The Racist Origins of the War on Drugs

Recreational marijuana is now legal in 11 states, and medical marijuana is legal in 33. Denver has just passed a referendum to decriminalize magic mushrooms.

It seems the War on Drugs is finally coming to an end. And yet, there isn't anarchy. There isn't chaos. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Barclays pegs the global Cannabis industry at being worth $150 billion today and predicts that it is set to almost double over the next decade.

In the US alone, Cannabis has created 211,000 full-time jobs and has helped children deal with epilepsy, helped athletes deal with muscle pain, and even helped dogs with their anxiety. At this point, you're probably thinking "hey, that doesn't sound too bad!"

And you'd be right.

Which brings us to the question, why was there a war on drugs in the first place? Well, it's complicated. It wasn't so much a war on drugs as it was a war on some drugs, while others have been tacitly approved. Although Cannabis has been illegal since the war on drugs began, there have been 223.7 million retail opioid prescriptions filled annually over the past decade.

On average, 135 Americans die every day from an Oxycontin overdose.

Meanwhile, nobody has ever overdosed on marijuana. In fact, Weed Maps recently released a documentary called 'The Exit Drug' which outlines all the ways that marijuana can be used to get people off of prescription painkillers.

So why has marijuana been demonized and illegal for all these years? Let's find out.

Harry J. Anslinger

The War on Drugs is often considered to be the result of one man in particular: A 1930's politician named Harry J Anslinger.

Anslinger was appointed to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the DEA) in the 1930's, leading to his dedicated work in criminalizing all drugs – particularly marijuana. In order to demonize the substance, Anslinger relied on propaganda to ensure marijuana was seen negatively by the public (presumably because there weren't many actual downsides that he could draw upon.)

Anslinger labelled marijuana as "more dangerous than heroin or cocaine" and claimed that the plant had the ability to "lead to pacifism and communist brainwashing."

According to Johann Hari, author of 'Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,' Anslinger went to 30 scientists in search of some negative information about marijuana. Of those 30 scientists, 29 said there was effectively no harm in smoking pot.

Reefer Madness Cannabis Industry
Reefer Madness Movie Poster

One scientist, however, agreed with Anslinger that marijuana should be illegal. Evidently, this is who Anslinger listened to. As the propaganda waged on for several years, a film eventually emerged in 1936 entitled 'Reefer Madness' which captured the essence of what Anslinger spoke about.

Labelled as 'Devil Weed,' Reefer Madness depicts marijuana as a drug which causes psychosis and violence in users – in some cases leading to rape and even murder. Many reading this will scoff at the ludicrous nature of the claims, with marijuana now associated with getting the munchies and having a good night's sleep.

Well, you aren't alone.

Reefer Madness has since become a cult classic among ganja aficionados for its wild portrayal of the plant with many hosting humorous viewings of the film. Though Anslinger didn't have all his eggs in one basket. Rather than relying solely on misinformation to get the job done, Anslinger also used another tactic to help stigmatize drugs: Racism.

Even the term marijuana can be accredited to Anslinger, who chose the term tactfully in order to link the drug to the Mexicans, who called it 'Marihuana' at the time. Relying on racial tensions and fear, Anslinger waged a war not only on drugs but on people themselves – specifically African Americans and Mexicans.

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, Jazz and Swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

– Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Anslinger referred to Jazz – made exclusively by African Americans at the time – as "satanic", simply because the musicians toked on marijuana in jazz clubs.

He referred to Mexicans as "Spanish-speaking degenerates" and even went as far to say "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

Looking at Anslinger's comments now, it seems despicable that they had any weight to them whatsoever. Though he wasn't alone. Several newspaper companies worked alongside Anslinger to ensure his message was heard and that marijuana was demonized.

Though the newspaper companies were more concerned with the threat of hemp paper than they were marijuana smokers.

Anslinger's efforts finally reached fruition in 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, prohibiting the possession and distribution of marijuana.

