-making process is hampered by the two-party system, not just its starting point. Studies modeling two-party negotiations found that time pressures and power-projections are crucial in negotiation outcomes—especially when parties are already ideologically opposed. More time and a lack of feeling the need to establish dominance leads to more effective discussions due to a lessened sense of pressure. These factors impacted the internal negotiation climate of the American Congress in 1986. There was an intense pressure from both the executive branch and the public on the already-divided Congress for pivotal drug legislation. These two pressures largely worked hand in hand. Recall the formula of fear mongering used by the Reagan administration mentioned earlier, best exemplified by the executive decision to hire staff specifically to publicize the use of crack cocaine in inner-cities. This spurred intense media coverage, creating pressure from an anxious public for Congressional action. This combines with the final, most crucial circumstance impacting the 100th Congress and the Anti-Drug Act of 1986: 1986 was a midterm election year. Therefore, when the divided, two-party Congress sat down in September to discuss drug policy, they were influenced by both time-pressure from November midterms and power-pressure from the desire to project efficacy and strength to voters right before elections. A lack of meaningful discussion aimed at a long-term solution ensued. Both Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House tried to create the most severe laws to acquiesce public nervousness, prioritizing power-projections over a constructive drug policy. Both Republicans and Democrats were blinded by hopes of re-election and failed to act in a long-term-oriented, collaborative manner. This directly stems from a divided two-party system, which creates a hostile and negotiation-adverse starting point only worsened in 1986 by time and power pressures.

Welfare State Literature Review
The design of a country’s social protection system is a fundamental factor to consider when assessing a drug policy such as the Anti-Drug Act of 1986. A country’s welfare state has a variety of characteristics to be considered. For example: whether a country implements universal coverage healthcare or chooses to implement a means-tested coverage system or whether healthcare is funded through public taxes, payroll contributions or private funding.

The Anti-Drug Act of 1986 is nearly 200 pages long and has 21 sections devoted to anti-drug policy measures. Of these sections, several appropriate resources to criminal law enforcement and outline explicit punishments for the use and possession of drugs. The words “penalty” and “enforcement” are included in almost every section title. What words are missing, however, are terms such as “health”, “prevention” and “recovery”. If dangerous drugs were really sweeping the nation in ways so horrendous the Reagan administration claimed merited a crusade as aggressive as the War on Drugs, then where is the mention of recovery and prevention techniques? There is no mention of implementing healthcare programs to assist those suffering from drug abuse in the list of the 21 sections devoted to anti-drug policy measures. None of these sections emphasize the importance of recovery treatment. To find mentions of such programs, one must delve deep into the document, past authorization for the death penalty for certain drug offenses or the use of illegally obtained evidence in drug trials. Only in the most obscured corners of this legislation is minimal policy for prevention found. It calls for a board to come together thrice annually to assess how drug abuse prevention measures are doing at a national and state level, as well as for an increase in drug education programs in public schools. Although the amount of spending allocated for this is unclear, while the $2 billion allocated to increasing policing is concrete.
Prevention and recovery are not emphasized in the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 and this may be partly due to the American welfare state which is characterized by high private social spending supported by government tax subsidies for the upper and upper-middle classes. Also, there are hardly any large public social programs that benefit all United States citizens nationally. Instead, America uses means-tested social assistance programs for poor people and social insurance programs (Social Security) for the middle-class, while the richest members of society rely on private healthcare programs. This divided structure existed when the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 was implemented, the same time as America was suffering from an alleged crack-cocaine crisis. Whether or not this is actually true has been heavily disputed: research suggests the crack-epidemic that conservative figureheads preached about was nonexistent, that drug use in urban neighborhoods was actually declining. Regardless of how real the crack-crisis actually was, the intention of the American government was clearly not to aid its alleged victims in recovery, but rather target urban populations. There was little to no mention of a national health strategy to combat the alleged issue. Perhaps (and very concerning morally) this is because those promoting the policy knew the crack-cocaine crisis was fabricated. However, it is possible that the reason the focus was not on treatment but increased criminal sentencing was due to the divided and privatized healthcare system which provided no clear roadmap or infrastructure for a national drug strategy to combat the (supposed) drug epidemic.

