It’s common to call the “War on Drugs” a failure. In truth, that would be extremely generous. The “War on Drugs” has been a horrific series of policy choices that have targeted the United States’ most vulnerable populations, and the tens of thousands of deaths every year prove it. After many years, however, people are beginning to fight back: Oregonian voters have taken the first official effort in the United States to decriminalize possession of hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
Oregon’s most recent step forward is just one example of the public’s changing attitude towards drugs. Of the fifteen states that have legalized marijuana, thirteen did so through ballot initiative measures, with only two coming from state legislation. Thus, it’s clear that these changes were nearly always brought about by the people.
Voters are recognizing that the criminalization of drugs is an ineffective and inhumane method of managing drug problems such as the ongoing opioid epidemic, which claims over a hundred lives each day and has taken half a million since the turn of the century. In 2016 alone, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses (more than the combined death tolls for Americans in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars).
To understand the solution to the opioid epidemic, it is important to understand the difference between legalization and decriminalization. Legalization is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against the drug; decriminalization of a drug means it would remain illegal, but the legal system would not prosecute a person for possession under a specified amount. This is done to separate drug users and drug dealers, and still prosecute dealing. This means that drug problems can be dealt with as health issues instead of criminal ones.
This rehabilitative approach to drugs, and justice in general, has inspired dramatic improvements in other societies. Portugal had an extreme drug problem in the decades leading up to the turn of the century, with an estimated 1% of the population being addicted to heroin in the 1990s. Initially, the Portuguese government tried a ‘tough-on-drugs’ strategy, similar to America’s in the 1970s, to quell the problem, but by the end of the 1990s, roughly half of the Portuguese prison population consisted of those with drug addiction problems.
In 2001, Portugal reversed its stringent and harmful drug policies and decriminalized all hard drugs, at last recognizing the need to address the issue of drug usage as a health problem, pushing for treatment instead of punishment. As of 2012, Portugal's drug death toll sat at 3 per million, compared to the EU average of 17.3 per million. Additionally, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit created with the goal of ending America’s own “War on Drugs,” the percentage of people in prison in Portugal for drug law violations has been cut almost in half, from 44% in 1999 to 24% in 2013. Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment in Portugal increased by over 60%; nearly three-quarters of them received opioid-substitution therapy.
This tried and true strategy to combat drug addiction through decriminalization has been adopted by many other countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. If used in the United States, it could address key issues such as racial inequality in addition to the opioid epidemic. According to the DPA: “Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were black,” which is greatly disproportionate to their relative populations in America.
Drug criminalization now is still racially charged, no different from other policies put in place years ago. According to the ACLU, “African-Americans do not use drugs more than white people; whites and blacks use drugs at almost exactly the same rates. And since there are five times as many whites as blacks in the United States, it follows that the overwhelming majority of drug users are white. Nevertheless, African-Americans are admitted to state prisons at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than whites, a disparity driven largely by the grossly racial targeting of drug laws. In some states, even those outside the Old Confederacy, blacks make up 90% of drug prisoners and are up to 57 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug crimes.” Results such as these are unsurprising in the context of American policy over the past two centuries. At the turn of the 1900s, Mexican immigration through Texas and Louisiana brought new levels of cannabis, referred to as “marijuana” first by Mexicans. It is worth noting that cannabis was already widely being used in the states, just not referred to as “marijuana”.
But first, let’s take a trip down history lane for a while, to really contextualize what that means. Concerning drug policy, one may ask themselves something along the lines of “why is X legal while Y is illegal?” Working backward with the premise that the status quo is relatively fair, this suggests that a scientific committee or studies have proven that Y should be classified as an illicit drug, while X should remain open to the populous. But the truth is, this sensible and verifiable methodology has had nothing to do with the development of drug policy, and still plays a very minimal role in changing policy and culture alike.
Historically, policy was mostly generated through rhetoric about who was predominantly using the drug at hand, and their implicit status in society. More often than not, America’s answer to the previously posed question will be that users of Drug Y were viewed as more evil, animalistic, or inferior to those that comprised the upper echelons of society, regardless of what the drug they used was.
Back in the 1870s, where the majority of opioid users in America were middle-aged white women, there were no drug experts warning politicians about the effects or addictiveness of opioids: the general view on that demographic at the time meant most didn’t raise an eyebrow at the drug. A higher share of the American population at the time was regularly using opioids than now when the drug epidemic has harmed so many. Criminalization was never even discussed in that context. But beginning in the 1880s, when Chinese immigrants began to make their way to America and subsequently brought opioids with them, all of a sudden, opioid prohibition was an issue at the forefront of politics, and those laws began materializing. Unsurprisingly, they originated in California and Nevada, where most Chinese immigrants resided after sailing across the Pacific. Rhetoric about “Chinamen” growing violent and going after white women formed the basis for these laws, in spite of all evidence that white women had just been using opioids at an incredibly high rate.
Similarly, the first anti-cocaine laws sprung up in the early 20th century south to target black people, based on -you guessed it- “Fears of coerced cocaine use, and in particular that young girls would become addicted and thereby enter prostitution… Tales of the corruption of the youth by cocaine were common but there is little evidence to support their veracity.” As far as the media was concerned, that meant “[h]yperbolic reports of the effect of cocaine on African Americans went hand-in-hand with this hysteria. In 1901, the Atlanta Constitution reported that "Use of the drug [cocaine] among negroes is growing to an alarming extent". The New York Times reported that under the influence of cocaine, "sexual desires are increased and perverted...peaceful negroes become quarrelsome, and timid negroes develop a degree of 'Dutch courage' that is sometimes almost incredible". Medical doctors codified the idea that “cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes”, which had absolutely no basis in reality, and, yet again, somehow treated one race of people as affected differently by a drug. In the Mississippi courts, a judge stated that “supplying a “negro” with cocaine was more dangerous than injecting a dog with rabies.”
