40 Years of the “War on Drugs”
Discriminatory Policies Have Intensified Racism
BY JESSICA SIEGEL
For nearly four decades, the so-called “War on Drugs” has been playing out in the United States, a battle supposedly designed to save Americans from illegal drug use, abuse, and whatever resulting dangers and criminality come from drugs.
But in 2019, in an America that has been divided by a history of racism and divisive politics, it’s important to note that the War on Drugs really isn’t about drugs. Historians, researchers, and activists have long argued that this “war” has always been more about race than drugs, about demonizing black Americans and other communities of color. The war has been, and continues to be, racially biased, and the results have ruined more lives than they’ve saved.
The seeds of racial tension that the War on Drugs started planting 40 years ago continue to be sown. The “war” has failed to stop drug use and abuse, but it’s nurtured and cultivated an American divide that even its creators might never have imagined.
How Did We Get Here?
To understand the War on Drugs, we’ve got to first return to its roots. Although it didn’t officially begin until the 1980s, its history can be traced to a century earlier. In the late 1800s, the Populist Movement united people of lower socioeconomic statuses in their common grievances against the upper classes. This movement was comprised mostly of farmers with economic hardships who came together with a united voice to promote their shared economic and political interests. The Populist Movement was also very successful in uniting poor people of various races, including blacks and whites. United poor black and white farmers represented a powerful and unified voting bloc. The upper-class elites viewed this allegiance as a threat to their power and, as a result, there were concerted efforts to disband the Populist Movement to diminish its power as a social and political force.
The development of “Jim Crow laws” was largely a backlash against the Populist Movement. Jim Crow was also a backlash against the increase in access to rights and services that black Americans achieved after the abolition of slavery in the Reconstruction Era. These Jim Crow laws began to develop in the 1890s and continued to thrive until the 1960s. During the Jim Crow era, whites and blacks were kept from interacting under “separate but equal” segregation laws. Blacks were prevented from gaining access to resources and social or political power, and stereotypes were promoted about black Americans being associated with crime and drug use. For example, the New York Times published an article entitled
“Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are A New Southern Menace” by a prominent physician in 1914, in which he claimed that cocaine use somehow gave black men supernatural powers, made them impervious to bullets, and helped them become better marksmen with weapons. The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation depicted black men as unintelligent dangerous predators, generating and propagating stereotypes about black Americans.
The rise of white supremacy during this time kept blacks and whites separate as well, and disrupted what could have been a powerful social unification from the Populist Movement. A wedge was driven between poor blacks and poor whites, built on the increased messaging that blacks were associated with crime and drug use, and thus undeserving of social services. This concerted effort to prevent social and political equality, largely promoted by Southern conservative lawmakers, prompted poor whites to feel superior to blacks ,and seemed to make them forget that they often had very similar economic and political interests.
The Civil Rights Movement
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement used peaceful tactics to fight back against Jim Crow segregation, even though many of the forms of protest were technically breaking Jim Crow laws. For example, peacefully sitting at a “whites only” lunch counter to demonstrate was illegal under these laws. Thousands of Civil Rights activists were arrested during this time and conservative Southern politicians and media reports created the perception that American society was being disrupted and damaged with these acts of protest.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, explicit racial discrimination and racism were no longer legally accepted. Fearful of losing their power, those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and the increasing political and social gains of black Americans claimed support of the Civil Rights Movement was support of lawbreakers and stoked their constituents fear of crime in the streets, thus linking opposition of the Civil Rights Movement with calls for law and order.
This led to an increase in “get tough on crime” rhetoric. Though it began in the 1950s, it intensified throughout the Civil Rights movement. It used race-neutral language, without explicit racism, to target black Americans who had already been associated with protest-related crime and drug use. Many of the politicians who endorsed segregation and voted against the Civil Rights Act were staunch supporters of “tough on crime” policies and harsh crime bills.
It was within this context that Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 who voted against the Civil Rights Act, based his bid for the White House. Central to Goldwater’s presidential campaign was a focus on the perceived lawlessness of the Civil Rights Movement. The campaign sought the support of the white electorate through denunciations of the Movement and calls for the restoration of law and order.
Whites who were struggling financially began feeling more and more threatened by the sudden emergence and perceived progress of blacks. Lower class whites felt the effects of integration and racial equality more than upper class whites, as their children were more often in the recently integrated schools and buses. Poor whites were also now competing with poor blacks for access to social services, something communities of color largely hadn’t had access to before the Civil Rights Movement.