Nixon War on Drugs

Richard Nixon

The '60s saw a resurgence of drug use through the counter-cultural "hippie" movement, spurred on by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Timothy Leary.

As a response to this, in 1970 the 45th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, revamped the previous Federal Bureau of Narcotics, into what we now know as the DEA: The Drug Enforcement Agency.

Nixon labelled drug abuse as the "public enemy number one" to the United States and started the official War on Drugs. And who could personify drugs better than the psychedelic cult-leader Timothy Leary?

Leary's calling cry was "tune in, turn on and drop out," which essentially meant alter ones mind through psychedelic drugs and drop out of the culture of war at the time. For these reasons among others, Nixon described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America."

He even attempted to imprison Leary for 10 years for the possession of 2 joints, though Leary escaped from prison.

Nixon had a harsh stance on all drugs, leading to an enormous spike in the male incarceration rates in the U.S. directly after Nixon began his War on Drugs.

US Cannabis Industry

As time went on, it was revealed that Nixon's motivations behind the War on Drugs weren't too dissimilar from Harry J. Anslingers in the '30s.

A former Nixon Aide by the name of John Ehrlichman admitted that the Nixon campaign in 1968 had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. "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." said John Ehrlichman, a former aide to Richard Nixon

Ronald Reagan War on Drugs

Ronald Reagan

Evidently a fan of Nixon's drug policy, the 40th US president Ronald Reagan once again declared a 'War on Drugs' in 1981. Reagan's wife Nancy also began her "just say no" campaign at this time, which aimed to deter school children from drug use.

Though rather than take a health-based approach—as is now generally considered to be sensible—Reagan was much more focused on imprisoning those who consumed drugs.

The U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which dedicated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs, and implemented mandatory prison sentences for various drug offences. The drug of choice during this era was no longer marijuana, but now crack cocaine, which again led to an unequal number of African American incarcerations.

Drugs are bad, and we're going after them. We've taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we're going to win the war on drugs.

– Ronald Reagan

The Drug War Today

In 2013, Uruguay legalized marijuana for recreational use. Canada then followed just last year in October 2018, when it was legalized by Justin Trudeau. In this time much of the U.S. has joined in, with 10 states having fully legalized marijuana, and while 33 have legalized it for medicinal purposes.

And Hemp—despite having very little psychoactive capabilities—is also legal thanks to the Farm Bill of 2018, opening the floodgates for hemp-based CBD products and the booming hemp industry.

This is an important side-note. Legalization isn't just about letting people experiment with different mind-states, there are benefits to drug legalization that we couldn't have even imagined during the height of the war on drugs.

The UFC has just signed a deal with Aurora Cannabis over exploring the potentials of CBD for athletes, GW Pharma's 'Epidiolex' can help children suffering from rare forms of epilepsy, and the benefits to hemp seem to be endless. And now, one of the greatest recent leaps we've seen in overcoming the drug war has been most recently in Denver, Colorado, which just legalized magic mushrooms for recreational use by referendum.

Said to assist those with PTSD and depression, we're only just scratching the surface of benefits that may come from legalising magic mushrooms.

As we're seeing with these benefits that are emerging from drug legalization, it's clear that the war on drugs isn't aimed at helping people. The war on drugs is, as it has commonly been called, a war on people – and how they choose to alter their mind-state. This war on people isn't cheap either. Factoring in the costs of running the DEA, versus the profits made in the cannabis industry, we're talking billions upon billions of dollars which are being spent, while illicit drug use continues to climb.

In fact, hundreds of thousands die globally each year from using drugs that are already legal, given to them by medical professionals, or by their local bartender. Alcohol-related deaths are the third-highest cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., and yet alcohol is about as readily available as water.

The hypocrisy behind the war on drugs has reached boiling point, and as we learn more about the racial motivations behind the drug war, it only gets more infuriating that many drugs are still illegal worldwide.

I think I speak for everyone here at The Green Fund when I say, the war on drugs cannot end soon enough.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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