Our Drug Laws Have Always Been Racist: America's Ugly History of Prohibition as a Tool to Oppress Minorities

Using drug laws as a tool to marginalize discriminated-against groups such as blacks and Latinos is nothing new. Drug laws have been used since at least the witch hunts of the Middle Ages to demonize and control groups those in power wish to stigmatize and keep powerless.

In the United States, starting in the mid-19th century, this became a strategy for marginalizing immigrants. This included the Irish Catholic immigrants who arrived on American shores during the Potato Famine in the 1840s, then German immigrants, followed soon after by Chinese immigrants at the time of the Gold Rush in the late 1840s and the transcontinental railroad in early 1860s. The tone for contemporary enforcement of drug laws was set over a century ago with demonization of Irish whiskey drinkers, German beer drinkers and Chinese opium smokers.

The first opium laws were directed at the Chinese. The alcohol laws were propelled by anti-Irish and anti-German immigrant sentiment. After the end of slavery, laws against cocaine were directed toward African Americans. In 1903, cocaine was taken out of Coca-Cola because of fear of sexual arousal by cocaine in black men (but not white men). With the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the U.S saw an influx of poor Mexicans into the Southwest who brought marijuana with them. Soon anti-marijuana laws passed in many places, first in western states and then eastern states.

Cannabis Has a History as Medicine

Cannabis has been in every major materia medica ever written, starting with the Pen Ts’ao Ching in 2637 BCE. It was reintroduced into Western medicine in England in 1839 by W.B. O’Shaughnessy after his return to England from India. Cannabis was in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1854-1942.

Historian David Ables says marijuana was probably brought to the Americas in the 16th century by African slaves taken to Brazil to harvest sugar cane and was likely introduced to the U.S. at the Port of New Orleans in the 1890s by Caribbean sailors. Soon, it was used by jazz musicians in the Storeyville bordellos in New Orleans. After Storeyville was shuttered by the authorities in the early 20th century these black musicians made their way up the Mississippi, bringing cannabis with them, which soon resulted in laws against marijuana.

At that time, there were no laws against cannabis. Well into the 1920s, American physicians wrote millions of cannabis-containing prescriptions per year. As late as the late 1930s, there were over 25 cannabis-containing patent medicines available at every corner drug store.

Things Get Worse After 1914

U.S. leaders have resorted to fear to entice citizens to give up some of their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Jim Crow laws, the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act of 1914, Alcohol Prohibition in 1918, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, the implementation of the drug war, and the Patriot Act of 2001 were all born of fear and racism.

In 1937, Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD, the predecessor of the DEA) and a blatant racist, spread wild tales about the effect of cannabis. He said cannabis, or marihuana as he called it, was used by “Negros, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, jazz musicians and other social undesirables.” 

In testimony to Congress in 1937, Anslinger summed his racist notions with this broadside: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. The Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Nixon and the War On People Using Certain Drugs

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Johnson was able to use the subsequent reaction over Kennedy’s loss and his own considerable legislative skills to get ground-breaking civil rights legislation passed. But then as now, there was resistance to equality for black Americans.

Many of the usual suspects opposed to black civil liberties supported Richard Nixon, the initial architect of the so-called war on drugs. The Nixon tapes document that the current war on drugs was developed to be directed at certain people. Nixon and his strategists wanted to marginalize two significant opposition voting groups; students and blacks.

A May 13, 2016 article by Dan Baum, author of Smoke and Mirrors, describes an interview he had with the late John Ehrlichman in 1994, one of Nixon’s top two aides, about the motivation for the war on drugs. Baum writes that Ehrlichman said, “You want to know what this [war on drugs] was really all about? 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?”

Ehrlichman continued:

“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.”

In addition to playing this policy for political gain, the Nixon tapes revealed that President Nixon was paranoid, not only about what he perceived as “dope-pushing commies,” but he was also suspect of Jewish psychiatrists. Nixon told his chief of staff H.R. Haldermann, “You know it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.”

While the die was obviously cast for the use of drug laws to control minorities well before then, it really ramped up in 1970 during Nixon’s presidency with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. After its passage the drug laws were used to try and neutralize or minimize the impact of the Johnson supporters civil rights of the mid-1960s. It became easier to be a “polite racist” by calling someone a drug dealer rather than some racially tinged pejorative name.

