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Is the War on Drugs Racist?

The origin and nature of most anti-drug laws have many asking, is the war on drugs racist?

By Izzy ErlichPublished 7 years ago 12 min read

Legalization of marijuana first found itself as a part of the battle against racism. It should be no surprise that many of America's archaic drug laws have a common root in racism. Today's new generation of drug users are trapped in a sea of drug laws and enforcement bureaucracies which were designed not for medical, religious, or moral reasons, but to harass and persecute America's racial minorities—Asian, Latino and African Americans. Ironically, the oldest of the racist drug practices is tied, not to stopping drug use, but to promoting it.

The English, with a passion that only Jordan Belfort’s greed could justify, went to war twice. They fought once in 1842 and again in 1856 to force the Chinese government to permit the importation of opium into their country. Where profit was a consideration and only “heathen Chinese" were to be the victims, the “civilized world" would not tolerate laws that restricted their right to bring addictive drugs to the user. This would not be the only time that racial issues were to stir officially in the opium controversy of international affairs.

Victory in the Spanish American War forced the United States to come up with a policy on opium smoking in the newly-captured Philippines. The final solution, worked out mostly by religious leaders, was to allow the local Chinese population to continue smoking their opium, but conversely require the local Filipino population to stop at once. However, the opium problem was nothing new to the America of the early 1900s.

Photo via History Buff

Opium and the Soldier's Disease

Indeed, huge numbers of Americans were victims of what was commonly called “soldier's disease,” since large numbers of Civil War veterans had become addicted to morphine. Hundreds of thousands of women in the nation were also addicted to opiates contained in various “women's medicines" and “tonics," which were especially popular during menopause. In some statistical reports it is claimed that there may have been more opiate addicts at the turn of the 20th century than at the turn of the 21st century, despite the fact that the population was a mere fraction of our current 300 million plus.

But these women and soldiers supposedly posed no threat. On the other hand, what could be more threatening than the peril of hundreds of thousands of sex-crazed, opium-smoking Chinese immigrants roaming around urban centers? More than any other image, the fear of interracial relationships led to the initial passage of laws against opium. Interestingly, the first laws only prohibited smoking opium—the way the Asian population used it. America continued to allow oral opiate use for another decade to cater to the needs of the white population.

The American Pharmaceutical Association had to consider the bans thanks to the involvement of profit. Yet since only the Asians were using and smoking opium—without buying it through the APA—the organization easily supported new regulations. One of their committee members summed it up this way: “If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope, we can get along without him."

The first strict laws against opiate use were enacted in Western US in areas where Asian laborers remained after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. These local laws were created amidst the lurid newspaper reporting of innocent young women being hauled off into white slavery by drug-crazed Chinese immigrants. And while the eventual federal laws were the subject of somewhat less-impassioned debate, the image of the lurking peril of Asian immigrants was always in the background.

Photo via Daily Mail

The Cocaine Craze

While fear of Asian immigrants born out of imported railroad labor can be seen behind the passage of American opium laws, it was the fear of Black people which triggered country's reactions to cocaine. Cocaine had been an accepted part of the White American way of life for years. Sigmund Freud had popularized the drug initially in the late 1800s while raving about its supposed medicinal properties. The former Surgeon General of the United States Army was a staunch supporter of its use, and he drank a cocaine and wine mixture with dinner every night. Indeed, the term "Coke" became an American symbol when a Georgia pharmacist mixed cocaine with other ingredients and came up with a refreshing soft drink which gave you a real “lift." This pharmacist's product, Coca-Cola, was even advertised as a “brain tonic."

But this was before America began to fear former slaves' impact on the labor market. As the economy tightened and the fears of white Southerners increased, the image of the coke-crazed African American man became a source of local paranoia and stereotyping.

In 1908, The New York Times reported that cocaine in the South “wrecks its victims more swiftly and surely than opium." The usually responsible Times went so far as to allude to the “Jew peddlers" who were actively selling cocaine to the southern Black people. Sentiment in the country shifted negatively toward cocaine.

One popular myth circulating around the South was that the use of coke (which, ironically, was started by white Southerners in an attempt to get more work out of their Black employees—a practice borrowed from the Spanish treatment of the Indians) led to a more cunning and violent Black man. Illogically, people accepted that Black people reacted differently than White people to cocaine. Under the influence of coke, it was believed that the normally calm Black man would take on whole armies and fight viciously. The belief was so pervasive that it eventually became “common knowledge" that coke made African American men invulnerable to bullets. As absurd as this might seem, many Southern police forces switched from the lighter .32-caliber pistol to the heavier .38 on the grounds that a mere .32 slug couldn't stop a Black man under the influence of coke. And, of course, there was always the sexual tie-in. According to almost everyone in the South at the time, coke-crazed Black men wanted one thing when they went out on their sprees—white women. Coke was not only supposed to make these men crave white women with an intensity which made the streets unsafe, but it was also supposed to make their performance in bed even better than the white male already feared it was.

As an economic threat, coke was almost tolerated. While it was supposed to make the Black man into a superior laborer, he was generally relegated to work which no self-respecting white man would do back then. As such, the threat was minimal and the utility of the Black worker could be exploited.

As a sexual threat, coke was intolerable. As these sex myths spread, more local and state laws were passed in the South. Eventually, at the demand of the southern states, federal legislation finally made cocaine a narcotic. Today's most popular drug, marijuana, can trace its prohibition to similarly ignorant lawmakers dealing with pressures based in racial fear. The "killer weed," as it was affectionately known to a segment of the press in those days, was another great menace which foreigners had brought to our shores as a new threat.

