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War on Drugs

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Our secret stash of
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Not to be confused with the band
Bush came out and said, "We are losing the war against drugs." You know what that implies? There's a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it.
Bill Hicks
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.
—John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Tricky Dick[1]

The War on Drugs is a misbegotten attempt to "purify" American youth (and adults) by putting anyone caught with any quantity of illegal drugs in jail for a long time.

One of its armaments is setting mandatory sentences for "crack" cocaine possession at roughly 18 times the length of sentences for possession of "powder" cocaine. This is because crack is heavily stigmatized. While the powder version is popular in suburbs and corporate boardrooms, one cannot have those sorts of people sharing prisons with the great unwashed, lest the horrors of one's prison system become known to anyone who is capable of making serious noise about it. On the other hand, Methamphetamine is treated more severely,[2] so it's better understood as a class issue than a racial one.

The result has been that the United States now has the highest (official) number of prisoners in the world. In addition, it has a higher percentage of its population in jail than any other country has ever had. Seriously. More than Nazi Germany. More than Soviet Russia. More than North Korea. More than Saudi Arabia.[3] It just doesn't make any sense.


While in some cases, the push to criminalize some drugs came from the medical field, the banning of certain substances was in large part the result of racism as well as the Prohibitionist streak in the nascent Progressive movement. How some drugs became illegal:


Opium was the first target. As more and more Chinese immigrated to the US in the late 19th century, anti-Chinese sentiment increased among the populace. Throughout the latter quarter of the 1800s, a number of taxes and restrictions were placed on opium in order to target the Chinese. Chinese immigrants had set up a number of opium dens in America, especially in California. Some were worried that whites were frequenting the dens and thus becoming corrupted. Federal and state governments dumped more restrictions and taxes into the books until 1909 when the importation of opium was banned altogether. A similar movement to ban opium concurrently found success in Canada. This was followed by international agreements restricting the importation of opium.[4]


See the main article on this topic: Cannabis

The criminalization of cannabis came in bits and pieces as different strains of the plant came into the country. The first type of marijuana targeted was Indian hemp. This strain of the drug was, obviously, brought to the US by Indian immigrants in the early 1900s. A similar panic about whites being corrupted by the foreign drug occurred and taxes on Indian hemp began to appear during the 1910s as a result. During this time, a second strain was being brought into the US by Mexican immigrants that they called "marijuana." Cannabis became the drug of choice among jazz musicians in the 1920s and '30s and many of the great jazzmen of the time were known potheads. Besides already being associated with immigrants, the drug became associated with racist stereotypes of African-Americans. Jazz was considered to be the Devil's music by Christians (it was the rock 'n roll of the '20s and '30s). As well, according to the stereotype of the black brute, blacks were already violent and prone to rape white women, thereby corrupting white racial purity.

Since cannabis was believed to drive people to insanity and acts of violence, the only possible consequence of increased cannabis use among blacks must be total collapse of Western civilization! The moral panic hit a fever pitch in the mid-'30s, which was somewhat ironic considering that prohibition of alcohol had been repealed in 1933. Harry J. Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (then part of the Treasury Department), led the crusade against cannabis. Anslinger's ultimate goal was to ban all drugs once and for all. He denounced cannabis as being incredibly addictive in addition to leading to such things as communism, pacifism, murder, insanity, and death. However, Anslinger failed to provide evidence of a rash of murderous pacifists in the nation. He did do his best to play on racial tensions, though, saying:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.[5]

Anti-cannabis propaganda flooded the media, the most notable piece being Reefer Madness, a flick put together by a church group telling the horror tale of a young man being corrupted by smoking dope a few times.[6] The film is now notorious for being unintentionally hilarious snark fodder for potheads and sober types alike as well as for spawning a spoof musical version of the same name. Anyway, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 finally criminalized cannabis at the federal level and only met with some resistance from Big Pharma since it heavily taxed medical marijuana as well. Ironically, cannabis use became more widespread after the passage of the law. As early as 1944, Anslinger's claims about the dangers of cannabis were disputed by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. LaGuardia commissioned a report on cannabis use and the results came back as essentially "mostly harmless."[7] Anslinger and the government in general blew off LaGuardia's report and increased penalties for cannabis possession and ultimately outlawed medical marijuana as well in the post-World War II period.

