Day 5 of White History Month: The War on Drugs - Racist Origins of Drug Policy
[Images: New York Times: February 8, 1914, ”The Mascot” New Orleans, August 3, 1889, The Ogden Standard: September 25, 1915, Washington Post: March 8, 1896], ACLU, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White" (pdf)]
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” – Harry J. Anslinger
"Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death — the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."- Harry J. Anslinger
"Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and vice operators bordered on the unthinkable. Songs about just such events existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, in “Chung Hi Lo and Mary,” a young white woman, Mary, entered Chung Hi Lo’s opium den out of curiosity. There “he slipped her a ring, a golden thing” and quickly addicted her to opium." - Diana Ahmad, The Opium Debate and Chinese-Exclusion Laws in the American West
The history of criminalization of drugs in the United States has racist origins. While drugs are undeniably harmful, recreational drugs were tolerated for much of U.S. history. Linking Chinese Americans, Black Americans, and Latin@ (particularly Mexican) Americans to drug use served dual purposes: further justification for racist demonization and the creation of moral panics to outlaw drug use. Drug use was commonly linked to the white fear that men of color would “seduce” and have children with white women.
In the 1900s, the temperance movement and Progressive drug reformers did not seek to spread the nature of the typical drug addict of the time – a middle-aged, middle-class white woman in a rural area who obtained drugs from a physician. Instead, drug users were depicted as Chinese, Black, or Mexican. Today, race is still inseparable from drug policy and the War on Drugs.
Opium and Chinese-Americans
Opium had been imported and used by white Americans for many years. In 1803 morphine was discovered, and in 1853 the hypodermic syringe was invented, increasing its popularity. Morphine and laudanum (a tincture of opium) were often abused by white Americans. In 1874, Felix Hoffman discovered heroin and in 1898 Bayer began to sell it. Heroin was marketed it as a pain medicine, cough suppressant, and morphine substitute.
The first anti-opium laws – and first drug laws in the United States - targeted Chinese immigrants in the 1870s. Opium-smoking was largely practiced by Chinese-Americans, while white Americans instead used morphine and laudanum – which were not outlawed by these laws.
Chinese-American men were said to “lure” white women to opium dens in Chinatown. Chinese immigrants have largely been portrayed as a threat to Western values and mores. Smoking-opium was stretched as a rationable to demonize Chinese immigrants. Opium was linked to stereotypes of Yellow Peril (opium was said to corrupt white Americans and disrupt the American way) and Perpetual Foreigner (opium was seen as incompatible with Christian life, rendering Chinese Americans unassimilable). Eliminating opium was even used as justification to restrict (and eventually stop) Chinese immigration.
Cocaine and Black Americans
The first anti-cocaine laws targeted Black men in the Southern US in the 1900s. Cocaine became associated with Black Americans, who were said to commit horrible crimes under the influence of cocaine (as well as marijuana).
Later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the large disparity – of 100 to one - between powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. This meant that it would 1000 grams of cocaine to obtain the same sentence for 10 grams of crack cocaine. It was not until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that the 100:1 weight ratio was reduced to 18:1 - meaning that it takes 180 grams of cocaine to obtain the same sentence as for 10 grams of crack cocaine.
Of course, crack cocaine was also more widely used by Black Americans. Black Americans were also far more likely to distribute crack cocaine than powder cocaine.
One reason given by Congress for the disparity included pregnant women consuming crack cocaine during pregnancy (resulting in so-called “crack babies”). The epidemic of “Crack Babies” was associated with Black. Pregnant women who used drugs were convicted of delivering drugs to a minor. In reality, the development of these children had less to do with crack cocaine and much to do with other circumstances. The Maternal Lifestyle Study found that - after controlling for other factors - crack cocaine and cocaine had no significant effect on behavioral problems. Observed differences were dependent on other mediating variables such as prenatal care and the environment in which children were raised, but the Reagan administration was more focused instead on rolling back assistance for poor mothers.
The Reagan administration’s obsessive focus on cocaine took place while the CIA was involved in drug trafficking and complicit in the dealing of cocaine to poor Black communities in the United States.
[No, despite demonization of Black Americans and Gary Webb, this is not a conspiracy theory - read Dark Alliance and This is Your Country on Drugs for more.]
Marijuana: Mexican and Black Americans
Cannabis was grown since European settlers arrived in the United States. Founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew and used cannabis. In the early 1800s, hemp was the second most produced crop after cotton. It was an extremely labor-intensive crop – the slave labor of Black Americans was necessary for its production. The ending of formal slavery (and free labor) made it less profitable as a crop. Until moral panic hit in the early 1900s, cannabis was still prescribed for many medical conditions.
The timing of this moral panic is relevant: it coincided with both the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the popularity of jazz.
After the Mexican Revolution, Mexican immigrants brought marijuana with them to the United States. Marijuana was said to make Mexican immigrants commit violent acts of crime. During the Great Depression, reports emerged that connected marijuana use with violent crime and social deviance. Soon after the Mexican revolution, marijuana spread to New Orleans and became popular in the jazz scene. Jazz musicians often were paid with marijuana and alcohol for their performances. Additionally, many jazz musicians used marijuana recreationally.
Harry J. Anslinger - the first commisioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics - was largely responsible for racist themes linking marijuana use to Black and Mexican Americans - particularly emphasizing the fear of racial mixing with white women.
Today, long after the days of Anslinger, there are large racial disparities in the penalties for marijuana possession (among other racial disparities in the criminal justice system).