The Racist Tradition of The War On Drugs

By chillinwill · Jun 9, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    *According to the Drug Policy Alliance (, African Americans constitute 13 percent of all users of illegal drugs but they make up 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted, and a whopping 74 percent of those sent to prison.

    The government and some other groups present figures which are not so racially one-sided; but regardless of whose figures you accept, they all show the same thing: Blacks are overwhelmingly the targets and the victims of the war on drugs.

    This is not an accident. A look at the history of America's various wars on drugs shows they were virtually always race-based and anti-black spurred forward by frequently irrational fears of minority groups by right-wing thinking whites.

    First of all what most people will be surprised to discover is that for most of this country's history, drugs (including the big three: marijuana, cocaine, and heroin) were perfectly legal. Indeed, in the late 1800's it was entirely possible to walk into your local pharmacy and buy cocaine or opium.

    Racial fear changed that.

    The first anti-drug law was passed in 1875 in San Francisco, California. Opium smoking was outlawed because local officials feared Chinese men were using it to "lure white women into their opium dens and to their ruin" as prostitutes or into sexual debauchery. A Federal law followed which made it illegal "for anyone of Chinese origin" to traffic in opium. (They were a bit more open with their racism in those days.) And a state law came in 1909.

    Cocaine was next. In the early 1900s, a series of stories began to circulate that Southern black men were getting high on cocaine and were going out and raping white women. Even the New York Times eventually fell for the false hysteria and published an article on February 11, 1914 alleging, "Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the 'cocaine crazed Negro brain.'" That phrase "cocaine crazed Negro" swept the nation. And a host of anti-cocaine laws followed. This was also when police departments around the nation began adopting the .38 caliber revolver. Southern police departments were telling their fellow officers that black men high on cocaine could not be stopped by the then standard .32 caliber revolver.

    It was also in 1914 that the granddaddy of anti-drug laws was passed. It was called the Harrison Narcotics Act. This is the Act that effectively made marijuana, cocaine and heroin illegal nationwide. This is true even though the law did not actually outlaw the drugs. What it did was greatly expand Federal government power to regulate and tax the drugs. The aim was to tax the drugs out of existence. Interestingly, this approach was taken because Americans were a bit more independent minded back then and felt it would have been unconstitutional for the government to tell people what they could or could not put in their own bodies.

    Despite, the Harrison Narcotics Act, marijuana remained popular, especially among the hip cats with money. You see the 1920s and 1930s in America were the ages of Jazz, Bebop and Swing. These popular music genres had young whites flooding into clubs and neighborhoods were blacks were performing. One result was a lot of interracial mingling, marijuana smoking (and sex). At this point the grandfather of the anti-drug movement steps in. His name was Harry Anslinger. He was head of the then Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger warned the nation in an openly racist fashion that Jazz and marijuana had blacks and whites sitting down as equals and even "dancing together in teahouses."

    For good measure, Anslinger and others threw Mexicans into the mix alleging that marijuana was inducing Hispanics to commit violence against whites.

    The result was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Again, the aim was to use the tax system to make marijuana so expensive that no one could afford it. Government officials still did not feel the Constitution allowed them to ban the drug or tell citizens what they could put in their own bodies.

    Next came the mid and late 1960s when black rebellion or riots swept the nation. Unable to recognize or admit to the racial injustices which existed in the nation, right wing thinkers began to attribute the black rebellions to communism and drugs. Thus, by the early 1970s a whole new set of harsher and harsher anti-drug laws began to be enacted.

    Indeed, it can be honestly argued that virtually all of America's anti-drug laws were enacted as a result of some irrational, right-wing-conservative or even racist fear of blacks or some other minority group on drugs.

    This historical summary does not argue that drugs do not have a harmful side. But the right-wing, "fear-of-blacks-approach" resulted in drug addiction being treated as a criminal problem and not a medical one. For example, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, during the 1880 to 1920 period, the typical opiate or cocaine addict was a middle-aged, middle class white woman. But no one declared war on them.

    Thus, historically, the unifying theme of virtually all this nation's drug laws is an irrational fear of minorities on drugs and a right-wing mind-set which dictates a criminal and not a medical approach to the problem.

    By Robert Taylor
    June 9, 2009

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  1. Jatelka
    For those that are interested in the racism surrounding early drug laws there's a fascinating article in the archive here...

    On the anti-Chinese sentiment which result in Canada's opium act of 1909

    There's another aricle here...

    which looks at race and the extension of Canada's drug laws in the 1920's

    There is also this...

    which looks at racism and moralism in first time cocaine possession sanctions
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