5 Racist Benchmarks in the War on Drugs

People of color have borne the brunt of prohibition from its very inception.

So the War on Drugs has always been pretty darn racist. If you look at history, drug prohibition has never been directed at curbing the recreational appetites of white culture; it’s traditionally been aimed at the poorer, darker skinned sectors of America.

A larger proportion of African Americans are arrested and imprisoned for drugs than whites; more than three times as often. Part of the problem, but only part, lies in racial profiling by the cops. Stop-and-frisk, I’m talking to you.

But stop-and-frisk is only a scratch on the surface. Here are five racist elements of the War on Drugs. Read through, and then count how many more you could add on.

1) Suburban Heroin

Heroin has made a home for itself in the suburbs. Its use is skyrocketing among middle-class whites, and changing the rhetoric about how to deal with an addiction epidemic. Now that whites are impacted, goes the reasoning of observers such as Black Girl Dangerous, dependence on dope is seen not as a crime but as a disease. Republicans Presidential candidates including Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who have personal stories of the horrors of addiction, are calling for care and empathy. Once heroin crept out of the inner-city and moved to such white enclaves as Vermont—then we had a problem that could be addressed with something other than prison bars. 

2) Opium Like Grandma Used to Take

Back in the 1800s, middle-aged white women used opium for normal aches and pains. Opium was sold over the counter. No one even thought of criminalizing it. Then large numbers of Chinese came over to America to work on the railroads. At the end of a backbreaking day laying track, these laborers would relax by smoking opium. That’s when the first opium prohibition laws were put into place. The fear was that Chinese men were planning to seduce white women with this opium and turn the ladies into sex slaves. 

3) Coke in the South

The first laws prohibiting the use of cocaine were in the early 1900s in the American South. The restrictions were directed toward African American men working on the docks. Lawmakers feared these black men would forget their place in society under the influence of cocaine. At the time, newspapers reported as fact that cops needed at least a .45 to take down a crazed black man on cocaine.

4) Jazz Musicians and Reefer Addicts

In the 1930s, the campaign to make marijuana illegal was directly racist. The so-called rampant marijuana problem was attributed to Mexicans and African American jazz musicians, or “reefer addicts.” Newspapers editorialized: “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”

Image via Zoe Dillingham/VSCO

5) Crack or Coke?

Beginning in the ‘80s, federal sentencing for crack cocaine was 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine. Crack was perceived as an urban drug while coke was the plaything of celebrities and financial district bros. In 2010, the playing field slightly leveled; the Drug Policy Alliance led a campaign to reduce the inequality in sentencing from 100:1 to 18:1.

What’s holding back from a 1:1 ratio? Why that would be racism.