A street art work by Shepard Fairey showing a Black man behind bars reading a newspaper that says “Marijuana Legalized”. He is next to a marijuana justice design that says “Cannabis Justice Now”
Image credit: Mike Von on Unsplash

This is the third article in NPQ’s series, The Vision for Black Lives: An Economic Justice Agenda. Co-produced with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), this series will examine the many ways that M4BL and its allies are seeking to address the economic policy challenges that lie at the intersection of the struggle for racial and economic justice.

The War on Drugs has had profound and lasting effects on individuals, families, and communities, resulting in mass incarceration, economic disparities, social marginalization, and a cycle of violence and criminality in many Black communities throughout the United States. Fortunately, some aspects of the War on Drugs have tapered off, most notably due to the legalization of marijuana in many states. But even if the War on Drugs fully ended tomorrow and mass incarceration became a thing of the past, the damage done over the past 50-plus years will not be easily remedied. Reparations are required.

Drug war reparations align with the principles of restorative justice by acknowledging the harm caused, supporting affected communities, and working toward healing and reconciliation. By addressing the root causes and consequences of the War on Drugs, reparations can help restore trust, foster community resilience, and promote social integration.

Of course, the drug war is not the only reason why reparations are required. As Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen have argued, reparations are also owed for slavery and Jim Crow. That said, the War on Drugs has harmed millions of lives and is a major part of the reason the gains of the Civil Rights movement were largely reversed, at least in the economic sphere, in the decades that followed. The case for reparations to repair the tremendous harm done to Black communities over the past half-century is clear.

Drug war reparations align with the principles of restorative justice.

The War on Drugs Is Personal

The War on Drugs has been a half-century-long, concerted, militarized campaign led by the US government to enforce prohibitions on the importation, manufacture, use, sale, and distribution of substances deemed to be illegal, advancing a punitive rather than a public health approach to drug use. It is characterized by racial profiling, racially targeted policing and prosecutorial practices, long mandatory prison sentences on conviction of drug-related offenses, and a host of collateral consequences, which have wrought devastation in the lives of millions of people in the United States and beyond. It has served as one of the driving forces of skyrocketing rates of mass incarceration in the United States and what Michelle Alexander aptly labeled The New Jim Crow.

The War on Drugs also inspired state and federal legislation to increase mandatory minimum jail sentences to decades, which were disproportionately received by Black men and helped destroy their potential to have a successful future. Drug enforcement policies have disproportionately targeted Black communities, leading to stark racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentences.

The War on Drugs has been a half-century-long, concerted, militarized campaign.For myself—and many of the staff I work with at Equity and Transformation, a community-led organization founded by and for post-incarcerated people— the impacts of the War on Drugs are deeply personal. Many of us were imprisoned in the Illinois Department of Corrections for drug offenses in the 90s, yet in 2023 we still wear the mark of a criminal record. This record acts as a form of permanent punishment, limiting our ability to participate in civil society through a complex web of laws in Illinois that punish people with criminal records, often indefinitely.

Understanding the Economic and Social Costs

It is hard to overstate the social and economic consequences of the War on Drugs on Black communities. First, of course, it has pulled millions of people, often fathers, out of our communities, harming family livelihoods and children’s upbringing. But even after a person is released from incarceration, this hardly means that punishment has ended.

Legislation on the books in states nationwide has prohibited individuals with drug convictions from being able to be hired or obtaining professional licenses. “You can’t get hired and you can’t start your own business either. It’s like being trapped in a box,” observes Alonzo Waheed, organizing director at Equity and Transformation.

These circumstances are especially pronounced for those operating in the informal economy—selling marijuana or other drugs on the street. Without entry points into the economy either through a job or as a business owner, many find themselves steered right back into informality and precarity—leading back to what landed them in jail in the first place, with resulting high recidivism rates.

It is hard to overstate the social and economic consequences of the War on Drugs on Black communities.A closer look in my home state of Illinois further evidences these outcomes. The 2020 Never Fully Free report by the Social IMPACT Research Center shows that involvement with the criminal justice system can subject individuals to 1,189 “permanent punishment” laws and regulations in Illinois. Notably, 982 of these prevent or hinder access to employment, including background checks and restrictions on the activities of survivors of the War on Drugs during their probation or parole. Similarly, Illinois enacted at least 364 state laws and regulations that restrict occupational licensing for people with a criminal record. These restrictions force many people and especially Black people into the informal economy to survive.