Poor whites then directly experienced the implications of affirmative action in the workplace. Suddenly the playing field was more even and lower-income whites were confronted with this new reality, something that affected their daily lives to a much larger degree than wealthy whites, who were more often sheltered by their wealth from these social changes. Conservative politicians framed issues such as welfare as competition between hard working blue-collar whites and undeserving poor blacks. They used these fears and resentments to their political advantage and characterized supporters of the Civil Rights Act as being out of touch with the realities of ordinary working Americans.
The Southern Strategy
The “Southern Strategy” was utilized in the late 1960s by Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign to win over the poor white vote. The success of the “law and order” and “tough on crime” rhetoric was the motivator. Conservative anti-integration politicians continued to paint the Civil Rights Movement as the creator of crime, social disorder and societal breakdown, further solidifying a perception that blacks and criminal activity were synonymous.
Furthermore, research showed that racial attitudes were important determinants of white voter support for “tough on crime” measures. This led Republican strategists to believe the poor white vote could be gained by tapping into stereotypes and resentments and that cultivating this voting block would be essential to winning a majority in the election. The “Southern Strategy” used coded anti-black rhetoric; it was successful and it helped Nixon take the White House.
At the time Nixon took office, the anti-Vietnam War movement was in full swing. The hippie movement grew in numbers of young people who rejected governmental authority and who embraced drug use. In 1969, Nixon identified drug abuse as a serious national threat in a special message to Congress. Nixon cited an increase in street crime in the 1960s and an increase in drug-related juvenile arrests as the reason for his new focus on drugs. In 1971, Nixon declared drugs as “public enemy #1” and launched what he called an “offensive” against dangerous drugs of abuse, once again stoking the fears of voters about crime in the streets, crime that Americans had already associated with blacks.
In an April 2016 Harper’s article, writer Dan Baum quotes from a previously unreported 1994 interview he conducted with John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor: The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying, We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.
Out of this political and social environment, the War on Drugs took root.
The War on Drugs Begins
The War on Drugs was officially announced and launched in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan. The launching coincided with First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Reagan’s presidential campaign largely focused on issues of crime and welfare, and with the War on Drugs, Reagan built on conservative politicians that came before him in exploiting racial hostility for political gain. In keeping with his campaign promises, Reagan launched his “tough on crime” attack using drugs as the target. This, despite the fact that, in 1982, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. Drug use and crime were on the decline in 1982.
Nonetheless, the War on Drugs raised alarm bells. Americans were told that street criminals would be brought to justice, and law and order would rule. The War on Drugs targeted poor communities of color and was used as an excuse to blame these communities for their economic and social struggles. Reagan’s efforts, like those of his predecessors, created the notion that communities of color were overrun with undeserving “criminals” in society.
The Reagan administration passed legislation, including the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, that enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies. In contrast to less draconian drug laws that came before, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act stiffened penalties for first-time offenders convicted of non-violent possession of drugs, without the intent to sell. These harsh changes tied the hands of judges and required prison sentences for non-violent drug users. Perhaps most telling, however, was the fact that these new sentencing mandates were significantly harsher for the drug crack cocaine compared to other drugs, requiring a five-year minimum mandatory sentence for first-time possession offenders. More on this in a minute.
Cocaine: The Crack vs. Powder Differential
In the early 1980s, rates of cocaine use and trafficking of cocaine increased in the United States. This surge coincided with the announcement of the War on Drugs and the changing legislation for drug-related crimes. While powder cocaine had also been used at high rates throughout the 1970s, crack cocaine became equally popular in the 1980s.
Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug, having the same effect on the brain; one of the primary differences between them is the way in which they are used (snorted versus smoked, for example), and the illicit economies that developed around each of the substances. Crack cocaine tended to be sold in smaller and cheaper quantities, and thus it became more prominent in lower income neighborhoods in the 1980s; powder cocaine was more often sold in larger quantities and was more expensive. Media images at the time gave the impression that powder cocaine was the drug of choice among wealthy whites, at nightclubs and parties.
Crack cocaine was often sold on the streets in small cheap quantities, resulting in many transactions. The lack of access to private spaces protected from law enforcement in impoverished neighborhoods made crack cocaine transactions more visible. This, coupled with stereotypes about who uses drugs, allowed policing efforts to focus on lower income communities in order to fight the War on Drugs, largely ignoring the sales and use of powder cocaine, crack cocaine, and other drugs in upper class suburban white neighborhoods and on college campuses. (Yet during this time, statistics indicated white Americans were using more cocaine than black Americans.)
