The War on Drugs is a prime example of America’s gradual descent into a police state. And it’s a textbook case for understanding how cops – once known as “peace officers” – transitioned into heavily-armed warriors terrorizing (especially) blacks and other minorities.
Many drugs criminalized under our current legal system have been used as medicine since ancient times. The early Egyptians used cannabis to treat hemorrhoids and sore eyes. In South America, coca has been used medicinally for over 4,000 years. As recently as the late 19th century, your great-grandparents could buy morphine over the counter at any pharmacy. And if they didn’t live near a pharmacy, they could buy heroin – and even syringes to inject it with – out of a Sears catalog.
Admittedly, some people became addicted to these substances. By 1900, somewhere between 2% and 5% of Americans were addicted to drugs, primarily morphine.
America’s War on Drugs began in 1914, when Congress restricted opiate marketing. From its very outset, the war was based on racial stereotypes. Advocates for opiate restrictions spoke of “drug-crazed, sex-mad Negroes” and “Chinamen” seducing white women with opium.
A few years later, as Mexican immigration surged into the US, they brought their “dangerous native behaviors” with them, including smoking marijuana. The drug was claimed to incite violent crimes, giving its users "superhuman strength." The media began referring to marijuana as the "killer weed" and accused Mexicans of peddling it to American teenagers. In 1937, Congress responded with the “Marihuana Tax Act,” which imposed a tax on the sale of all forms of cannabis.
As decades passed, the War on Drugs escalated. Federal penalties for drug possession were stiffened in the 1950s. In 1970, Congress enacted a law giving federal prosecutors the right to confiscate property belonging to anyone convicted of drug trafficking in a process called criminal forfeiture.
Then in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug addiction “public enemy number one.” He asked Congress for huge budget increases for federal drug control agencies, along with longer prison sentences for federal narcotics crimes. Later, one of Nixon’s top aides, John Ehrlichman, admitted the president’s push for tougher drug laws had had been racially-motivated from the start:
The Nixon White House … had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. 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.
To lure state and local governments into its anti-drug agenda, Uncle Sam began giving police billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military hardware, along with billions more in direct federal grants. A few years later, Congress gave police the ability to seize the property of anyone suspected of involvement in the drug trade through civil forfeiture proceedings.
The public’s fear of illicit drugs escalated in the 1980s, with media depictions of people addicted to “crack” (the smokable form of cocaine) leading the way. And the media portrayals were again were based on racial stereotypes. President George H.W. Bush even helped stage a crack buy from a black dealer. He then held up a baggie containing the drug during a speech where he once again claimed that illicit drugs were the gravest domestic threat to America.
Thus, by September 1989, a remarkably 64% of Americans believed that drug abuse was the country’s "number one problem." And the stage was set for an unprecedented escalation in the War on Drugs, with no-knock drug raids and “zero tolerance” for possession of even the smallest amounts of illicit drugs. The attitude of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was typical: in testimony before the US Senate, he declared that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” Gates also declared that more blacks died in police chokeholds than whites, because their blood vessels were different from those of “normal people.”
In the 1990s, the War on Drugs became increasingly militarized. By 1992, often using surplus military equipment donated by the federal government, police were conducting 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids each year. Most of them were for nonviolent drug offenses.
Prisons filled up with nonviolent drug offenders: from around 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Today, nearly one-fifth of inmates in America’s state prisons are there after being convicted of a drug-related offense. And drug offenders represent about half of all inmates in federal prisons. Blacks are nearly six times as likely as whites to be imprisoned for a drug offense.
Since 1971, Uncle Sam has spent more than $1 trillion in the War on Drugs. State, local, and county governments have spent billions more. And the result? More than a century after the war began, the percentage of Americans addicted to drugs is about the same as it was in 1900.
The protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25 didn’t focus on the drug war. But they should have, because the War on Drugs has from its outset been a war on blacks and other minorities.
The right to control our bodies, including what we put into them, is about as basic as freedom gets. But the War on Drugs attempts to nullify this “self-ownership principle.” You have no right to determine what substances you voluntarily introduce into your own body. As with everything else, Big Brother knows best.
The experience of the last century brings to mind the words of one of my favorite authors, H. L. Mencken. In 1925, five years after the 18th Amendment came into effect, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, Mencken wrote:
There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
In 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed. It’s time to do the same for the War on Drugs and decriminalize all forms of drug possession. Ending the drug war would also mean the end of the racial stereotyping used to justify it and the police militarization to enforce it. And it would do more than anything else I can think of to ensure we never again hear the anguished words “I can’t breathe” from a black man being choked by a white cop.