HISTORIAN: Anti-Drug Laws Have Always Been About Race

Historian Richard Miller
Richard Miller has written about Abe Lincoln and the drug war. The House I Live In/YouTube

The radio show ”
This American Life” recently aired a fascinating story about Eugene Jarecki, who’s been screening his movie about the drug war at prisons across America.

Jarecki’s 2012 documentary, “The House I Live In,” is more relevant than ever.

The movie profiles prisoners and other casualties of the drug war, tracing it to its beginning at the turn of last century. When America passed drug laws back then and into the 1930s, it did so with the express purpose of criminalizing minorities, historian Richard Miller told Jarecki.

“Anti-drug laws have always been associated with race,” Miller said.

California paved the way for the drug war in 1907 by passing a law that criminalized opium. Opium was widely accepted before then, Miller says. California’s move to make it illegal was propelled by animosity towards Chinese immigrants, who were known to smoke the drug.

These immigrants engendered a lot of hostility because they worked hard for little pay.

“Now of course you can’t throw people in jail because they’re Chinese. You can throw them in jail for smoking opium,” Miller says in the documentary.

Also around the turn of the century, more states moved to make cocaine illegal after people started associating its use with blacks. A June 1900 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that “Negroes in some parts of the South are … addicted to a new form of vice,” according to Paul Gahlinger’s history of illegal drugs.

Marijuana, which was sold in pharmacies in the 19th century, only became illegal in the 1930s after an influx of Mexican-American immigrants popularised its recreational use.

“These laws set up a very dangerous precedent of racial control,” Miller told Jarecki.

This level of control has had a particularly harsh impact on black Americans. A hundred years after America passed its first drug laws, blacks still make up a disproportionately high number of prisoners. (Black prisoners make up 38% of the prison population but make up just more than 13% of the U.S. population.)

Until recently, America handed out harsher sentences for crimes involving crack than those related to powdered cocaine. The sentencing disparity was attacked as racist because crack is a cheaper drug associated with poor black communities.

Even with sentencing reforms for crack, blacks are still unfairly targeted for drug crimes. In June of this year, the ACLU reported that blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites — even though whites and blacks use the drug at roughly the same rate.