Despite the fact that black people did not use drugs more than any other racial group, Americans saw blacks getting arrested for drug-related crimes (more on this in a minute) on the news and in newspapers over and over again during the 1980s, and into the 1990s. This led to the public perception that blacks were more heavily engaged in crime and drug use, reasserting the long-held stereotypes about the black community. Newsweek declared crack to be the biggest story since the Vietnam War and Watergate, and Time called crack the “issue of the year” in 1986. The shift in media and political focus realigned the focus of the American public and made drugs, especially crack, out to be the enemy of the state.
At the same time, the Drug Enforcement Agency reported that the media had distorted the extent of the crack cocaine crisis, as was reported in a 1986 story in the Los Angeles Times.
More importantly, research shows that in the news stories that focused on crack cocaine, 76 percent of the reports linked black Americans and inner-city neighborhoods to crack, as opposed to whites and suburban neighborhoods. A prime example of this involved the death of Len Bias, a rising young basketball star who died from a cocaine overdose in 1986, the night he was drafted to the Boston Celtics. Many media outlets erroneously reported that Bias, a black male, died of a crack cocaine overdose when in fact he’d been using powder cocaine,?falsely furthering the associations between black Americans and crack cocaine.
The truth is that, to this day, crack cocaine use is very similar between whites and blacks in America. A 2006 research report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed that 66 percent of crack cocaine users in the United States were white in 2003.
The focus on blacks using crack cocaine shifted the dialogue away from the real issues that remained unaddressed, like poverty, the lack of access to adequate educational opportunities, and the loss of manufacturing jobs in inner cities and increasing unemployment rates. Instead, the American public came to believe that “crackhead druggies” were multiplying by the second, and unfairly sucking up social services.
The enhanced policing of these communities was largely promoted and embraced by the American public in order to restore “law and order” and rid American society of its new founded #1 enemy, the drug abuser. By this point in history,”law and order” and ‘drug abuser’ has become coded language for describing poor black Americans.
Disparate Drug Arrest Rates Between Blacks and Whites
Based on the stereotypes and associations developed through the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement, the stereotypes that blacks were associated with crime and drug use led to racial profiling in policing, and within the criminal justice system as a whole. Street crimes were being policed at higher rates in communities of color (versus, for example, white collar crimes or street crimes in more affluent neighborhoods), black Americans were being targeted at higher rates for drug-related crimes, and thus the American public continued to wrongly believe that black Americans were using more drugs than white Americans.
Arrest rates documented in the early 1990s reflected these changes. According to statistics from the United States Sentencing Commission, in 1992, 91.4 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants were black and only 3.2 percent were white. The arrest rates clearly did not reflect the statistical use rates for crack.
This created a self-fulfilling prophecy. As police targeted poor black communities and spent more time making arrests in those communities based on the stereotypes that there would be more offenders there, and based on the more public nature of drug transactions in these neighborhoods, blacks were then more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and to be incarcerated, and this gave the false perception to those following the news that blacks were more likely to be drug users. The War on Drugs had found its enemy and had found a way to give the American public the perception that the war was being waged to keep America safe. This was far from the truth.
As crack cocaine became more and more associated with poor black Americans, those convicted of crack-related crimes were penalized more severely than those associated with powder cocaine, wealthier white Americans. In 1992 more than 90 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants were black, and in 2006 that percentage had only marginally decreased to 80 percent. Another compelling example of this discrepancy comes from Los Angeles County in the mid 1980s during the peak of the War on Drugs. In a county of more than 4 million people, not a single white person was arrested on federal crack cocaine charges between 1986 and 1995, despite the fact that blacks did not use more crack cocaine than whites.
Policing Strategies Change
With the declaration of the War on Drugs, changes to policing strategies emerged. For example, the use of Stop and Frisk policies were escalated in some cities during the 1980s, giving police officers the ability to stop and search people on the street, without probable cause. The majority of those stopped were Latino and black men, leading to thousands of accusations of racial profiling. The policy resulted in minimal drug and weapon seizures but it falsely increased public perception that men of color were inherently more dangerous, not to be trusted, and more likely to be a criminal.
Pretextual traffic stops became more routine as part of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Operation Pipeline that started in 1984. This program trained state and local police officers to recognize possible drug traffickers on highways, and it included race as one factor to consider when pulling someone over. Officers were stopping people on the pretext of a traffic violation, but with the intention of searching their vehicle for drugs. The majority of those pulled over in pretextual traffic stops were men of color.
Drug-Related Sentencings Disproportionately Affect People of Color
The passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act enacted what’s known as the 100-to-1 disparity in crack/powder cocaine sentencing. Someone caught and convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine would get the same prison sentence as someone who was caught and convicted for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Because black Americans were being arrested and convicted at incredibly disproportionate rates for crack cocaine offenses, the result of this legislation and the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine was a large increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes and extreme racial disparities in who was being locked up.