Role of Religion Literature Review
While surprisingly little research has been done on how religion factored into the War on Drugs, it can be said with confidence that religion acts as a polarizing force in American politics when certain religious groups align themselves with political ideologies. That holds true when considering American drug policy during the 1980s: President Reagan was supported fervently by conservative religious groups of evangelical Christians trying to return America to “traditional values”. This alliance between conservative Christians and the Republican party became known as the Moral Majority, a political group which mobilized Christian voters who felt as though they had been overlooked by their government during the years of the 1960s and 1970s; the War on Drugs was popular among these voters and they became one of Ronald Reagan’s most dependable coalitions.

The years that the Moral Majority claimed the government ignored their voices overlap, of course, were the years of the Civil Rights Movement. Many members of the Christian Right overlap with another constituency of Reagan’s: whites who resented civil rights progress such as affirmative action. Research found that racial attitudes were a key determinant of white support to “get tough on crime” and the people most likely to support criminal-punitiveness were rural, conservative whites. The people that constitute this demographic also comprise those most dedicated to the Moral Majority: evangelical Christians. It was none other than this religious coalition which, feeling threatened and overlooked by years of Civil Rights progress, saw the War on Drugs as an opportunity to halt racial reform without seeming explicitly racist. There was notable support from the Christian Right for the Anti-Drug Act of 1986.

Party Systems Case Study
The United States’ Party System is a winner-take-all two-party system. In stark contrast, Portugal’s government is a multiparty, proportional representation system. Recall that multiparty systems suggest collaborative, balanced, and long-term-oriented negotiation, while a winner-take-all two-party system is likely to lack openness, communication and long-term foresight. These expectations are completely met when comparing the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 and the 2001 Portuguese decriminalization policy. While the United States met its (alleged) drug crisis with a criminal offensive campaign, Portugal reacted to its similar drug crisis with a strategy that vowed to reintegrate drug-users into society; a strategy based on recovery, not revenge. Analyzing party systems shows why the countries moved in such different directions.

The heroin crisis that struck Portugal from 1980-2000 saw the highest rate of HIV infection in the entire European Union plaguing the relatively small country. During the two decades prior to the decriminalization policy, the Portuguese government responded to the epidemic by implementing harsh policies administered by the criminal justice system. Conservative politicians who boisterously condemned drug use supported this approach despite its failure to produce results.

The heroin crisis was escalating quickly and the coalition government (The Council of Ministers, Portugal’s Parliament) saw the need for innovative policy—and the need to act fast. Proportional-representation governments are known to use deliberative negotiation tactics (like relying on third-party expertise) to form creative credible commitments. In keeping with this standard, Portugal relied heavily on technical expertise in creating their decriminalization policy. A panel of experts (called The Commission for a National Drug Strategy) was assembled to analyze the efficacy of the American-inspired, criminally punitive approach Portugal was using to combat its heroin crisis. The panel stated the War-on Drugs-style approach was “squandering resources” and advised for a revolutionary new tactic. They suggested converting drug use and possession to an administrative offense, rather than a criminal one. The goal was to regard drug users as full members of society rather than outcasts and criminals. The Council of Ministers accepted almost the entirety of the expert report in October 2000 and has since seen a reduced burden on its criminal justice system, increased uptake of drug treatment, fewer deaths and diseases related to opioids and a reduction in retail prices of drugs.

While the United States suffered a crack-cocaine crisis (or so the Reagan administration wanted Americans to believe) in the 1980s which directly paralleled Portugal's heroin crisis, there was little to no use of strategies like reliance on technical expertise to find a solution in Congress. Rather, the hyper-competitive, negotiation-adverse two-party system of the United States Congress went straight for power-projecting, shortsighted policies like the Anti-Drug Act of 1986, which drastically increased drug arrests, thus ostracizing thousands of Americans into the punitive criminal justice system.
The harsh system created by the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 manifests itself today in the mass-incarceration of ethnic minorities. The permanence of this system is the divisive nature of our two-party system which did not end with the Reagan years. Up until very recently, no actor in the American federal sentencing system, including Congress, the President or the Attorney General, tried to propose innovative legislation to create a real shift in how the United States’ criminal justice system responds to drug use and possession. In fact, even the most significant policy developments have continued to rely upon the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 for federal sentencing structure. The lack of forward-thinking, creative policy in American drug strategy is caused by the divided two-party system which is just as unwilling to unite in the name of long-term collective gains today as it was in the 1980s.

