Sometimes drugs can ruin lives, and sometimes they're simply a fun Friday night. It's a complicated subject, and we're not going to take a side. We will, however, point out that a lot of so-called anti-drug efforts which authorities have put together over the years have mostly been excuses to harass minorities. We're talking about how ...
Cocaine used to be just another food additive which could be found in everything from children's pain medication to pop. You'd think its 1914 ban would've come down to "Holy shit, we're putting cocaine in everything, what the hell were we thinking? It must have been all the ... oh." But while people were aware of the dangers of cocaine abuse among middle- and upper-class white Americans, that's not why it was banned. Instead, lawmakers were driven by the early 20th century equivalent of a racist chain email from your grandpa. There were stories of black Americans supposedly abusing cocaine, gaining superhuman strength, and using that strength to attack white men and sexually assault white women.
If you're wondering what happened to the "black people gain drug-based superpowers and use them to commit crime" chapter of your history book, then obvious spoiler alert: It wasn't really happening. What was happening was that cocaine use among black laborers was widespread. Its recreational use was tolerated, and sometimes white employers were explicitly giving it to their workers, in both cases because they believed it would make the employees work harder. We, uh ... we used to be pretty dumb when it came to drugs.
Somehow, the "let's give our workers coke" strategy backfired, as ridiculous stories began to spread. In 1914, The New York Times ran an article claiming that "most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the 'cocaine-crazed' Negro brain" and "Negro cocaine fiends are now a known Southern menace." While "Negro Cocaine Fiends" would be a great ironic album title, there was, shockingly, no evidence of crazed black people running wild.
While widespread use of cocaine probably wasn't great for anyone's disposition, "news" reports claimed that cocaine made black men hallucinate taunts and abuse, as well as gain incredible accuracy with guns and immunity to bullet wounds which would stop or kill a sober man. Holy shit! Why wasn't cocaine being used in secret supersoldier projects? Oh, right, because it was all bullshit. But the 1914 ban was passed anyway thanks to those myths, and not out of fact-based concerns about the health risks of cocaine. (Because white people could handle their coke, goddammit!)
If you want a silver lining, the ban largely put a stop to lynchings of black men based on the "We think he's high on coke, so he probably raped someone or whatever" clause. It also, uh, fueled nasty, often lethal stereotypes about impoverished minorities and drugs for decades to come, but that's something, right?
Yeah, there's a running trend of white people thinking other people react differently to intoxicating substances. You may have heard the still-prevalent idea that the genes of Native Americans make them biologically prone to alcohol abuse. Supposedly, when Europeans introduced Natives to alcohol, their bodies didn't know how to handle it and a tremendous cultural struggle with alcoholism ensued. No sir, it wasn't the depression and trauma of watching their friends and family die while their culture and lifestyle were extinguished which contributed to alcohol abuse -- it was biology! Not whitey's fault, so deal with it.
It is true that Native Americans experience problems with alcohol ... at a rate equal to white people. But thanks to stereotypes, we tend to view alcoholism among Natives as a moral failing endemic to their culture, while an alcoholic white guy is some dude with a problem who doesn't reflect on other white people. Natives do experience more alcohol-related health problems than whites, but that's because as a group, they have inferior access to healthcare, healthy food, etc. -- a problem which is a subject for a future wacky comedy article.
For governing whites, prohibition laws on Native reservations were seen as a quick and easy way to address alcoholism. Natives can't handle their booze, so cut them off and punish those who try to keep drinking. But Natives tended to see prohibition as white people trying to force a solution on them ... to address a problem which they also forced on them. It's like if someone smashed your car window and then took away your driver's license because they said you were a bad driver for letting your window get smashed.
But even if the root causes are horrible stereotypes, prohibition is still meant to help, right? It's certainly an improvement from the days when laws against selling booze to Natives were lifted so settlers could turn a tidy profit from alcohol abuse. But "meant" is the keyword there. If you treat Native American alcohol abuse as a unique and more desperate problem than it is among other people, you create brand-new problems. Stereotypes about Natives and alcoholism can make them too embarrassed to seek medical treatment, and it can also lead to Natives who have never touched a drink in their lives getting rejected from jobs. Hey, do you think those kind of bullshit economic punishments might contribute to alcohol abuse?
Also, a total ban on alcohol leads to people getting arrested for possession of a single beer, even though the stigma of having a criminal record is going to do someone more harm than one can of Bud Light. In one especially depressing incident, one cousin stabbed another to death over a bottle of beer, which A) might not have happened if beer wasn't illegal, and B) is a clear sign that prohibition isn't working. Could the truly atrocious living conditions on many reservations be contributing to incidents like that? Nah, they probably just can't handle their firewater, right?
Another trend in antique drug laws is a baseless belief that minorities were stealing away white women and enabling the heinous crime of race-mixing (and implicitly, the equally heinous crime of white women not having sex with racist white dudes, even though they were totally nice guys who had their best interests at heart). Exhibit #317-B is San Francisco circa 1875, when Chinese immigrants, mostly railroad and mine workers, liked to unwind after a long day on the job by smoking opium. Hey, we've all been there.
White locals accused the Chinese of taking jobs from them during a rough economic downturn (technically true, but they were performing dangerous labor for shit pay, which is the kind of job that white locals tend to turn down or not even be offered). That complaint somehow morphed into accusations that opium dens were "girl traps." The Chinese supposedly lured white women and teens into their dens with opium-laced candy and other treats until they were addicted and willing to have sex for more, which maybe says more about the people dreaming up such accusations than anything else.