As time went by, other presidents and policy makers contributed to the draconian drug laws. For example, President Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that included the “three strikes and you’re out” mandate. This law mandated life in prison without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of a violent crime with two previous felonies, even if the previous felonies were non-violent drug possession charges. And again, because people of color were more likely to be targeted by police and arrested for drug-related crimes, these increasingly harsh drug laws and changes to drug law enforcement simply further increased the racial disparities in the drug war and further harmed communities of color.
Also in the mid-1990s, the United States Sentencing Commission, the bipartisan independent agency that examines sentencing policy, acknowledged the racial disparities of crack cocaine federal law implementation and the disproportionate impact of these laws on black Americans. In their 1995 report, the Commission unanimously recommended that congress reduce the 100-to-1 sentencing ratio. In 1997, the Commission once again issued a report to Congress unanimously promoting a revision in the federal cocaine sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine, suggesting the ratio be reduced. Despite these reports and recommendations, nothing changed.
In 2007, the Commission issued a report based on its review of scientific literature, medical literature, public comments and testimony at public hearings, and statements from the Executive Branch, the Judiciary, law enforcement, criminal justice practitioners, academics and community interest groups. The Commission concluded that the harmfulness of crack cocaine had been overestimated in the past and that the laws targeted people of color. Once again, it recommended reducing the sentencing disparities and also suggested repealing the mandatory minimum penalty for simple non-violent possession of crack cocaine. Yet Congress still failed to act.
The crack/powder cocaine sentencing ratio wasn’t changed until 2010 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama. This law reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. This now means that someone convicted of possessing 28 grams (as opposed to the previous five grams) of crack cocaine will receive a five-year prison sentence, whereas in order to receive the same sentence for possession of powder cocaine, someone would have to be convicted of possessing 504 grams, or 18 times the weight. The sentencing discrepancy was lessened, but still remains glaring.
According to The Sentencing Project, The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 originally intended to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine entirely. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee wasn’t willing to change the sentencing ratio to 1-to-1, and its consideration of the bill resulted in a compromise for a 1-to-18 sentencing ratio due to the continued perceptions and stereotypes that somehow crack cocaine was more dangers than powder cocaine.
Yet by this time, the consequences of the sentencing ratio had already wreaked havoc on communities of color. Activists today are still fighting for a 1-to-1 sentencing ratio and believe justice will not be met until this is achieved.
Looking at the sentencing differential on a state level, the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs is identifiable as well. For example, in the Wisconsin Circuit Courts between 1999 and 2006, black defendants were approximately 50 percent more likely than white defendants to be incarcerated, and black defendants received longer incarceration sentences than white defendants. Researchers studying how the Manhattan (New York City) District Attorney’s office handled cases in 2010 and 2011 found that black defendants were 20 percent more likely than white defendants to be detained and held in custody after arraignment for misdemeanor offenses. For drug misdemeanor charges, black defendants were 27 percent more likely to receive a plea offer that involved incarceration, as compared to white defendants.
Similar to racial discrimination in drug arrests, the bias shown in these areas of the criminal justice system does not accurately reflect racial differences in criminal activity or threat but instead evolve out of the bias and stereotypes about people of color that evolved long before the War on Drugs, and were then intensified by the War on Drugs. By this time, the criminal justice system’s arrest and prosecution of black people had become what feels almost routine, based on biases and stereotypes now ingrained in the minds of the general public.
The War on Drugs Sent More People to Prison Than Ever Before
These War on Drugs-related policies, strategies, and laws, when taken together, have resulted in a vast increase in the number of people incarcerated in the United States, especially among people of color.
* The United States now incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world, largely due to the policies related to the War on Drugs. Nearly half of the federal prison population is convicted of a drug offense as the primary conviction. This has cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion in the past five decades
* According to the FBI crime reports, the total number of drug arrests jumped from 580,900 in 1980 to 1,702,537 in 2008, and between the years of 1980 to 1990, drug arrest rates for blacks increased 363 percent.
* By 2003, the likelihood of imprisonment for a white man during his lifetime was 1 in 17, but for a black man it was 1 in 3. By 2010, the national incarceration rate for blacks was 2207 per 100,000 while the national incarceration rate for whites was 380 per 100,000, largely due to the polices and sentencing guidelines from the War on Drugs.
* Today, more black men in the United States are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, again, largely due to the polices and sentencing guidelines from the War on Drugs.
