Drug policy is allegedly driven by a simple principle. The regulation and control of substances considered dangerous to the general public. But closer inspection reveals a few glaring inconsistencies. Most drug policies today allow the commercial production, proliferation and in some cases, promotion, of two of society’s most destructive drugs; tobacco and alcohol. At the same time, they strictly and indiscriminately criminalize everything else, with heroin and methamphetamine placed on an equal footing with ecstasy and LSD. The consequences of these policies are severe. Institutions often threaten addicts with punishment rather than offer rehabilitation, pushing them deeper into cycles of dependence and addiction. Criminal networks and black markets expand, destroying a growing number of lives while leading to incarceration rates that are disproportionately made up of racial minorities and low-income individuals. Far from accidental, these effects are a direct outcome of social and economic policies with objectives that lay beyond the realm of public health. Masking these ulterior objectives and pushing forward irrational drug laws requires a variety of instruments. Among them, fear has perhaps been the most potent.
When the Spanish arrived in South America a few hundred years ago, they were greeted by an indigenous population that considered the coca plant sacred. In order to smoothen their Catholic conversion and subsequent transition to slavery, cultural features that left any semblance of indigenous identity had to be eliminated. The Spanish Church launched one of the oldest fear campaigns that diabolized the coca leaf and forbid its consumption. This was reversed when it was realized that the slaves needed to mine silver could work more and eat less while drugged up on coca leaves. So they reversed the laws and enforced coca consumption instead. Centuries later, coca took its more concentrated form as cocaine. The New York Times sparked the next fear campaign with a headline that read “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace”. What used to just be another ingredient in Coca-Cola now was now responsible for turning black people into murderous lunatics. A scary drug indeed. The wave of arrests that followed were only the beginning. Today African Americans represent 13% of the U.S population but make up roughly 40% of their prison population, despite having similar drug consumption rates as whites. One source of this imbalance lies in legislation. Until 2010, possessing one gram of crack was treated just as harshly as possessing 100 grams of powder cocaine. Both are virtually identical, but crack costs less and is therefore used by people who are generally low-income or black, while powder cocaine is reserved for white Wall Street brokers. Similarly structured laws targeted the Chinese in the 1800’s, banning opium-smoking but allowing its continued use in the medicines enjoyed by the white population. Against the backdrop of a xenophobic ‘Yellow Terror’, these laws were met with little resistance. The Mexicans suffered a similar fate with Marijuana in the early 1900s. Cannabis was associated with violence, insanity and death until white college students began smoking it.
Not all drug laws are rooted in racism. The UK’s Gin Act of 1751 was more egalitarian. It targeted the cheap gin consumed by lower class citizens of all race, colour and creed. After a rapid rise in its consumption, gin began to be linked to starvation, madness and social decay, and was subsequently slapped with taxes that rendered it unaffordable. Whiskey and beer were left for the enjoyment of the wealthy upper-class. Social control would continue to drive drug policy for the centuries that followed. Consider the case of LSD in the 20th century. For a long time, it was the U.S government’s drug of choice for experiments that explored the prospects of mind control. Amusingly, it instead became synonymous with the civil disobedience acts of the 1960s anti-war hippie movement. Criminalizing LSD and other psychedelics made arresting anti-war activists easier. In an effort to conceal what would surely be an unpopular objective, the government funded propaganda videos of people hallucinating on acid and descending into manic periods of self-destructive behaviour. The entire war on drugs that followed was a political assault with the intended goal of disrupting communities. Admitted rather plainly by the former Nixon domestic policy chief, the idea was to get the public to ‘associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin’ and after ‘criminalizing both heavily’ they could ‘arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night’. They were partially successful.
The development of drug policy has roots that run deep in US history. But this is far from an exclusively US problem. These drug laws, along with the ideological fear mongering that accompanied them, were exported to the UN in the 1961 and 1971 conventions on narcotics and psychotropic substances. They were accepted rather passively by a subservient international community. The consequences continue to this day. A relic of the 20th century’s appeal to fear, drug use is sometimes still identified with lazy, unambitious people who do not want to work. Denigrated and alienated by fear-driven ideologies that depict them as criminals, consumers of hard drugs often find themselves choosing to go further underground rather than seek help.
But resistance to these laws has been slowly mounting. After decades of opposition, the tide seems to be finally turning. In 2000, Portugal embraced radical decriminalization policies that helped it overcome its heroin epidemic. Today it has the lowest rate of drug-related deaths in Western Europe. In 2004 Bolivia’s Morales refused to bow to US pressure and restored the coca leaf as a symbol of Andean culture and indigenous tradition. And most recently, in the heartland of the war on drugs, cannabis is slowly being decriminalized and legalized across various US states. Excessively harsh and often irrational, drug laws would have been difficult to uphold were it not for the ideological fear campaigns that accompanied them and lead to their public acceptance. As these laws are phased out and reconciled with reality, there will similarly be a need to abandon the appeal to fear that shaped them.
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