So San Francisco outlawed opium smoking in 1875. But this was a nationwide belief. In New York City in 1883, a local worrywart set up surveillance teams to keep an eye on suspected opium dens which were supposedly corrupting white women. Tellingly, this surveillance was done by people from other neighborhoods, as most local whites didn't have an issue with their Chinese neighbors. But they called the police whenever they suspected a stranger's vagina was in peril, and a series of raids uncovered ... a 19-year-old woman. Singular. Who didn't appear to be an addicted sex slave. Claims that girls as young as ten were escaping before the police showed up were unproven, probably because they were super-duper made up.
But troublesome "facts" didn't stop people from declaring that "hundreds of American girls" were becoming "associates and then slaves of the Mongolian" (old-timey racists weren't big on demographic accuracy). So by 1909, Congress had made opium smoking, and only smoking, illegal nationwide. Drinking and injecting tinctures -- how white Americans liked their medicinal and recreational opium -- was still totally cool for a while, presumably as long as you pinky swore not to seduce dozens of sex slaves with the contents of your medicine cabinet.
Prohibition and the events leading up to it had all sorts of complex causes. But one of those causes was a bunch of tedious people getting together to complain about immigrants -- specifically the still-viewed-as-extremely-anti-American Germans and Irish and their love of beer. Because when history is at its worst, the masses are swayed to the side of the people complaining about beer instead of enjoying it.
In 1855 Chicago, the mayor and his followers were concerned about the influence of foreigners who took jobs and pledged spiritual allegiance to one of the most dastardly villains in history: the Pope. Gasp! They were especially distrusting of Irish and German immigrants, who liked to hit the pub on Sunday, their one day off. The Chicago Tribune called Irish Catholics "depraved, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community." We're assuming that "sot" was a harsh burn back then.
So Chicago dusted off an old law which required taverns to be closed on Sunday ... but only enforced it in immigrant communities. Chicago also sextupled the price of an annual liquor license to $300 (about 7,800 modern dollars) to try to drive immigrant bars out of business. 200 tavern owners were brought up on charges, and when the first one went to trial, there were massive protests, because you don't fuck with a 19th century working man's booze. One protester was killed, the mayor's political career tanked, and the laws were eventually repealed, but it wasn't the end of anti-letting-immigrants-drink sentiment.
The Prohibition movement was in full swing during World War I, and as you hopefully remember from history class, Germany was on team Not America. So Prohibitionist propaganda linked beer and brewing with Germany, and therefore treason. Prohibitionists also connected drinking with the Irish and other immigrants, with one congressman calling foreign drinkers the "degenerate vote" which "overwhelmed the liberties of free people" and were a "menace to our institutions." Irish Americans were accused of being unpatriotic if they opposed Prohibition or the war, which silenced dissent.
Meanwhile, in the South, "colored only" saloons were declared "centers of vice, schools of iniquity, and hot-beds of crime." Prohibitionists dressed the movement up as concern for those poor black people who were spending all their money and "[feeding] their animalism," but they also accused black saloons of threatening the safety of white women and children. Because who knew what those dastardly blacks were planning when whites couldn't keep an eye on them?
Again, Prohibition was complicated, but to some proponents, taking away one of the joys of minorities while making them less scary to the sort of people who wring their hands a lot was a big plus. One Southern Prohibitionist even argued that getting rid of saloons could prevent a race war and keep black Americans from rampaging through the streets, because ready access to alcohol was obviously the only reason black Southerners might get mad at white Southerners.
So far we've only given you historical examples, but you know what they say about history repeating itself to screw over minorities. Here, for example, is a 2015 interview with a former DEA agent who says they were told not to target drug sellers and users in rich areas, even though drugs are as prevalent there as anywhere else. The reasoning was that rich (read: mostly white) people have connections to lawyers, politicians, and judges who could make life a living hell for the DEA, while people in poorer areas (read: generally nonwhite people) wouldn't be able to fight back.
You can find comments like that throughout American history. In the '30s, Harry Anslinger, one of the big shots behind cannabis laws, said, "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men," and, "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others." It's admittedly kind of refreshing to hear someone be openly racist instead of trying to dress it up as being "for their own good," although it sounds like Mrs. Anslinger probably had an unsatisfying marriage.
via Wiki Commons
Now let's skip through time to a 2016 article on a 1994 talk with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon's top advisors and a Watergate jailbird. He told Harper's, "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." He then presumably twirled his mustache and demanded one billion dollars, or else he would melt the ice caps.
The Nixon administration's official line was that they were responding to a heroin epidemic and an uptick in the smoking of jazz cigarettes, as we believe the cool kids still call weed. And to be fair, several of Ehrlichman's children and colleagues called bullshit on his statements, suggesting he either never said them or was being sarcastic (the writer who talked to Ehrilchman thinks he was serious and trying to atone). Nixon did establish drug education and addiction treatment programs, but also signed off on no-knock searches and is on record as referring to black Americans as "little Negro bastards" who "live like a bunch of dogs." Again, drugs are complicated. You're welcome to draw your own conclusions.
But while you're reaching those conclusions, keep in mind that the drug war is incarcerating African American men at a rate about four times worse than black South Africans were during apartheid. Oh, and thanks to drug laws, there are more black men in the prison system than there were black men enslaved in 1850. So ... maybe a change in strategy is in order here.
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