We need practical justice for victims of the war on drugs

How can our nation make amends for the inequities of drug crusades?
Peace & Justice

New York last year joined the squad of U.S. states that have gone from decriminalizing pot possession to outright legalizing marijuana. This year the process moves from the legislature to New York boulevards as the former street drug transitions to legal storefronts. New York lawmakers have crafted a measure to accompany legalization that is meant to address some of the historical injustices related to the outlaw era of marijuana sales and use.

Under the 2021 law that legalized marijuana in New York, half of all cannabis-related licenses issued this year will be reserved for women, minorities, distressed farmers, veterans, and “individuals who have lived in communities disproportionally impacted” by the drug war, according to a report in the New York Times. The plan also earmarks 40 percent of cannabis tax revenue for use in Black and Latino communities.

For those able to acquire a license, the program, funded with $200 million to help applicants get their businesses running, will mean a leg up in rebuilding lives dislocated by their divergence into the criminal justice system because of minor marijuana possession or sales offenses. The plan has raised hackles among some who charge that the state’s mitigation rewards people for breaking the law.

But that objection ignores the historical reality that the war on drugs was not waged equitably. For decades in New York, while rates of marijuana use were comparable across all races and ethnicities, the treatment of Black and Latino/a New Yorkers was starkly different from that of white New Yorkers. For years, Black and Latino/a residents represented 87 percent and higher of all arrests made for marijuana possession.


Those disproportionate arrests and resulting incarcerations represented a crushing economic and personal impact on Black and Latino communities. Reparations for past wrongs because of racism and discrimination has been a controversial idea, but even folks who reject that notion on autopilot should be able to appreciate the practical justice embodied by the New York proposal.

If you want to be furious about a government deal that was too soft on former drug peddlers, you might save your outrage for the deal offered up to the Sackler family. In March, clan Sackler concluded a long-negotiated bankruptcy that will settle most claims against the family and family-owned Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer and distributor of the infamous and entirely legal prescription drug OxyContin. The deal would shield the Sacklers from future lawsuits.

Representatives from the family attended the final hearing without comment as victims’ impact statements were read out. The Sacklers have declined to accept responsibility for the suffering OxyContin propelled and have barely expressed remorse. Under the terms of the bankruptcy, the Sacklers agreed to surrender $6 billion of the family’s OxyContin fortune to compensate for the vast social harm created by the marketing of the painkiller, purported for years to be less potentially addictive than other prescription narcotics. That was unfortunately not true, and internal company memos suggest members of the Sackler family and Purdue executives knew as much for years.

The widespread prescription of OxyContin essentially founded the opioid crisis that still grips the nation. More than 500,000 have died since 1999 as opioid addiction swept the nation—and most of its victims began their addiction with prescription opioids.


Many balk at the idea of contemporary amends for the inequities of the past, but how should we respond to the inequities of our own times? The bankruptcy deal leaves the Sackler family with only about $7 billion of its OxyContin fortune. Maybe an outraged citizenry could insist that this odious deal be tossed out and the rest of that fortune distributed to those U.S. communities hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. Can you guess which ones those might be? 

This article also appears in the May 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 5, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Add Weed


About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

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