Image: a White man’s hands in handcuffs behind his back. Image courtesy of pixabay and Pixabay License.

In 2019, nearly 72,000 Americans died from a drug overdose — more than car accidents or gun violence. Over 50,000 of those deaths involved opioids. Drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past twenty years, with deaths increasing fourfold

Katherine Beckett and Marc Brydolf-Horwitz wanted to know whether states had altered drug policies in response to the opioid crisis. The researchers reviewed US state sentencing statutes between 2010-2016, as well as drug arrest and imprisonment records in a similar time frame. With the rise of the opioid crisis, the authors hypothesized that the drug war is de-escalating and that White drug users would see the greatest decline in punishment. The War on Drugs that began in the 1970s overwhelmingly targeted Black communities, contributing to the rise of police brutality and mass incarceration. What they found surprised them. 

Contrary to their prediction that White drug users would disproportionately benefit from policy changes, drug arrests decreased more sharply for Black people in the last decade. While Black people remain considerably overrepresented in drug arrests, 31 percent fewer Black people were arrested for drugs in 2018 than in 2007. Further, the number of Black people incarcerated in state prisons due to a drug conviction fell by 53% between 2012 and 2017.

Beckett and Brydolf-Horwitz think geography could explain this decline. Drug arrest and imprisonment rates decreased in urban areas but increased in suburban and rural areas. Since urban areas are typically more racially diverse, this geographic trend could explain why Black people were arrested and imprisoned at lower rates. This trend could also explain why drug arrest and imprisonment rates did not fall for White people, because many suburban and rural areas remain predominantly White. 

While further research is needed to understand these shifting patterns in drug arrests, the most recent War on Drugs appears to be slowing down. And this decline is significantly narrowing the racial disparities between Black and White drug arrests. The racial injustices of previous drug scares and the tragedies of the opioid crisis cannot be undone, but these trends demonstrate that meaningful changes are underway in state drug policies.