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America's Medical Regulation of Drugs Has Racist Roots

It all started with opium.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ ene


When you look at the facts, it's clear that racism governs American drug policy. While five times as many white people as black people report using illicit drugs, the U.S. criminal justice system sends blacks to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites according to the ACLU.

Unfortunately, racism is nothing new when it comes to substance regulation; it defines the U.S. drug policy paradigm going back almost a century.

Even before alcohol prohibition, the development of the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act (the first federal law in American history to criminalize the sale of drugs, which in this case was opiates) stemmed from the hatred and oppression of ethnic minority groups by white elites. The Act resulted from the brewing of a perfect political storm.

A massive worldwide recession had left job markets reeling and the first rumblings of the Great War in Europe increased xenophobia at home. Chinese immigrants in particular had flocked to western states to help build infrastructure. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad left many Chinese-Americans in search of other work in a rapidly shrinking job market, and racial tensions were strained to breaking.

Racism Erupts In Canada

The first major incident of racial tensions flared up not in the U.S., but just across the northern border. In September 1907, a group of white supremacists in Vancouver, Canada formed a nasty rally against competition with Asian immigrant laborors, under the banner of the “ Asiatic Exclusion League.” After a vigorous protest on the steps of City Hall, the angry mob attacked Chinatown, causing multiple injuries and massive property damage.

The fallout was so severe the Canadian government was forced to dispatch William Lyon MacKenzie King, (a savvy politician who would later become Canadian Prime Minister) to investigate the incident. King  immediately launched a victim-blaming smear campaign. In his report back to Ottawa he wrote that the Chinese residents had brought the violence on themselves due to the presence of two Chinese-run opium dens in the ransacked neighborhood, which he demonized in his report as “an industry so inimical to our national welfare.” King further recommended that Parliament “render impossible, save in so far as may be necessary for medicinal purposes, the continuance of such an industry."

The report was a lie, but the lie prevailed. The following year, the Canadian parliament passed the Anti-Opium Act of 1908; and just as King recommended, the act drew a sharp distinction between the “medicinal purposes” of opium, which were allowed under the law, and all other reasons for using the drug, which were prohibited. The means of ingesting opium most favored by the white majority were redefined as “medical” use, while customs like smoking from a Chinese water pipe were banned.

While King's report was full of lies, distortions and bigotry, the central pillar of its proposals have not only survived, but have thrived for more than 100 years. King's report laid the groundwork for a distinction which made no medical difference (at first) but created drastic results on the streets by criminalizing a substance for all but one segement of the population. 

Racist Drug Policies Trickle Into U.S.

The U.S. took a strikingly parallel approach six years later. The Harrison Act introduced the very same medical/recreational dichotomy to federal drug policy.

Drugs with single active ingredients, like morphine, were protected, as were the middle-class patients who used them. Drugs with uncertain chemistry, like opium resin, were targeted, as were their mostly ethnic users. The dichotomy of medical vs. recreational drugs survived the repeal of the Harrison Act in the U.S. and still underlies many of the principles of the Controlled Substances Act, to which all Americans are still subject today at the federal level. Its racist ramifications survive in the New Jim Crow policies that create mass incarceration of black men, which Michelle Alexander details in her bestselling book

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