Racism: The Foundation of the War on Drugs


Have you ever wondered why some drugs are legal and other drugs are illegal? Maybe you thought that comprehensive research studies were performed by doctors, professors, and scientists that were funded by a global health organization.  

Sadly, no such study has ever been performed.

In fact, you may be surprised that alcohol is more dangerous than heroin when you look at alcohol’s physical, financial, and social effects on disease burden. 

So why is alcohol a legal substance and heroin is illegal?

And this implicit bias formed the roots of the war on drugs: a global campaign, led by the United States federal government and the media, that is grounded in racism.  

I’ll cover:

  • The origins of drug prohibition
  • How and why the war on drugs started
  • Facts that solidify the war on drugs is grounded in racism

Dismantling the war on drugs begins with education, so let’s get started.

The Racist Origin of Drug Prohibition

Up until the 1800s, many of the drugs that are currently illegal today were legal. In the 1870s, the majority of opium consumers in the United States were white women. They were taking opium for aches and pains as aspirin was not invented yet. But nobody thought about criminalizing opium until the late 1880s. It all started with the Chinese railroad workers.

In the mid-1800s, thousands of Chinese workers came to work on the Transcontinental Railway. After its completion, the Chinese were seen as a threat to white American workers. This led to the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting all immigration of Chinese workers and to racist remarks in California newspapers demonizing opium use. Anti-opium laws were passed directed at these Chinese immigrants.

The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 banned the possession and importation of opium used for smoking but didn’t ban opium used for medication. Smoking opium was targeted as this was the way Chinese communities were using the drugs, but opium pills were not targeted as this was the way white communities used the drug.

While opium laws targeted Chinese immigrants, cocaine laws were targeting Black men in the South. Marijuana laws were passed in the early 1900s directed at Mexican immigrants in the Midwest and Southwest. Numerous newspaper articles exaggerated cocaine use by Blacks in the early 1900s leading to the Harrison Narcotics Act passed in 1914. A similar act called the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. 

The Harrison Narcotics Act would regulate and tax opioid and cocaine that was produced, imported, and distributed. It was the United States government’s first federal attempt at drug prohibition. The media also played a toxic role in creating the roots for the war on drugs. They depicted the social acceptability and “legality” of drugs based on the profile of the community that used them. The government and media helped to orchestrate the war on drugs we know today.

All About the War on Drugs

Today, close to 80% of people in prison in the United States incarcerated for drug crimes are Black or Latino. Many of these individuals are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Also, substance use disorder is a medical and mental health issue, it is not a criminal issue. Yet our government leaders did not believe this. They didn’t shape policies and laws around the fact that no one should be criminally charged for medical issues.

Now, the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. We have a mass incarceration problem that was founded on the racism behind the war on drugs.

Harry Anslinger was the head of the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. Conventions were also being held in Europe and America that made law enforcement oversee drug control policies instead of the health community. Racial anxieties were the fuel to the drug prohibition. This became pronounced in the 1960s when drug use became associated with counterculture, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement. There was backlash against the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” on June 17, 1971, and stated that drug abuse was the “public enemy number one.” He wanted to target the Black community and hippies. Nixon’s aide on domestic affairs John Ehrlichman confessed the following statements years later:

“The Nixon White House 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.”

John Ehrlichman

The United States government would spend more money and resources on drug-control agencies and implemented strict punishments such as mandatory prison sentencing for drug crimes. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was established in 1973 within the United States Justice Department which comprised of law enforcement officers that would target illegal drug smuggling and use.

The DEA budget also started at $65 million but increased substantially today to $3 billion. While large allocations of funding are put behind DEA, the war on drugs just led to devastation in our communities. For example, the war on drugs has led to mass incarceration. Take a look at these statistics.

If you’re a white male, there’s a 1 in 17 chance you’ll go to prison.

If you’re a Hispanic male, there’s a 1 in 6 chance you’ll go to prison.

If you’re a Black male, there’s a 1 in 3 chance you’ll go to prison.

Black people use and distribute drugs at a lower rate than white people, but they’re incarcerated at higher rates for drug possession and for much longer. Below are other facts that contribute to the racism behind the war on drugs. 

1. Drunk driving is highest among white males.

A study found that self-reported rates of driving under the influence were highest among white men (22%) compared to Black men (14%). Drunk driving kills more people than crack cocaine and cocaine. However, it’s mostly a crime committed by white males so it’s managed in a way to reintegrate people into society. 

Drunk driving is also treated as a misdemeanor instead of a felony because it’s a crime committed by white males, even though the risk profile of alcohol abuse significantly outweighs the profile of other drugs just like crack.

2. The majority of psychedelics and opiates are used by white people.

Since middle-class white people are the largest consumers of psychedelics today, they’re no longer considered a big deal. Psychedelics are just viewed as “party drugs.”

Also, the profile of people addicted to opiates has shifted from people of color (POC) to middle-class white people. Because of this, opiate addiction is treated more like an illness than a criminal offense. There are pushes for expanding treatment services over punitive approaches. We can see the narrative has shifted from criminalizing drug use to having compassion for people who are struggling since mainly white people are addicted to opiates.

3. Black and brown people are punished at 5X the rate compared to white people for using cocaine.

The majority of powder cocaine is used by upper and middle-class white people while crack cocaine tends to be used by poorer Black and brown people. Powder cocaine and crack cocaine have the same effects on the body, but crack cocaine is punished at 5X the rate compared to powder cocaine. 

4. Babies are born addicted to opiates, but babies aren’t born addicted to crack.

The myth about “crack babies” that has invaded our society is FALSE. There’s no such thing as a crack baby. Babies can’t become addicted to cocaine in utero. However, the narrative of “crack babies” continues to be perpetuated in our world. Meanwhile, babies are born addicted to opiates, AND they suffer severe consequences from them. But the media and the law manage the “opiate baby” narrative VERY differently compared with the “crack baby” narrative.

5. Black and brown people are still serving life sentences for possessing marijuana.

The profile of the individual using marijuana has shifted to mostly upper- and middle-class white people. Because of this, there are moves to legalize and decriminalize marijuana. Meanwhile, there are Black and brown people across the United States that are still serving life sentences for possession.

This data solidifies that the war on drugs was founded on racism. Our communities, especially our Black communities, are still living with the damage caused by the war on drugs.

Is There Hope?

I believe that there’s hope in ending the war on drugs. Educating more people about the war on drugs on its history is the first step. 

  • The billions of dollars that are allocated to the DEA and our prison system can be used to build up our communities.
  • No one should be criminally charged for medical issues, and substance use disorder is a medical issue.

What did you learn from this blog post? Let me know in the comments below.
You can also keep in touch with me by following my journey on Instagram.

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