James Baldwin, author of The Fire Next Time and a contemporary of Nixon, had this to say about drug laws: “The drug laws can be used selectively and sporadically, against the poor or the otherwise undesirable, which is by no means incidental. Their enforcement is a tremendous political and economic weapon against what we call the Third World.”

Racism Impacts Drug Law Enforcement

Since its inception, the drug war has had a disproportionate negative effect on people of color. That racism exists in the enforcement of drug laws is no secret. Jill Soffiyah Elijah of the Boston Globe wrote in 2002:

“Today, African Americans make up nearly two-thirds of those sent to state prison for drug offenses, according to Human Rights Watch. This, despite the fact that white drug users outnumber African Americans by more than five to one. In 1996, African Americans were 33 times more likely to go to jail for drug offenses than whites; African-American youths were 55 times more likely than whites to be sent to adult prisons for drug offenses.”

Little has changed in the interim. According to a 2012 ACLU report, which examined marijuana possession arrests by state and county, from 2001 to 2010, blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite their similar rates of usage. In Iowa and Minnesota, the states with the greatest disparity, blacks were about eight times more likely to be arrested than whites.

Racism Is Not Just About Drugs, But Santa Too

Sometimes the rampant racism in the U.S. is ridiculous. In 2013, FoxNews spent several newscasts reporting that the historical Santa Claus must be white. FoxNews host Megyn Kelly weighed in on one of the more frivolous questions of our age: Whether or not Santa Claus—a mythical person who does not exist—was a white man. Fox was responding to a Slate.com article that proposed making Santa more appealing to black children.

Kelly insisted that “Santa just is white” and that it was a historical truth. She also said it was the fact that “Jesus was a white man.” Jeffrey Weiss, on WashingtonPost.com, noted that Santa was an imaginary character and insisting he was white “is like insisting that unicorns can only be one color.” He noted the historical inspiration for Santa was the fourth-century Bishop Nicholas from Turkey, who likely had olive skin.

It is precisely this type of rhetoric and logic that led to the nation’s longest war, the war on drugs. Here is what Clifford Thornton had to say in the early 21st century: “The disproportionate racial arrest rates spotlight the problem. While blacks are only 15 percent of illegal drug users, they are 35 percent of those arrested for possession.” He points out, “In many communities, including some of the ones where whites claim there is no bias in policing, blacks face arrest rates for drugs that are five, 10 or even 20 times higher than the rates for whites, despite roughly equal rates of illegal drug usage.”

“There is a disconnect between drug use and drug arrest rates by race. “There are seven times as many whites than blacks that have used cocaine; eight times as many have smoked crack; seven times as many that have used heroin. More white students have used crystal meth than black students have smoked cigarettes.”

The Drug War Brings Negative Consequences

Much of the U.S. populace has lost faith in the American criminal justice system. This is especially true in minority communities, though not just because of the drug war. The banking meltdown of 2007 has certainly raised questions about the U.S. financial regulatory system and what is, or should be, a crime. Recent videos of the shooting of unarmed black men have created increased concern regarding the quality of policing, training of police and fairness and even-handedness in enforcement of the law.

Much of the militarization of the police has been attributed to the drug war. Profits to be made from illicit drugs helped create the environment for the rise of gangs. While there is the same percentage of white illicit drug use, young blacks and Hispanics are the stereotypical drug users on TV, in the movies and in the minds of the public and many policymakers.

Failures of the Drug War

The drug war is disproportionately focused on black and brown citizens. The drug laws have been effective in decreasing opportunities for black Americans. These laws have drained tax funds from going to support colleges and have instead been used for building and staffing jails and prisons. The enormous expenditure of government funds to continue our dysfunctional drug policy is not getting better.

It is time to recognize not only that “black lives matter” but that our drug laws have contributed to the toxic stew that has generated a wide divide between police and minorities. Restoring citizens’ faith that the criminal justice system protects all Americans, not just the rich and upper middle-class will be a challenge. As was seen with the banking crisis, the government hasn’t done a very good job of protecting the middle class from white-collar crime. It has failed communities of color miserably. Alcohol prohibition lasted 13 years; the war on drugs has been with us since 1970. It has done immeasurable harm to communities of color and to the United States and the values for which it stands.

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