Conflict theory was developed from the concern that the structural functionalism theory neglected conflict in society and was politically conservative. This conflict theory also addressed the perceived failure of structural functionalism to account for change in society (Ritzer, 1992, p. 61). This theory has evolved to include elements of structural functionalism and traditional Marxist focus on dominant and subordinate groups.
Conflict theory often depicts a: polarization of the forces of “law and order” on the one hand and left wing political activists and minority group members reacting to what they saw as excessive police repression of political protests and urban riots on the other (Giffen, et al. , 1991, pp. 8-9) This aspect of conflict theory assumes, however, that the dominant and subordinate groups are more or less homogenous in nature.
Most research in the field of drug policy recently, however, deals with power being located in “institutional structures in society such as economic, governmental and religious institutions (Giffen, et al. 1991, p. 10)” that do not presuppose homogenous groups. An example of this would be the comment of Riley after attending a conference on drug issues in the United States, where he remarked that “many researchers felt the real reason for the war on drugs in that country was that it helped to suppress blacks and minorities. (Riley 1994b)” One of the failings of conflict theory becomes apparent when researchers in the history of this legislation find little in the actual discussion of the laws that pertains to race.
Giffen, et al. (1991) write that the early legislation’s principle proponents had the “altruistic aims of supporting the international anti-opium movement” despite the anti-Chinese sentiment of the times (p. 525). The fact that the laws were used solely against the Chinese at first is indicative of this anti-Chinese sentiment, and not the creation of the laws themselves. Later legislation was driven mainly by enforcement officials, as there was little in the way of public outcry for more rigorous anti-opium legislation (p. 525).
Johns (1991) under the heading “Race: The Creation of an Enemy Class,” writes bluntly: “The enforcement tactics of the War on Drugs are focused on minority populations” (p. 155). In her paper, Johns (1991) posits that the War on Drugs takes attention away from the factors which underlie the problems of drugs and trafficking, partly because the “more powerful segments in society” (p. 150) do not want attention focused the poor job they are doing to cure the ills of society. Johns also expands the group being oppressed to include the poor, who have been hit with massive housing and health care cuts under the Republican Presidencies.
The dichotomy between those in power and minorities and the poor is self-perpetuating, in that these groups have a limited upward mobility (and, therefore crimes like trafficking in illicit drugs becomes appealing), and when they do try to increase their wealth through illicit means, those in power see that as justification for minorities and the poor being in the position they are in. The conflict theory is problematic in describing why there is a war on drugs. It may help to explain (as Johns (1991) successfully does) why a War on Drugs continues in the U. S. , but leaves unanswered questions when applied to other situations.