Exploring Racial Bias in U.S. Drug Policy

Investigators at Brown University conducted a systematic overview and analysis of the connections between race and illicit drug policy in the United States, a topic that had received little scholarly attention.

The investigators examined how:

  • Drug policy issues are placed on the national agenda.
  • The racial component enters the debate.
  • Congress, the President, and the courts shape the issue.
  • The bureaucracies that implement and administer drug policy reflect, exaggerate, or diminish its racial aspects.

The investigators used primary and secondary sources, including:

  • Media coverage.
  • The Congressional Record.
  • Messages and papers of the President.
  • Annual agency reports.
  • Budget statements.

Key Findings

  • Drug policy issues often enter the national agenda in response to public fears.

  • While crude racist rhetoric is far less prevalent today than in the early 20th century, findings from several studies demonstrate that significant racial bias in drug policy persists.

  • The flash point and symbol of the present public policy response to illicit drugs is mandatory sentencing, a policy with serious racial implications.

  • Efforts to address racial disparities have faced institutional and political barriers.

  • When the image of a typical "drug user" changes, drug policy changes.