Image via The Seattle Times

Mexican 'Opium' Rises

While we may think of Mexican-American users in the Southwest as a source of marijuana, the migrant beet harvesters who had moved halfway across the nation were singled out for the greatest persecution. Chicanos in Denver were seen as the only marijuana users when it was legally banned in Colorado in 1917. Montana's laws were passed following testimony filled with lurid descriptions of the way in which “Mexican opium" was used. According to one report, “When some beet field peon takes a few puffs of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico and so he starts out to execute all his political enemies. I understand that over in Butte they stage imaginary bullfights after a couple of whiffs of marijuana!”

In state after state, descriptions of Latinos using marijuana and becoming violent spurred laws condemning the drug. White citizens—similar to those during the Chinese-American opiate craze—perceived marijuana to be only for a foreigner's use. But the marijuana problem was a two-front threat. Not only were there the doped-up Latinos in the West, but there were also weed-crazed Black people in the South. In the case of marijuana, the Black people in question were not native slaves and their offspring of another era. Instead, they were the ships' crews and others coming in from the West Indiesforeign Black people.

At this time a flourishing trade with the Caribbean existed, with most of the activity coming into the port of New Orleans. While the Latinos in the West were often seen as shiftless, lazy and worthless as a result of drug use, the New Orleans “muggles" smokers were "dope fiends." The president of the Louisiana Board of Health characterized marijuana as a “powerful narcotic, causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirium hallucinations, and in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor."

Image via Mashable

Myths and the Media

Local newspapers, lured by the possibility of sensational stories, investigated drug use in-depth. What they found was not a small population of users who were predominantly associated with the shipping trade. The papers reported on the “over two hundred marijuana addicts" under the age of 14. They described a scene of marijuana dealers lurking around school yards and enticing young children into a life of vice and corruption. Young white girls lured into prostitution was rumored to be common. It may not have been an accurate picture of the marijuana-using population, but it did sell a lot of newspapers.

These myths also produced demands from local citizens for legislation. It is little wonder that the strongest voices calling for bans against marijuana on a federal level came from Colorado and Louisiana congressmen. While almost all of the states had already outlawed marijuana by the 1930s, the legislative delegations of these two states were able to eventually push through federal legislation as well—ironic given Colorado’s current political climate.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the drug laws were once again used to persecute a minority group. Ironically, this minority was white and middle class in origin; they were the children of the people who had been holding the Black, Asians and Latino peoples under the heels of their boots. They were the “hippies.”

Although the hippies were responsible for the popularization of marijuana, they were into other, newer drugs as well. Most notable is perhaps LSD. Although LSD and its hallucinogenic cousins, mescaline and psilocybin, had been used by divinity students, psychologists, and writers throughout the 1950s, there was no great uproar until the hippies came along.

Indeed, the sexual reality and mythology of the hippie and psychedelic movements were every bit a threat to middle America in the 1960s as the Asians had been to the West in the 1890s and the Black people had been to the South in the 1900s. In fact, the hippie threat was even greater. “Free Weed, Free Sex, Free Music" became more than just a slogan—it became a way of life.

First in the West and then across the nation, cities and states passed laws making possession of hallucinogens illegal. Eventually, LSD made the federal list of controlled substances. While these new laws didn't stop the sexual revolution or the use of psychedelic drugs, they did allow a lot of fathers to breathe easier, knowing they had done something to protect their daughters from those sex-crazed hippie acid-heads. It seems the one thing all the generations had in common was the paranoia of white women being desecrated.

But acid and the hallucinogens are not the only drugs which can trace their prohibition to use by a white minority group. If we look carefully at the alcohol prohibition movement, we can see that it too was aimed at a select minority segment of the population.

Photo via Pinterest user Hub Pages

Prohibition of What—or Who?

Very few people in the prohibition movement were of the opinion that everyone should give up alcohol. The law did not make it illegal to drink, but rather to sell alcohol. The idea of the prohibition movement was to stop the Irish and Italians from drinking. While the good upstanding White Anglo- Saxons were able to handle their booze, it was felt that foreigners were too infantile to avoid vice and sin if alcohol was around. Indeed, much of the initial rage was vented, not at alcohol per se, but at the places where the minorities got their booze—the bar. The Anti-Saloon League was one of the most important parts of the early prohibitionist movement. Carrie Nation went around busting up saloons themselves rather than booze.

Keeping bars open during the early stages of the prohibition allowed immigrants to continue drinking in spite of the initial ban. Therefore, the middle-class was forced to go along with the orders as well, but not before stocking up on exorbitant amounts of alcohol. The Yale Club was believed to have put away a 25-year supply for its members.

Racism and most other forms of discrimination have their roots in ignorance and a sense of superiority of one group over another. This is a gross simplification, but it will do for now. The same may be said about the drug laws in this country, and the link between these two elements should come as no surprise.

What is important is that just as integration, education, and reconciliation were seen as solutions to the ignorance which leads to racism, so has an actual widening use of marijuana been a solution to the antiquated drug laws that restricted weed consumption. As long as marijuana was being smoked by those “foreigners" in New Orleans and Colorado, voters had to fight both the drugs and the people who used them. But now that drugs are used by all facets of society, they are a lot less misunderstood by the larger population. Unfortunately, until racism is attacked at its very roots, the problems of prejudice will not end. Compared to racial prejudice, getting rid of outmoded marijuana laws seems easy.

politicshistorypop culture

About the Creator

Izzy Erlich

Upstate New Yorker, who loves to travel to Colorado and Vancouver. Certified Yoga instructor.

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