Friday, 25 October 2013

The ‘War on Drugs’ was not imaginary Peter… and it’s older than you think.

Andrew Henley, PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

Earlier this week I attended Keele Debate and Discussion Society’s ‘Big Debate’ on the issue of cannabis legislation.  The debate was somewhat scuppered by the no-show of those who were supposed to be arguing the case for decriminalisation and, whilst those who stood in did an admirable job at short notice, I can’t help thinking that someone missed a trick by not inviting my colleague Dr Samantha Weston  to take the stage.  In any case, my post concerns not the quality of the debate, but one of the central claims made by Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens who argued strongly in favour of maintaining the current illicit status of cannabis. 

In his book, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs, Hitchens argues that ‘the 1968 generation have for the most part become supporters of drug ‘decriminalisation’, a cause whose success will no doubt mean more doped contentment and more willing serfdom’.  He further describes the ‘War on Drugs’ as ‘phantasmal’ and suggests that, due to the influence of those often characterised as the ‘cannabis lobby’, the British government has engaged in a progressive weakening of drug prohibition which can only be rectified by harsher punishment of those who consume and deal in drugs.

First of all, to suggest that there has been no concerted effort to apply the criminal law in respect of those who use or deal in illegal drugs is simply not correct (unless the 212,708 seizures of Class A, B and C drugs reported by the Home Office for 2011/12 didn’t really happen).  As for the utility of harsh punishments, we can easily see the hugely expensive effect (in both economic and human cost) of such punitiveness in the US which has introduced numerous minimum mandatory sentences for possession of (certain) drugs in the last few decades:

I’ll leave a response to Hitchens’ prognosis for drug policy to those far more qualified to write on the subject than I am.  But I thought it worth making a different point that didn’t feature in this week’s debate – that of where anti-marijuana legislation came from in the first place.  Now one would like to think that once upon a time, a range of medical experts got together and decided to classify drugs according to those which were relatively safe and that could be either regulated or ignored by legislators altogether and those which were so dangerous that they had to be criminalised in the interests of public safety.  Not so. 

If we take the example of marijuana, we find a slightly different and altogether more troubling story that begins as a result of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.   Marijuana (from the Mexican Spanish ‘marihuana’ – for the Cannabis plant) was often smoked by those Mexicans who escaped the political upheaval of the period by crossing the border into the United States to find work.  Fear and prejudice regarding this new immigrant population in the Southern states quickly focussed upon the strange smelling weed which they brought with them.  According to Eric Schlosser's excellent article in The Atlantic:

Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood," and gave its users "superhuman strength." Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.

Before long, and in response to such claims, a number of local laws popped up which sought to criminalise the drug.  Between 1914 and 1937 as many as 27 different states introduced some form of anti-marijuana legislation.  Somewhat incongruously, in 1920 the US Department of Agriculture urged US farmers to grow marijuana as a profitable crop – due mainly to the practical uses of hemp.   However, by the end of this period a vigorous anti-narcotic lobby had assembled and led to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, headed by Harry J. Anslinger.  The claims made about marijuana at the beginning of this ‘war’ reiterated those which had spread in the Southern states following the influx of Mexican migrants after 1910.  These are evidenced in the claims made in the 1935 poster (below) from the FBN and was also seen in the now comical anti-marijuana propaganda films of the era such as ‘Reefer Madness’ (1936) and ‘Devil’s Harvest’ (1942).

In essence then, the beginnings of the ‘War on Drugs’ were a lot earlier than its official declaration by President Nixon in 1971 and may have actually had far more to do with who was originally taking the drugs in question rather than the dangerousness of the drugs themselves.  If we look at the origins of other anti-drug legislation we see a similar pattern.  The 1875 Opium Den Ordinance in San Francisco is often linked to anti-Chinese sentiment in the city and concerns that white Americans were starting to become addicted.  Elsewhere, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897 was originally passed on the basis that it would address opium addiction amongst the indigenous peoples of Australia, though it soon became a vehicle for the rulers of this newly emerging nation to take control of aboriginal affairs more generally.

If we fast-forward to the more recent history of prohibition in the US, we see more evidence which suggests the ‘targeting’ of drug laws at specific populations.  Prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act 2010 penalties for the possession of crack cocaine could be up to 100 times more severe than for its powder equivalent.  Of course, crack cocaine use is associated more commonly with poorer (and frequently black) users on ‘Main Street’ when compared to power cocaine, which remains the drug of choice for the whiter, richer and more powerful on Wall Street.  Even after the passage of the Act an 18:1 disparity in sentencing remains, despite suggestions that the relative harms of the two forms of cocaine have been exaggerated.  So, in conclusion, perhaps before we enter into another debate about whether or not certain drugs should be decriminalised, we might do well to first ask the questions: ‘how did they come to be criminalised in the first place?’; ‘was criminalisation actually a response to the drug use of specific populations?’ and, crucially, ‘why was this the case?’

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