Racist Drug Policies
The unjust disparities based on race in the enforcement of federal drug laws is no coincidence. Historically, the criminalization of drugs has been used as a tool of systemic racism, colonization, and US imperialism.
The social, economic, and political control of resources and people, specifically poor and working-class people and people of color, through the alleged pursuit of drugs in the United States can be traced back to the early 1850s, when anti-immigration hostility emerged with a new wave of Chinese migrants who arrived in San Francisco.
Ironically, many of these immigrants were fleeing violence and trauma caused by the Opium Wars, when Great Britain forced the sale of Opium on the Chinese and addicted millions of Chinese on the drugs. When the Chinese arrived in the US, they became a threat to the economic security of White American workers. The government criminalized the act of smoking opium, which was specific only to the Chinese (which can be traced back to Great Britain’s trade of smokable opium). The ban against smoking opium was also a strategic pivot away from banning the drug itself, because drinkable opium was also a popular medicine at the time found in tinctures used by white Americans. Criminalizing smoking opium thus justified the control and detention of Chinese immigrants.
In the 1930s, another wave of immigrants came from Mexico. Mexican migrants brought with them cultural traditions, one of them being smoking marijuana. While Americans were already very familiar with “cannabis” because it was present in almost all tinctures and medicines available at the time, the word “marihuana” which is what Mexicans referred to cannabis as, was a foreign term. So, when Mexican immigrants threatened white working-class jobs, the media began to play on public fears about these new residents and their dangerous native behaviors, including marihuana use. At the same time, the rest of the nation did not know that they already had this “marihuana” in their medicine cabinets. The demonization of marijuana was thus an extension of the demonization of Mexicans and became an excuse to search, detain, and deport these immigrants. Once again, the law had nothing to do with the drugs, and everything to do with the immigrant group who was deemed a threat.
In June 1971, President Nixon declared what we now know as the modern “war on drugs.” He increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants, which allows law enforcement to enter a property without notifying the residents.
This massive investment in state and social control, under the guise of fighting drug use and abuse, later expanded by Ronald Reagan, came about the same time as the civil rights and anti-war movements, where Black Americans had won the right to vote, were gaining leadership and movement power, and were demanding civil rights and political power. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Today it is over 2 million. Although white people were more likely to use drugs than other ethnicities, law enforcement agencies overwhelmingly targeted people of color.
One of the most consequential policies that laid the foundation for today's crisis of mass incarceration was the Federal Crack Cocaine Laws of 1986, enacted under Ronald Reagan. Known as the Anti-Drug Abuse Laws, the legislation enacted a 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity under which distribution of just 5 grams of crack carries a minimum 5-year federal prison sentence, while the distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same 5-year mandatory minimum sentence. Although pharmacologically crack and powder cocaine were the same drugs, the reason for the sentencing disparity had nothing to do with scientific or public health recommendations, and everything to do with controlling the group of people associated with using that drug. The arbitrary disparity in sentencing of powder vs crack cocaine is akin to, hypothetically, punishing people who eat edible marijuana brownies with prison sentences 100 times greater than those who smoke marijuana. Unsurprisingly, powder cocaine was seen as a white person's drug, while the media and politicians associated crack cocaine with inner cities, violence, crime, and African Americans.
Just as in the previous examples with the Chinese and Mexican Americans, drug laws were designed to maintain racialized social control, and the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine effectively promoted unwarranted disparities in control and criminalization of African Americans.
A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted:
“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. 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.”
This video from hip hop legend Jay Z and acclaimed artist Molly Crabapple depict the drug war’s devastating impact on the African American community from decades of biased law enforcement.
The field of child and adolescent trauma and health, reinforced by studies such as ACES, has long illustrated how experiences of violence, neglect, and trauma are harmful to a person’s long-term health, and are predictive of maladaptive behaviors such as drug use and addiction. Society, through colonialism, imperialism, systemic racism, reinforced and upheld by modern drug laws, underlies much of this violence, neglect, and traumas that people, and disproportionately people of color, experience on a daily basis. To educate, prevent, and address drug use through a trauma-informed lens means to not only view young people’s drug use and addiction as an expression of coping that requires compassion and mental health services, but as a societal issue, requiring us collectively to deal with the systemic root causes of traumas. We echo the beliefs of Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, director of the Richmond youth-serving organization, RYSE, that “if it's not racially-just, it's not trauma-informed”.
As an organization, TUPE is committed to exposing and transforming racist laws, as well as the systems that perpetuate them:
- We reinforce OUSD priorities and policies as a sanctuary school district, committed to addressing institutional and interpersonal racism in all its forms.
- We support OUSD’s efforts to disrupt the school to incarceration pipeline and reduce racial disparities in disciplinary practices through our 1x1 life skills coaching model as an alternative to suspension, where a person who uses mild drugs or experiences behavioral challenges is met with supportive services, not punishment. (Federal and state laws do not offer these protections for Schedule 1 drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, PCP, MDMA, etc.).
- We encourage students to make presentations about civil rights to address laws that relate to drugs and racial disparities as part of our social justice youth development program strategies.
- We teach students public health research skills for understanding community health disparities through a social justice lens and support their advocacy for equity, justice, and reparations through the development of community-driven public health practices, policies, and regulations.
Where to report an incident of discrimination and get culturally relevant support within OUSD:
- Asian Pacific Islander
- African American
This booklet from the ACLU addresses what constitutional rights you have when you are stopped, questioned, arrested, or searched by law enforcement officers. Available in English, Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, French, Farsi, Chinese, Creole, Indonesian, Korean, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.
If you have been arrested, the East Bay Community Law Center provides free legal services to youth residing in Alameda County. You can contact them at (510) 548-4040