Sharing with you a post I made today to a different audience…
This is a disturbing anniversary. Today, June 17, is 50 years since President Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one” — a speech that kicked off a massive and horribly damaging offensive that has continued to this day.
This is also a time when a whole lot of people are outraged at the notion of “critical race theory.” Why? Because they’ve been encouraged/duped by opportunistic politicians who wish to inflame partisan culture wars along with ridiculous non-issues like Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. (This will connect to the drug war. Patience.)
Many who oppose critical race theory don’t know what it actually means.
Now, when it comes to things like cancel culture and critical race theory and other culture-war fodder, there is an actual need for informed discussion on the nuances and the real-versus-manufactured outrages, but we don’t see much of that. For our purposes here, I will define critical race theory as “a practice that examines America’s history of racism and how it still impacts the country today.” Simple.
That brings us back to the drug war. And while there are a lot of topics I avoid commenting on because I don’t know enough, the drug war is something I’ve been studying and writing about extensively for two decades.
Yes, some call this the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs, but that’s a bit arbitrary. The origins go back much further and they’re almost all steeped in racism. The war on drugs is an essential part of America’s history of racism.
The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at black men in the South. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans.
From a Hearst newspapers national column: “Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles?… THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by DOPE SLAVES — that is a matter of cold record.”
And as marijuana found its way into the jazz scene, some of the animus shifted to blacks (for more on the drug war and jazz, also look up Harry Anslinger and Billie Holiday).
“Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.” (Hearst newspapers, nationwide, 1934)
Attributed to Harry Anslinger: “…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races… Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Fast forward to the 1970s and racism was still connected to Nixon’s expanded war on drugs. As John Ehrlichman said: “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.”
“But Pete,” you may say, “that’s ancient history — things that only old people like you care about. We don’t do that (or say things like that) anymore.”
OK. Let’s take a look at another piece of history.
Saturday will be the 35th anniversary of the death of Len Bias – a promising University of Maryland basketball player who died of a cocaine overdose. With his death in the news, Tip O’Neil and the Democrats jumped into overdrive to create legislation putting more teeth in the drug laws. The result was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, crafted by a 44-year-old senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. While the intention of these laws may not have been specifically racist to those writing them, the results were most definitely racist because of other factors in society. These laws resulted in the infamous 100-1 threshold disparity in sentencing between the chemically identical crack cocaine (used more by blacks) and powder cocaine (used more by whites). For more details, read my article about this: Len Bias – the death that ushered in two decades of destruction.
The reason that this history should concern us is that decades of sentencing disparity based on institutional/systemic racism (defined as societal patterns and structures that impose oppressive or otherwise negative conditions on identifiable groups based on race or ethnicity) have resulted in huge numbers of black Americans being disenfranchised (particularly in those states that still do not allow ex-felons to vote) and has, in many areas, dramatically affected family and other societal structures.
Understanding the history of the drug war is an essential element in crafting better ways of dealing with drugs and addiction in the future, and ensuring that laws don’t wittingly or unwittingly affect one group disproportionately.
There were times during my days of writing about the war on drugs when I was under some pressure not to talk about it, particularly since I worked at a university (that pressure never came from the university administration, fortunately). Some of that pressure came from other faculty, some from political leaders. But it turns out that learning history is important. As are facts. Even in education.
Fortunately, grassroots conversations about the history of the drug war have mostly overcome the federal government’s resistance to any meaningful discussion. And people have better come to realize that declaring war is not a good drug policy.
Today, 65 percent of voters support ending the war on drugs and 83 percent say it has failed.
Let’s learn about and understand the dark parts of our history, not for blame assignment, or to make people feel bad about themselves, but to fix the broken things that have resulted (and still persist in often unexpected ways) — and to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again.
True patriotism is caring about the health and welfare of our country and working to make it better. It’s not about making empty nationalistic gestures of faux fealty while avoiding learning about our past.