In a new short animated film for The New York Times illustrated by Molly Crabapple, Jay Z dives into the history of the war on drugs that started in 1971 and concludes that "45 years later, it's time to rethink our policies and laws." He then calls the war on drugs an "epic fail."
In the nearly 4-minute video, titled A History of the War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush, Jay Z opens up by talking about how, when he was growing up in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan "doubled down on the war on drugs that had been started by Richard Nixon in 1971." He also explains the perceptions of the time. "Drugs were bad, fried your brain," Jay Z says. "Drug dealers were monsters, the sole reason neighborhoods and major cities were failing."
Hov, a "product of Reaganomics" himself, points out that nobody wanted to talk about the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools, and the loss of jobs. Instead, Jay Z says that "young men like me who hustled became the sole villains and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude." He then continues by talking about the 1990s, when incarceration rates increased dramatically. Now, he explains, America imprisons more people than any other country—even compared to "countries we consider autocratic and oppressive" like China, Russia, Iran and Cuba.
When the war on drugs began in 1971, America's prison population was around 200,000. It's now around two million, which represents a growth of about 1,000 percent. Even in recent years, as some states have eased up on the war on drugs, more than 1.5 million drug arrests are being made every year and more than 80 percent of those are for possession with almost half coming as a result of weed, Hov says in the video.
With their hands tied by tough-on-crime laws, judges have had to hand out harsh mandatory minimum sentences over the years, Jay Z says, even for possession and low level drug sales. He also mentions New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws in the 1970s, which changed the way we punish drug crimes.
Jay Z points out how the government made a distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine even though the "only difference is how you take it." The distinction made it easier for the government and the media to view crack cocaine "as a black problem," even though white people used and sold crack more than black people. While wealthier white folks used coke in Manhattan, it was poor black folks in Brooklyn who were thrown in jail, Jay Z explains.
Elsewhere in the film, Jay Z talks about how, while drug addiction is considered a public health problem by more and more people, drug dealers get no compassion. This point is what inspired the video, as explained by the Drug Policy Alliance's senior director Asha Bandele in an accompanying NYT piece. Dream Hampton, who made the film and co-authored Jay Z's Decoded, read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and the book made her wonder, "Why were white men poised to get rich doing the very same thing that African-American boys and men had long been going to prison for?"
In Louisiana, you can still face mandatory minimum sentences for selling weed, but in Colorado, you can make serious money doing the same thing. Even for entrepreneurial hustlers in legal states, there are still significant barriers to joining the legal marijuana industry. While venture capitalists can go to legal states and open multi-billion dollar operations, former felons aren't allowed to sell drugs legally—even if their felonies were for selling the very drugs that are now legal.
Even in New York, which no longer arrests people for marijuana possession, police disproportionately give out possession citations in black and Latino neighborhoods. And after all of this, rates of drug use are still just as high as they were when Nixon announced the war on drugs in 1971. So as Jay Z concludes, "The war on drugs is an epic fail."