Even alcohol prohibition, which often gets a pass for being racially charged, was directed at perceived second-class immigrants out of predominantly southern and eastern Europe towards the turn of the 19th and 20th century, as opposed to the “American” northern and western immigrants, who had long had no issue with alcohol consumption as long as they were consuming it. The Italian “vino” and the like soon became the target of the same trope of Italians being more prone to criminal behaviors and violence, after many had left the newly fascist Italy in order to continue selling liquor and wine. Anti-Italian sentiment is often glossed over in the racist threads of American history, ignoring the mass lynchings of Italians, and stereotyping of Italian-Americans continues to be incredibly pervasive in the media. In fact, a comprehensive study of Italian-American culture on film, conducted from 1996 to 2001, by the Italic Institute of America, revealed the extent of stereotyping in media. “More than two-thirds of the 2,000 films assessed in the study portray Italian Americans in a negative light. Nearly 300 films featuring Italian Americans as mobsters have been produced since The Godfather (1972), an average of nine per year.”
According to the Italic Institute of America: “The mass media has consistently ignored five centuries of Italian American history, and has elevated what was never more than a minute subculture to the dominant Italian American culture.” And they would be undoubtedly right, according to recent FBI statistics, Italian-American organized crime members and associates number at approximately 3,000. Given an Italian-American population of approximately 18 million, the study concludes that only one in 6,000 has any involvement with organized crime, nowhere near an accurate representation in film or media.
It’s not as if the ‘white-white’ Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans of the time didn’t use these drugs in particular, but rather they figured that, as the chief controllers of systemic power and capital at the time, when they are able to criminalize the vices of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds and leave the execution of those laws to law enforcement that shares the same biases as them, then they are able to maintain control, austerity, and superiority in a constructed and self-perpetuating caste system. They recognized that, inevitably, those laws will not impact or prosecute the upper-class elites to anywhere near the extent of the poor, urban, or racially different groups in their society.
Then it should come as no surprise that marijuana was perpetuated in the media as a drug that somehow made men-of-color more ‘degenerate’ or more primal, an idea we may have come across a few times before at this point. During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women. This graphic and prejudiced imagery became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which effectively banned its use and sales.
Luckily, that was ruled unconstitutional over three decades later, only to be replaced by Richard Nixon in 1970 where cannabis was deemed, yet again, to be in the most restrictive category of drug, citing “dangerousness and potential for addiction”. Nobody in history has ever died by overdosing on marijuana, while tobacco, nicotine, and alcohol have remained, and continue to remain, staples of American culture throughout these years.
This disparity even blatantly unjustly impedes educational opportunities for minorities. Under The Higher Education Act of 1998, “any drug conviction blocks or delays all federal educational assistance, including loans and even work-study programs.” According to the ACLU, “given that 55% of those convicted of drug offenses are black and the fact that this law will not affect the wealthy who do not need financial aid, the HEA plainly targets low-income people of color. Murder and rape do not render a person ineligible; someone could burn a nursery or bomb a federal building and still receive financial aid. But smoking marijuana in the privacy of one's own room means a student risks losing financial aid and having to leave college or graduate school.”
These same disgusting and unfounded biases echo far throughout drug policy, such as the separate sentencing of powdered cocaine and crack, both of which are the same substance, but often possessed by different demographics of people. White people skewed towards powdered cocaine, while the black community: crack. Enforcement has, unsurprisingly, cracked down harder on the latter community for the same drug. And these policies have far-reaching consequences. 13% of African-Americans are disenfranchised of their right to vote, and one out of every nine black children have an incarcerated parent. Fortunately for us, the right-to-vote in codified law is very specific for ex-felons, such as in Alabama where “Alabama law permanently strips voting rights for those who have been convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude.”” Moral turpitude is never defined or listed as a group of felonies or offenses in Alabama law at all, leaving us to speculate, with probably some educated guesses, why 31.5% of black men in Alabama are disenfranchised of their right to vote?
Additionally, these consequences of racist policies do not exist in a political vacuum, they spur the Willie Horton ads of our day, the gateway drug myths, and so on. They create a culture where the mob or mafia is often glorified in the media as the italian demographic has grown somewhat more accepted into the fluid category of “white”, or at least portrayed as complex and intelligent crime syndicates, while many would scoff at a similar portrayal of gangs or cartels.
Even while service and retail workers are often subject to drug tests and the potential consequences that follow, the wealthy corporate class of America usually doesn’t have drug tests at the workplace, regardless of the perceived effects/myths on productivity (which they often produce) that permeate the cultural view on drug use.
This consistent use of racist and classist recycled bigotry is the foundation of many of our drug policies and overall attitudes today. This isn’t to say that all of the war on drugs can be boiled down to that, but it plays the largest role by far in it, from deciding the origins of policy to its enforcement to who ultimately gets disproportionately victimized as the out-group or undesirables.Through the decriminalization and legalization of various drugs, we can create a multi-faceted approach to drug abuse, social stigma, and racial inequality. Of course, there is still much work to do in pursuit of solving these issues, and decriminalization of drugs will not be the end of them, but if these measures are indicative of a new era of drug policy, the future looks somewhat more encouraging. It’s time for America to understand that the misnomered “War on Drugs” has only really been an archaic, outdated method of not-so-friendly fire trained on vulnerable Americans over decades. Body counts in hospitals, prisons, and graveyards have been piling up, and it’s time to do something about it. Oregonians have taken a monumental first step, and it’s time we all follow suit.
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.