When Portugal noticed it had a heroin epidemic, its coalition-style government sought effective action to better its citizen’s health. Simultaneously, Ronald Reagan sought harsh retribution against drug users by targeting black men as criminal offenders over the possession of minor quantities of drugs. Policies from the War on Drugs, like the Anti-Drug Act of 1986, have deprived thousands of people of voting rights and has forced them to live in what some scholars have called an “under-caste” of society”. The United States’ two-party system facilitates the implementation and permanence of policies targeting ethnic minorities for the possession and use of drugs.

Welfare State Case Study
If the welfare state of a country matters in how drug policy is implemented, a difference is expected between the drug policy of a country with free, universal healthcare and the drug policy of a country with a system like that of the United States (few national programs for all citizens and a division along class lines of where one’s social safety net comes from). Portugal exemplifies the former of these two options: the country’s National Health Service provides free, universal coverage, protecting all citizens regardless of private wealth. For this reason, when the expert panel assessing the drug crisis proposed making drug use a health, rather than a criminal, concern, the Portuguese Council of Ministers was willing to listen. The 2001 decriminalization policy stresses a humane approach to drug abuse by providing resources in the areas of prevention, harm-reduction and treatment programs.

The American healthcare system is marked by division between private and public healthcare sources and a lack of universal coverage programs. This resulted in no groundwork for a hypothetical national health strategy when American legislators were considering drug reform in the 1980s (though scholars question if their motivations were genuine enough to consider reform based on healthcare, rather than criminal punitiveness). This juxtaposes Portugal, where the National Health Service had been well-equipped for years to provide universal, free, public-sponsored health coverage and was able to adapt efficiently to the prevention and treatment programs set forth in the 2001 decriminalization policy.

João Goulão, the architect of Portugal’s policy, reflected on the conclusions of the expert panel that was obtained to help the government find a long-term, creative solution to the drug issue. “It made much more sense for us to treat drug addicts as patients who needed help, not as criminals,” he said. This leads directly to the chief priority of Portuguese drug strategy: not to allow the marginalization of those using and possessing drugs. In complete antithesis, the marginalization of those using and possessing drugs was, some scholars have argued, the priority of the architects of American drug strategy. This may be partially due to the different welfare states in each country: the American welfare state lacks national unity and thus, promotes individualism while the Portuguese welfare state is quite literally defined by national cohesiveness and inclusivity.

Role of Religion Case Study
Religion matters when considering policies a country implements because a country with unified religious opinions will see a more broad public consensus over issues while a country where religion acts as a polarizing force will not. The latter of these two options represents the United States, where the Moral Majority supported the War on Drugs despite its racially divisive policies. In what is perhaps the most prominent contrast of this entire paper, Portugal has a public which is incredibly unified religiously. Although Portugal has no official national religion, almost 90% of its population identifies as Roman-Catholic. In keeping with regional trends (with culturally and geographically similar countries like Spain and Italy), regular mass attendance, is on the decline; while devout Catholicism may be fading, the deep-seeded roots of the religion are ingrained both in everyday life and in politics. One of the most important impacts which Catholicism has had on Portuguese society is rendering it rather socially conservative. As the heroin crisis of the 1980s and 1990s escalated, it cut across all classes, impacting those in the highest and lowest echelons of Portuguese society alike. This meant that drug use became unusually visible: from shady street corners to the most fancy of discotheques. This did not bode well with the socially conservative Catholic society and the unified public religion put pressure on public officials to act.

Conversely, public religious sentiment in America during the years of the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 were the opposite of unified. Groups of the same religion, such as the Moral Majority and black churches across America, both Christian organizations, failed to see eye-to-eye on drug issues. One group supported the War on Drugs and the other denounced it. The Christian Right’s support for the War on Drugs and the subsequent legacy of mass incarceration it established, shows a fundamental divide between the policy Black Christians desire and what White Evangelicals push for. The lack of unified sentiment from Christians in the United States, both in the 1980s and now, starkly contrasts Portugal where unified religion lead to widespread public support for ethical principles which directly motivated politicians to act. For the thousands of Black and Latino men who face the dark realities of mass-incarceration in the United States, religious-based political arguments and movements have made little headway on aiding their struggles and religion seems to drive parties and their constituencies farther and farther apart on key issues rather than unite and mobilize them. In Portugal, religion unites; in America, it polarizes.

