Racism and the War on Drugs
United States drug laws are racist.
Success of elites in the U.S. has long been built on the backs of suppressed and marginalized groups, often exploiting the most disenfranchised populations to maintain power through the implementation of an “us and them” mentality.
To understand the racism of U.S. drug laws, it is important to understand that the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. has been argued to have risen simply out of a financial need for cheap and complacent labor, thus including populations of black slaves and white indentured servants in the beginning of the exploitation scheme. This later became “legitimized” through establishing inferiority due to the pigment of one’s skin. Race, a human-made construct, was then used as the marker of human value, thus the perceived and taught value of non-white life went down when compared to white bodies. Laws and social conscious have worked long and hard to preserve this mindset of a hierarchy with whites at the top.
Given this context, it is easier to understand how U.S. drug laws are racist. According to drugsense.org, the evidence of this truth goes back to the 1900s when temperance advocates, missionaries and “moral” reformers waged war against the “pleasure seeking Chinese” by outlawing the smoking of opium on a federal level. Smoking opium was specific to the wave of Chinese immigrants that came to the U.S. around the early 1900s, but opium was not new. Opium was found in many over-the-counter cough syrups, pain medicines and even soda. The substance was recognized as highly addictive, but the use of opium was only criminalized in the form that was predominantly used by the Chinese. This was nothing new as laws had banned “heroin dens” up and down the West Coast since 1875 and they rewarded these anti-Chinese groups’ hatred with penal action toward the Chinese.
In 1909, under the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, the importation, possession and smoking of opium was made illegal in the U.S. But the regulation of all medicines that contained opium was not included under the law. According to the article “Victorian Drug Use” by Andrzej Diniejko, a senior lecturer in English literature and culture at Warsaw University, opium was used to treat toothaches and to ease the pain of childbirth.
There seemed to have been a disapproval over the smoking of opium by workers in pain after a day of hard labor and pity for the caucasian housewife who used prescribed opium to treat her menstrual pain. Legal restrictions would be applied to drugs used by minority populations while leniency would be used for forms of drugs used in the white community.
This trend has persisted.
In 1914, all opioids were restricted and taxed under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which led to the jailing of doctors who would prescribe narcotics for the treatment of addiction. According to the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment, laws in 1922, ‘24, and ‘32 would effectively outlaw and criminalize cocaine and heroin, the common forms of opium in the black community. Just like the 1909 law, this was not a fully encompassing ban of opium based products, but a restriction and criminalization on the forms that were less common in the white community. This law was passed the same year The New York Times ran a headline stating, “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to ‘Sniffing’ Since Deprived of Whisky by Prohibition.”
These laws were passed in a time of fear conjured by religious and “moral” authorities and were targeted toward certain demographics. Their effects are still evident today. It wasn’t until 2010, under the Fair Sentencing Act, that there was an attempt to even out the discrepancy between the sentencing of crack cocaine and powder cocaine users. According to an ABC News article titled, “Racial Overtones in Cocaine Sentencing?” “Most crack arrests occur in African-American communities. Since more-affluent whites typically constitute users of powder cocaine, many feel the disparity in arrests and sentencing has racist overtones.” Before the Fair Sentencing Act, it would take 100 times more powder cocaine in comparison to crack cocaine to receive the same amount of jail time despite the effects of the two substances being comparable, according to drugpolicy.org. Crack cocaine is a concoction made with cocaine, water and baking soda; the main difference is the users of the two substances and the cost.
The reality of this is the Fair Sentencing Act left the discrepancy in sentencing of powder to crack cocaine at 18:1. To this day, this leaves a disproportionate amount of minorities in jail. According to the Sentencing Project, “Between 1994 and 2002, the average time served by African Americans for a drug offense increased by 73 percent, compared to an increase of 28 percent for white drug offenders.” As a result, “African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months).” The degree to which African Americans are penalized for drugs is not because they break the law at a higher rate. Drug laws were originally made, framed and enforced in such a way that these results would logically occur.
It is easy to look at the U.S. criminalization of drugs as isolated from greater systemic oppression. It is evident that each drug law passed has resulted in a disproportionate part of minority populations being incarcerated, and this is true for the majority of banned substances from opium to marijuana. Before the consensus of criminalizing drugs, they were often seen as a health problem and treated as such, but the culture of fear around minority populations partnered with a system that devalues their life has created the climate in which they can and have been unfairly targeted with judicial action.
Marissa Booker is a freshman communication management and design major with a concentration in dropping some knowledge on people who think we live in a post-racial society. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.