The War on Drugs is a War on People

The War on Drugs is a War on People

Written by Jess Cochrane This article also appears on   Ask any well-informed policy wonk in the U.S. what they think about drug policy, and they’re likely to tell you what is quickly becoming mainstream opinion: that our nation’s approach to drug policy has failed. Surely, there are many examples that prove that the U.S. policy of prohibition has done more harm than good—punitive policies to address addiction and substance abuse, which are really public health issues; incarceration of nonviolent offenders on a massive scale (especially young Black and Brown men); the perverse incentives toward abuse of power through civil asset forfeiture; destruction of families through child custody battles and parents behind bars; the permanent stain of a drug felony that plagues former offenders reentering the community and obstructs their access to employment, housing, food stamps, and their ability to participate in the democratic process; disproportionately punitive mandatory minimum sentences that bankrupt the public and dismantle the lives of users and small-time crooks, benefiting only the private prison industry. All of these interpretations take at face value the federal government’s claims that the Drug War is meant to get rid of drugs and address the problems they bring.   But what if that was never its true purpose? A more cynical take—and, I would argue, a more accurate one—is that the War on Drugs has never been about drugs at all, and that drug prohibition has been used to systematize prejudice against unpopular and marginalized people, and to justify increased law enforcement in and against the communities deemed to suffer from “high crime” and the “drug problem.” This has happened time after time throughout the history of the United States, and the United States has, further, perpetuated it on a global scale.     EXHIBIT A: Opium. The first American drug prohibition law was a city ordinance outlawing smoking opium, pipes, and opium dens in San Francisco in the 1875. Who was smoking opium? Mainly new immigrants from China, who were soon targeted by federal immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and an 1887 statute that prohibited them from importation of the drug. Author Diane L. Ahmad has an excellent overview of the opium debates and their infusion with negative Anglo attitudes toward the newly-arrived Chinese (see pp. 10-14 via Google Books for details on the “Yellow Peril” and other stereotypes and media depictions, simultaneously exploitative and racist). Until the federal opium ban was passed in 1909, heroin (virtually the same chemical as opium) was manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and available over-the-counter for widespread consumption by White middle-class and wealthier Americans.  

1881 illustration of a Chinese man carrying a tray of opium to White patrons: the “yellow menace”

    EXHIBIT B: Alcohol. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is credited with leading the charge for alcohol prohibition, which led to the passage and ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned its manufacture, sale, and transport. Indeed, the temperance movement had focused national attention on the “sinful, demonic poison” with religious and political fervor, power, and influence. Its evangelical base had successfully lobbied school officials to require sensationalized anti-alcohol propaganda (and dared to call it “scientific”) in schools in all 50 states by the turn of the twentieth century. The textbook monopoly held by WCTU allowed dissemination of rhetoric obscuring scientific information about alcohol and promoting its association with poverty, insanity, and other social ills. What was less publicized is that one of WCTU’s biggest supporters was the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK not only promoted the 18th Amendment, but also formed vigilante interdiction teams to stop bootleggers and shut down speakeasies before its repeal in 1933. Prohibitionists exploited anti-immigrant sentiment post-World War I, campaigning to close saloons frequented by working-class European immigrants, which were perceived as threatening to “family values.”  

The Ku Klux Klan was a major supporter of alcohol prohibition.

    EXHIBIT C: Marijuana. Cannabis wasn’t particularly common, or problematic, in the U.S. before the 20th century. In fact, growing hemp was compulsory in 1620s Jamestown, Virginia, and citizens even used it to pay taxes. Nevertheless, the growing population of Mexican immigrants in the southwest during the early 1900s prompted at least sixteen states to prohibit all forms of marijuana before 1930. Mexican-Americans were seen as the primary consumers of cannabis, which lawmakers began calling “marihuana” to underscore that association. It was Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who crusaded to regulate the “dangerous intoxicant” responsible for “delirious rage” and “violent crime” during the 1937 Congressional Hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act. He was aided by sensationalist media reports on “the devil weed,” including the infamous propaganda film, Reefer Madness. In his testimony to Congress, Anslinger stated, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”  

From a June 1938 article in the San Francisco Chronicle on the “mysterious” trend of marijuana use among colored musicians.

    EXHIBIT D: Cocaine. Nicole D. Porter of The Sentencing Project has detailed the racial disparities in sentencing crimes involving rock and powder cocaine more eloquently than I could have, in her March 5 blog post for this series. While traveling in Colombia during the January 2013 delegation with Witness for Peace, I was pleased to discover a consensus among a diverse group of Colombians, clearly articulating the view that counter-narcotics policies are used there as a pretext for removing indigenous and campesino communities from their resource-rich land. For them, the War on Drugs is no metaphor: U.S. aid to Colombia has further militarized its national police and security forces, who have operated with impunity for corruption, human rights violations and atrocities for decades. Now, the military enforces drug laws by fumigating coca fields as well as licit food crops, contributing to massive displacement. “The war on drugs came when the flat land had all been stolen and exploited,” we were told by Ligna Pulido, a leader from the indigenous Nasa pueblo when I visited a refugee community outside Cali. “War is created for the purpose of displacement to exploit lands.” Many people are forcibly displaced by paramilitaries—armed actors hired as “private security” by wealthy businesspersons. With the occupants driven off of these territories, the land is freed up to be acquired by multi-national agricultural and extractive corporations. Meanwhile, paramilitaries and traffickers control the entire port city of Buenaventura, through which 60 percent of the country’s entire licit and illicit economy passes. Soldiers routinely conduct searches and seizures of civilian goods from Afro-descendant residents, while turning a blind eye to Whites carrying products to synthesize cocaine, never stopping or seizing these chemical products.     “The drug issue is used to control politics,” states Padre Alberto Franco, a Colombian missionary priest and the executive secretary of the human rights NGO, Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace. Daira Quiñones agrees, calling the drug war a pretext for land grabs. An artist and community organizer who survived violent displacements of Afro communities along the Pacific Coast, she speaks from painful experience. As in the U.S., fighting the drug “problem” is a thinly-veiled justification for enforcing a status quo of discrimination against “undesirable” people and communities and giving preference to the economic and political interests of those with the most power. By speaking out for land rights, victims’ rights, and peace, Ligna, Daira, and Padre Alberto, along with many others, endanger their very lives, and face false accusations of terrorism and drug trafficking. They are nothing of the sort, but are labeled as criminals in order to justify further repression and retaliation with impunity. All of these examples demonstrate that mitigating the dangers, or the health risks, associated with various substances has never been the primary motivation for controlling and regulating them. Instead, considerations of social status, power, and control take precedence, as policymakers criminalize traditions and behaviors typically engaged in by unpopular groups (usually racial and ethnic minorities) in order to further entrench their marginalization in society. For these reasons, I take issue when we label the War on Drugs a “failure.” By saying that it has failed, we imply that it began with good intentions—that it started off as a good idea. It did not. On the contrary, it has been driven, from the beginning, by racial and class-based prejudice, sensational and unscientific propaganda, and powerful economic interests. It has wreaked havoc in the most vulnerable communities domestically and across all borders. It won’t be easy to undo more than a century of oppressive policies, but it is far past time to overhaul the biased, senseless, and outdated scheme of laws that govern controlled substances. We already have the scientific knowledge and expertise required to regulate availability of drugs based on principles of health and harm; until now, we’ve lacked only the political will to do so. Finally, politicians in the U.S. and Latin America are beginning to come around and consider alternatives to prohibition. Luckily for them, thousands of advocates, researchers, scientists, and others have been waiting decades for this moment, when we can finally move toward a drug policy based on public health, scientific evidence, and common sense.