The informal economy is a diversified set of economic activities that are unprotected and unregulated by the state. A report released by EAT and the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development found that 48 percent of Black informal workers reported jobs paying a regular paycheck were not available to them. Black workers who have been pushed into the informal economy are further penalized by the perception of illegality that envelops these activities. Far too often, they face fines and arrest simply for engaging in informal work.

The inability to earn income has dire consequences not only for individuals locked out of employment, but also for their families and dependents. Household income is a strong indicator of several other social outcomes, including educational attainment and health. Lack of access to gainful employment creates exponential hardships that reverberate throughout a community. The lack of income earned by Black men’s mass incarceration plunged many Black families into poverty for decades, caused the loss of homeownership, and eliminated other opportunities for Black families to build wealth over the long term.

In addition to the economic consequences, removal from home and community via mass incarceration created a legacy of poor social outcomes. For example, drug-war enforcement policies established relentless attacks on Black parents through state child welfare systems, which led to a sustainable increase in child removal proceedings and foster care placement. This systemic bias perpetuates inequality and infringes upon fundamental principles of fairness and justice.

What Reparations Require

As outlined in the United Nations Resolution 60/147, reparations, to be complete, must contain five components: 1) restitution, or restoration of the status before the harm occurred; 2) compensation, 3) rehabilitation, providing care for physical and psychological needs; 4) satisfaction, such as through apology; and 5) guarantees of non-repetition, through such means as policy change.1

Reparations that achieve this standard are achievable. Reparations have been implemented in various contexts to address historical injustices and promote reconciliation. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 gave surviving Japanese Americans $20,000 each in reparations and a formal apology by President Ronald Reagan for their incarceration during World War II. More recently, In May 2015, the Chicago City Council passed a Reparations Ordinance to support reparations for survivors of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and their family members. (Burge tortured more than 120 people, predominantly Black men, from 1972 to 1991.) From 1945 to 2018, the German government paid approximately $86.8 billion in restitution and compensation to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

Drug war reparations would similarly acknowledge the harm inflicted on communities, and—critically—provide progress toward breaking cycles of poverty and family disruption, and promote social and economic mobility.

Pitfalls and Progress

At some level, the drug war’s harms are so pervasive that the case for reparations is obvious. But reparations are costly, and that means there is often resistance (especially from White people) to facing those costs.

The recent wave of legalization of cannabis is one area that initially showed significant promise to undoing some of the harms of the War on Drugs. In implementation, however, legalization across the United States has largely overpromised and underdelivered—particularly for Black people.

In many states, including Illinois, advocates found that the measures for legalization still locked out formerly incarcerated people and those harmed by the War on Drugs due to measures such as high capital costs for entry into the sector, restrictions on occupational licenses, and the lack of relationships necessary to build a cannabis-related business. While record expungement was a part of several states’ cannabis legalization plans, expungement on its own is not enough to overcome the economic challenges of those impacted by the War on Drugs.

To move toward meaningful reparations for the War on Drugs, there must be an active acknowledgment of the racial disparities in sentencing and the role this played in mass incarceration and the stark economic conditions in Black communities.

Organizations are working nationally and internationally to develop plans for reparations for the War on Drugs. In California, a new state reparations commission estimates about one-third ($246 billion) of the $800 billion proposed for reparations concerns the consequences of the drug war’s effects on Black communities.

These efforts have materialized into proposed state and federal legislation, commissions like California’s, and convenings to bring together practitioners, policymakers, and systems-impacted people to develop informed interventions that lead to reparations for the War on Drugs.

Toward Repair

There is no doubt that the War on Drugs devastated Black communities and dehumanized Black people. As a social and economic issue, the devastation is still being felt. Survivors of the War on Drugs still walk with the scars. The stories of family separation, eviction, and incarceration still live in the memories of the survivors.

To this day, communities hardest hit by the War on Drugs have some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty, lowest rates of home ownership and educational achievement, and, ultimately, some of the lowest life expectancies in the country. An article in the Annals of Medicine last year concluded that the drug war is “negatively impacting key social determinants of health, including housing, education, income, and employment.” An apology won’t fix that, but a public commitment to drug war reparations can begin the process of addressing the impact and the root causes.



  1. Restitution refers to measures which restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred.” Compensation should be provided for any economically assessable damage, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case. Rehabilitation includes medical and psychological care, as well as legal and social services. Satisfaction entails effective measures aimed at the cessation of continuing violations. Guarantees of non-repetition comprise broad structural measures of a policy nature such as institutional reforms aiming at civilian control over military and security forces, strengthening judicial independence, the protection of human rights defenders, the promotion of human rights standards in public service, law enforcement, the media, industry, and psychological and social services.