History of the US Drug War

History of the US Drug War

The United States, since the late 19th and early 20th century has had a complicated relationship with drugs, one that has lead to deleterious effects on users, responsible or otherwise. As with so much of American life, as well, there are troublesome racial undertones to this history and to the resulting drug war that we live under every day. At the end of the day, whether a person of color or not, the ill effects of the Drug War are felt by millions. This is the story and history of how that ‘War’ came to be fought and the casualties it’s wrought.

Opium became very popular after the American Civil War.  Cocaine was used in Coca Cola and health drinks in the 1880’s and in around 1906 Morphine was discovered.  The first drug laws emerged in 1914. The Harrison Narcotics Act, passed in 1914, was the United States’ first federal drug policy.  The government was aggressive in enforcing this law. The first drug laws on books are very much associated with racism. This is important because there is no question that one of the main focuses of drug prohibition, regulation and control involved stigmatizing, criminalizing, and incarcerating people of color.

Our government’s first federal drug policy began regulating doctors and pharmacists.  In 1919, The Supreme Court ruled against the maintenance of addicts as a legitimate form of treatment in Webb et al. v. United States.

Excerpt from the February 8th 1914 New York Times Headline:  “The Negro Cocaine Fiend”:

“[The Negro fiend] imagines that he hears people taunting and abusing him, and this often incites homicidal attacks upon innocent and unsuspecting victims.” And he continued, “the deadly accuracy of the cocaine user has become axiomatic in Southern police circles…. the record of the ‘cocaine nigger’ near Asheville who dropped five men dead in their tracks using only one cartridge for each, offers evidence that is sufficiently convincing.”

Cocaine, in other words, made black men uniquely murderous and better marksmen. But that wasn’t all. It also produced “a resistance to the ‘knock down’ effects of fatal wounds.

1915-1938 more than 5000 doctors were convicted and fined/jailed (Trebach, 1982,p.125)  1930 the federal bureau of Narcotics was formed by the US Treasury.   “The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 created extremely punitive legislation for people convicted of possessing and selling narcotics.  The death penalty could be invoked for people who sold heroin to minors and probation was only an option for first offenders. The truth is that the racialized discourse on drugs since the beginning has served a larger political purpose. The drug war has never just been about drugs.

Fear tactics, and propaganda were used as preventative measures just as unsuccessfully as they are now in 2017.

John Ehrlichman, the Domestic Policy Chief for President Richard Nixon admitted in 1994 that the drug war was a creation of Nixon to undermine the political opposition which were people of color and people who were against the war.  He made the statement:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did”

The 1980’s crack hysteria made things even more unclear.  There was talk of crack babies, and crack zombies.  Crack was penalized at higher rates than powdered cocaine and downright lies were told to the American Public about crack. Despite racialized images of crack users, data from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveals that people reporting cocaine use in 1991 were 75% white; 15% black, and 10% Hispanic. People who admitted to using crack were 52% white, 38% black, and 10% Hispanic. This is not exactly the picture that has been painted for us.  The 2009 sentencing commission released  this data which confirms the discriminatory nature of  crack convictions.  79% of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders were black, 10% were Hispanic, and only 10% were white.  So, you might wonder why were the sentences handed out so different for crack than they were for powdered cocaine. Well the media portrayed crack as a much more powerful and dangerous drug than powdered cocaine and crack is associated with black people in the media. The truth of the matter is this on a molecular level, crack and powder cocaine are almost identical.

When I read things like this I am disturbed that more people are not aware of the beginnings of this massive war on drugs.  People do not understand that yes, drugs are dangerous and have negative consequences, but drug policy is the source of much of the trouble.  Criminalizing people has always been the goal of the drug war, criminalizing and stripping people of their RIGHTS (human, constitutional).  The problems we see in America today are directly related to the selective enforcement of drug laws.  We know that black people do not use more drugs than white people, yet they are arrested at much higher rates.  1 in 3 black men in the US will spend time in prison.  This is absolutely unacceptable and is not based in any reality, rather just discriminatory policing.  High unemployment rates in the black communities compounded with the difficulties associated with finding sustainable employment when you are a felon make drug dealing a tempting alternative in poor communities only exacerbating the problems.  The truth of the matter is this simple, black people are not playing, and have not been given the same rules as everyone else, and it is due time this is brought to the light.  As a society we should be educated about a WAR that is denigrating communities of color and people with substance use disorders.  We are at a crossroads in America…..are we going to turn back to DRUG WAR policies which we know are damaging and harmful to people or will be dismantle this drug war–get rid of Jeff Sessions and stop harming people who do not deserve to be treated inhumanely and forgotten by society.

-Louise Vincent, USU President for the Piedmont Region