From the start, drug policy in this country was determined along racial lines. First there was the banning of opium smoking in the late 1800s because it was the favorite of Chinese laborers who were brought here to build the railroads. Whites folks used opium too, but they sipped it in their drinks, which was considered perfectly acceptable.
Cocaine was also a popular drug in the late 19th Century. Cigarettes came treated with it. Medicines were derived from it. The Sears catalogue offered it for sale. But when the Journal of the American Medical Association published an alarmist editorial on cocaine use among blacks in the south, President Theodore Roosevelt hopped on the anti-drugs bandwagon by appointing a raging racist named Dr. Hamilton Wright to head up his version of the war on drugs. Wright stirred up anti-black and anti-Latino frenzy wherever he went.
When the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was formed in 1930, its head, Harry Anslinger, started a crusade against a drug that was popular among Mexicans and black jazz musicians: marijuana. According to Anslinger, the drug "can arouse in blacks and Hispanics a state of menacing fury or homicidal attack." Move over, Reefer Madness.
America's drug policy is anything but funny. On August 18, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News sent shock waves throughout the journalistic world by revealing that the CIA had brought crack into the black neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles in the early 80s, in order to finance the Contras in Nicaragua. The CIA was trying to overthrow the newly elected Sandanista government, and Congress wasn't giving the agency enough money to complete the task. Though the mainstream media vilified the Mercury News and reporter Gary Webb for the story, it's hard to deny the facts. In their 1998 book Whiteout, journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair did an excellent job documenting the drug ring that brought the crack nightmare to South Central LA.
It's not surprising that the CIA would choose a poor black neighborhood. Black lives have always been expendable to the powers-that-be in this country. Black men are thrown into prison at an alarming rate, and mostly for drug-related crimes. Our prisons are currently about 50% black. Almost 75% of new nonviolent crime convictions are drug-related. Whites do just as many drugs and with as much or greater frequency and yet they don't get thrown into jail as often. Harsher penalties and three strikes laws mean that African Americans will stay in jail longer. The criminal "justice" system is racist to the core.
Meanwhile, most Americans are addicted to drugs--prescription or otherwise. We are a pill-popping culture. Drugs are the remedy for everything, even minor cuts and scraps that Mama used to kiss and make better. Antibiotics are so over-prescribed that antibiotic-resistant super germs are plaguing hospitals. Kids are made into zombies by drugs that supposedly cure ADA (attention deficient disorder) and hyperactivity. Forget the fact that kids learn at different rates and in different ways. Forget that sugar-saturated cereals are the breakfast of choice of most kids. Drug them!
It's long past time to have an intelligent national discussion about drugs in this country. It may not be possible. The issue has become so politicized, so highjacked by hysteria and irrationality that our country may remain in a perpetual war that can't be won. Pullout is the only wise choice. People whose lives are being consumed or destroyed by drugs shouldn't be in a prison cell, but rather a rehab program. Decriminalization would allow us to regulate drugs. Another whole generation of young black men would not end up in jail.
That obviously doesn't matter to the architects of the war on drugs.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical working-class southern Italian queer writer, performer and activist.
Source for some material in this article: Whiteout: the CIA, drugs and the press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso, 1998).