* The War on Drugs has failed to achieve its supposedly main objective of eradicating drug use in America. The policies and criminal justice changes it effected did not have a significant effect on drug interdiction and did not drastically reduce drug use and abuse in the United States.
The Lasting, Generational impact
So, what are the long-term consequences of this disproportionate targeting of communities of color in the “War on Drugs” At the individual level, the impact of incarceration is profound. If someone is arrested and convicted of a drug-related felony, release from prison after serving a sentence presents a challenging situation. With a felony conviction people are no longer protected from housing and employment discrimination. It can be very difficult to find a job and rent a home, and access to public housing is denied.
Access to social services such as food assistance and federal education loans is severely restricted. People are barred from serving on a jury. In some states the right to vote is revoked for a period of time or for a lifetime. This in turn increases the chances that this individual may reoffend and recidivate.
There are costs to families and communities as well. Incarceration has been shown to have a severe negative impact on the development of an incarcerated parent’s children and it puts additional financial and personal burdens on family members. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers incarceration of a parent an adverse childhood experience for the child. There are tremendous costs to the developing child and thus the future of the community and our society.
All of this just further disenfranchises and marginalizes people of color within our society. Even if it was not the original intent, the “War on Drugs” in practice and implementation, was, and continues to be, racist.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said in a 1999 speech, “We all do better when we all do better.” How then can we, as a society, work to improve the situation moving forward so that we can all do better.
Restoring rights for individuals convicted of drug-related felonies are increasingly the topic of debate and action. For example, some states have “ban the box” initiatives to remove employment discrimination for those with a felony conviction, and other states are renewing voting rights for formerly incarcerated people.
Laws around marijuana possession have gone through massive changes, with some states legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and some decriminalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana (the Minnesota city of Minneapolis made this change in the summer of 2018). Research by the ACLU in 2010 revealed that, at the national level, blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. And, in the state of Minnesota, the ACLU found that blacks were about eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites–despite the fact that blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rates.
In December 2018, Congress passed The First Step Act, a major piece of legislation with major criminal justice reform that included reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and easing the federal “three strikes” rule. Still, some of the sentencing changes in The First Step Act aren’t retroactive, meaning those already incarcerated under draconian drug laws aren’t being helped with the new legislation.
Of course, these reforms fail to address issues of racial bias in policing and the criminal justice system, and the stereotypes associated with black communities. With that said, we as individuals can also take small but important steps to work toward change:
* Speak up against stereotypes. When you see or hear something, say something. Being a passive bystander allows for stereotypes to continue to propagate and permeate through society.
* Understand the long-reaching impacts of incarceration and consider this when you think about policy reform. How do we want formerly incarcerated individuals to function in society and do we want to obstruct their ability to become successful tax paying citizens
* Challenge and consider your own biases about drugs, drug users, and formerly incarcerated individuals. Media portrayals of drugs and drug users are often based on stereotypes and it is important to be educated and aware of these stereotypes to prevent them from further influencing public perception and policy.
* Educate yourself on these topics. Many excellent books and articles have recently been published on the topic. Some suggestions include Michelle Alexander?s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness and Carl Hart’s High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.
* And finally, vote. The people we elect to positions of power in this country make the policies, and if we want to see change we need to elect people who will contribute to that change.
In 2019, the War on Drugs has largely turned away from cocaine and marijuana; it’s still being fought, but with less publicity than in its early years. Instead, with the current crisis-level increase in opioid-related deaths, health, law enforcement and criminal justice arms are responding with far less punitive reactions than they did with crack cocaine.
President Donald Trump’s administration declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017 and the focus has been more on targeting pharmaceutical companies and harm reduction approaches, rather than criminalizing, demonizing, and incarcerating the users. One could argue that a key difference in the approach stems from the fact that the face of the opioid epidemic is white and suburban. In contrast to what we see today, very little effort and money was put toward treating the humans caught up in crack cocaine use and the crack cocaine epidemic.
This is a far cry from the race-based “tough on crime” approach that that has been playing out, in one way or another, for 100-plus years in the United States. And as we rapidly approach the end of the 21st Century’s second decade, we find ourselves still reeling from the stereotypes and harms caused by the War on Drugs.
Jessica Siegel can be reached at
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2 people commented on "40 Years of the “War on Drugs”"
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Christopher Noel says:
This is an incredible article, the subject of which has needed to be brought to our attention. It especially highlights where we are now with our current administration, and so many who make opinions about others on a racial presumption. Dr. Siegel, I thank you for presenting this in such a relatable way. May we all learn from this.
Kim Whiting says:
really great article Dr. Siegel!! thank you for helping to get people up to speed (no pun intended) on this subject.