The “war on drugs” was never a war on “drugs”. Like the drug laws it was meant to epitomize, the drug war was always entirely focused on drug users. And not just the users because they were using, but on their race.
The first drug law in America was written in 1875 in San Francisco — aimed at stopping the spread of opium dens. A noble idea. No one wants to live near an opium den. And, it’s a fact, opium is highly addictive. It needs to be approached with care; even doctor’s get prescribing it horribly wrong. But the law itself — as written — wasn’t concerned with anyone’s neighborhood getting ruined. It wasn’t concerned with anyone getting addicted. In fact, it had no data on hand to justify any concerns it might have about opium’s impact on its users’ health — if it had had any such concerns which it didn’t.
This is from the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy via Wikipedia —
The reason cited was “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.”
This law and virtually every opium law that followed drew an important distinction that would ripple through history.
“Though the laws affected the use and distribution of opium by Chinese immigrants, no action was taken against the producers of such products as laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol, commonly taken as a panacea by white Americans. The distinction between its use by white Americans and Chinese immigrants was thus based on the form in which it was ingested: Chinese immigrants tended to smoke it, while it was often included in various kinds of generally liquid medicines often (but not exclusively) used by people of European descent. The laws targeted opium smoking, but not other methods of ingestion.Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
Sound familiar? Depending on whether you snorted cocaine as most white people did or smoked it as crack as lots of black people did, the drug laws treated you differently. The laws punished smoking coke far more harshly than snorting it. Same drug, same basic impact on the user — but different law and (especially) different, harsher penalty. And still not a single concern for the user him or herself and the drug’s impact on their well-being.
The very illegalization of drugs has always been about judging the drugs’ users. Let’s face it — white Europeans are the biggest bullies on the planet. They’re professional hegemonists — spreading their culture and “true faith” like an STD. But, even when the Europeans weren’t judging others because they were “others”, they were judging other Europeans for being “weak” and punishing them for their weakness.
In America, prior to enactment of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, there were no federal laws regulating drugs of any kind. The very real health concerns about opioids aside, the drug laws simply didn’t consider them or even refer to them in its legislation. It wasn’t the point. Here’s the key to the Harrison act: “The courts interpreted [it] to mean that physicians could prescribe narcotics to patients in the course of normal treatment, but not for the treatment of addiction.”
What that means for this highly addictive drug — doctors could prescribe it to relieve pain but once the cause of the pain stopped (and who is to say whether another person is feeling pain or not?), so did the opioid — regardless of what cutting it off did to the user. The law willfully condemned people to suffer. It denied their physical pain — and then wanted to punish them for ever experiencing pain to begin with.
Where does that come from?
Look to your bible. America has always had a strange love for religion — especially a twisted form of Christianity that perverts “Do unto others” to “Do what we say”. The Puritans may have been seeking religious freedom in the Massachusetts Colony, but that was only for themselves. There were reasons no one back in England liked them (and so made them feel despised): they were judgmental. And, while the Salem witch trials were an anomaly, they did reflect Puritanism’s witchcraft-fearing id running wild.
The witchcraft trials were to women what drug laws would later be to black and brown people.
Jesus taught simply “Do Unto Others”. He didn’t say “judge them” or “force your way on them”. The meek, Jesus said, shall inherit the earth. He didn’t say they’d have to do it drug-free. Just as well, as drugs go, there are few as terrible as religion.
Marx got it wrong. Religion isn’t the opiate of the people. If all it did was sedate them, that would be bad enough. It incites them — like angel dust or meth — to mean, dangerous, soulless behavior. Religion (vs spirituality — a very different thing) doesn’t care about what’s hurting them, what’s causing them pain. It’s got its own rules and regs to push. It’s followers are there to do what they’re told not be attended to. They’re a flock of sheep after all. And no one wants an “uppity” sheep.
The painful irony is that alcohol prohibition sprang from a very progressive ideal. It was Europeans judging how Europeans behaved when effected by a European-approved intoxicant: alcohol. And alcohol was a very real problem for a lot of Americans in the latter part of the 19th century when support for prohibition began to grow. But, as we know, in the whole history of human beings, prohibition has never worked — not as intended.
In America, alcohol prohibition criminalized virtually the entire adult population and turned organized crime from a local problem to a national one. Criminal syndicates suddenly had a product to sell — alcohol — that everyone wanted but only they had. We’re still dealing with the mess.
Prohibition may stop people from using a substance because getting it is hard — but it won’t stop them from wanting it. It won’t stop them from gerryrigging ways to either get it or craft a replacement of dubious safety. In general, prohibition wants a grey world to be black & white regardless of how grey it’s always been and always will be.
In America, there was a twist: prohibition wanted the world to be white only. The opium laws (first written in San Francisco) were meant to punish Chinese people brought to America to work — who dared relax in the way they liked. Using the same racist playbook, the first marijuana laws were written to first punish “Hindoos” who “…started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”
“Initiating our whites into this habit”. There you have it. No one cared about the Hindoos as people — just as later laws wouldn’t care about individual Mexicans or blacks using marijuana. The laws cared about the white people — about white people doing something “black” or “brown” or “yellow” did. And that was entirely unacceptable.
America’s drug laws have never, ever, EVER been about anyone’s health and always about racism with a side of hatred for “the weak”. Our drug laws mirror something demented in our religious fervor. They speak for it.
Racism is fear. Drug laws are that fear’s manifestation in the law. They’re legalized forms of institutional racism. Period.
In America, Christianity was used more as a cudgel than as a sanctuary. Slavers pointed to the bible to justify their cruelty. Bible thumpers continued pointing at their “good book” to justify miscegenation laws that prevented black people from marrying white people. They used their book to justify all sorts of racist claptrap.
Imagine the audacity of judging love. It’s as stupid and heartless as judging another person’s pain.
No wonder everyone fleeing religion needs a drink.