Fundamental American writings like the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution promise the right to life, liberty and equal protection under the law. It is grim to realize these rights and protections have been unjustly removed for millions of incarcerated citizens. Minorities in America, specifically African American men, have been historically discriminated against, and the United States’ prison system is a continuation of this marginalization, as mass-incarceration locks a large percentage of African Americans out of mainstream economy and society.

The shameful condition of the United States’ prison system is a legacy of the War on Drugs and policies like the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 which called for mandatory minimum sentences on the possession of certain drugs and allocated $2 billion to the crusade against drugs. It is still the backbone of federal sentencing guidelines today. Policies like this are why the incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1980s despite violent crime rates falling. The persistence of racial-targeting and racial-biases in the American criminal justice system today, including the fact that legislation such as the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 is still referenced, is opposed to the fundamental values upon which America was founded. The right to equal protection under the law, and the right to life and liberty are all desecrated by the institution of mass-incarceration.

How did policy like the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 become implemented? It was due to the Reagan White House’s formula of fear mongering: creating public angst over a crack-cocaine crisis (which scholars dispute even existed pre-War on Drugs) to push a punitive criminal agenda. But, if not criminal harshness, what other ways might an industrialized and modern country respond to an increasing drug problem, supposed or real, and protect the rights and liberties of its citizens while doing so? Portugal responded to growing concern over drug use by rejecting a War-on-Drugs-style approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use.

This essay compared America and Portugal within the scope of three lenses: party systems, welfare systems and religious foundations. The vantage points revealed Portugal’s proportional representation system is more responsive than the American two-party system; its universal health-care system has stronger infrastructure with which to implement a widespread drug policy; the common Catholic faith brings communities together and unifies public opinion. These factors combine clearly when considering the policy decision Portugal implemented in June 2001. A morally-unified public saw a clear issue in the rise of heroin use and asked their coalition-style government for a solution. Legislators turned to and trusted technical expertise to find a creative solution: decriminalization of drug possession and use. The country’s National Health Service was readily prepared and built on pre-existing welfare infrastructure, to implement the policy’s prevention and recovery programs. Once implemented, the public supported it fully. Now, drugs have ceased to be a controversial issue in Portugal and any mention of returning to a War on Drugs style approach is shot down.

These differences between America and Portugal, revealed by the case studies, are marked by increased responsiveness and morality on the part of the Europeans. This difference is further amplified when considering the country’s similarities: both advanced and well-educated, both industrialized and marked by diversity. If Portugal is able to implement policies which respond to the needs of their citizens, both in terms of health-concerns and political demands, while ensuring human rights are emphasized, why can’t the United States? The observed phenomena emphasizes the United States’ unwillingness to address the flaws of its criminal justice system due to its polarized party-system, divisive welfare-state and religious-infighting. Where the Portuguese Parliament is willing to compromise, the United States Congress chooses to bash negotiation. Where Portuguese healthcare is universal and free, the American welfare state is divisive and lacks coordination. Where Portuguese society is unified socially, American society is only further polarized. All of these lenses show one underlying theme: Portugal values and promotes human dignity while the United States promotes marginalization of its minorities and the polarization of its citizens. It is not America, but rather Portugal which emphasizes the inalienable right to life and liberty and equal protection under the law.

While this realization may seem pessimistic, it should be taken constructively. These are, ultimately, American ideals which are being instilled abroad. Before mass incarceration and racial-biases in our prison system can truly end America must do a few things. Some may say these are radical and impossible but rather, they are the only actions in keeping with the country’s founding values. It must strive to increase responsiveness in its party system which currently only provides two diametrically opposed and negotiation-adverse viewpoints. It must attempt to unify a national healthcare strategy to benefit all citizens, regardless of race or wealth. It must remove the use of religion as a political shield during times of policy discussion and use it as a tool for unity instead. Only then, once the American party, healthcare and religious systems are rectified in order to align with this country’s intended values, can the horrors of mass-incarceration be amended.

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