Pothead pseudohistory[edit]

Potheads have built a conspiratorial mythology around the criminalization of hemp. Much of it stems from a book called The Emperor Has No Clothes by Jack Herer, a cannabis activist. The general thrust of these theories is that something called a "hemp decorticator" was invented in the 1930s that allowed hemp to be refined into paper products for extremely low prices. Newsman William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont Company supposedly had a stake in keeping this new cheap paper from being produced. Backed by banker and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, they unleashed a propaganda campaign against hemp. Any evidence to substantiate this is extremely circumstantial at the very best. On top of this, it makes little sense since Hearst purchased paper; he didn't sell it, and his timber interests were primarily in lumber for construction.[8] It would have been in his interest to adopt the new, cheaper paper.[9] Now you can call bullshit the next time your buddies bring this story up while you're smoking the ganja with them. Uh, hold on, pretend you didn't read that. Drugs are bad, m'kay?


The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.
Albert Einstein, 1922[10]

Alcohol is one of the most addictive, medically damaging, and violence-inducing drugs despite its common acceptance in society. In the 1920s the United States attempted to make it illegal to sell or possess alcohol. That attempt failed miserably, and because alcohol was so ingrained in the mindset of so many cultures, the world's governments, which are all too happy to make pot illegal, set the drug alcohol aside as a special case[11].


See the main article on this topic: Cocaine

The coca leaf has been chewed by humans for millennia, but usage of the leaf was mostly limited to Central and South America. Cocaine did not come into wider use in the Western world until the advent of modern chemistry, which, in the 19th century, resulted in the discovery of cocaine as the active ingredient in coca. Sigmund Freud helped popularize the drug, prescribing it for depression and impotence. Freud himself was known as a massive coke fiend. Cocaine came into wider use as a pain-killer and miracle drug in the late 19th century. In 1886, the Coca-Cola company launched its world-famous soft drink with cocaine as an ingredient (hence the name, of course). It soon became the best-selling soft drink of all time. (Gee, wonder why?) Rising incidence of addiction, severe nasal damage, and other adverse health effects created social pressure to restrict the usage of cocaine. In 1903, the drug was removed from Coca-Cola. However, it was still perfectly acceptable to snort a line of cocaine for a headache or upset stomach up until 1920, when the US restricted the drug.[12] Cocaine still is in limited medical use as a local anesthetic and vasoconstrictor. Most local anesthetics are chemically related to cocaine (anything with a "-caine" suffix: benzocaine, lidocaine, etc.), though without cocaine's psychoactive properties.

In the later end of the 20th century, a burnable form of cocaine, "crack", began appearing in the US. This variant was cheaper and easier to smuggle, leading to its popularity amongst poorer people who couldn't afford the powder version. The euphoria from crack is more intense but much shorter, and thus a harsher crash than powder. This does increase the risk of dependency/addiction, although the longterm effects of the drugs are mostly the same.[13] The US had, and still has much harsher laws regarding crack than powder,[14] which combined with it being more popular amongst Black people than White resulted in the racial makeup of prisoners being skewed even further. However, this has more to do with the public having a seething hatred of poverty rather than race; the inherent assumption is that someone snorting cocaine out of a hooker's anus is spending their own money, whereas a poor crackhead must be begging, stealing, or overcharging a rich person to snort coke out of their anus. This assumption is very much antithetical to one of the central themes of justice, where you should only be punished for what the State can actually prove rather than assume to be true.


Heroin was first synthesized in 1874 by a British researcher as a non-addictive substitute for morphine (it's true, we can stop any time we want to). The drug was later patented by Bayer and went on sale in the 1890s. Heroin was initially marketed as a painkiller, but soon became a cure-all for "whatever ails ya". It was a world-wide hit with doctors — (supposedly) non-addictive, safe, and cheaper than morphine. However, scientists of the day didn't realize that heroin metabolized back into morphine in the bloodstream. Whoops. Addiction became widespread as people started using heroin like you'd pop an aspirin today. In 1924, the US Congress outlawed heroin and in 1925, the League of Nations' Health Committee banned it as well.[15]

An addict on heroin is not likely to injure someone else, at least not directly. The problem is when the drugs run out; heroin and other opioids are notorious for having some of the worst and longest withdrawal symptoms. For this reason, heroin is pretty much the only drug where the cure for addiction is another addiction, methadone.[16] Methadone is another opioid, but has much less brutal withdrawal symptoms albeit at the cost of being longer lasting and not getting you high at all, so is easier to quit.

In terms of danger to themselves, heroin itself isn't particularly dangerous. What is dangerous is that drug dealers aren't regulated by the FDA and often cut the drugs to get more money from their customers, and different dealers will cut it at different levels. A person used to injecting something that's only 10% pure heroin and then gets a hold of something that's 50% pure, well, they are not going to have a good time. The other danger is that needles are often reused or even shared. This makes it a wonderful vector for blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis.

The war continues[edit]

Various mandatory sentencing laws and other penalties were put in place and repealed a number of times until Tricky Dick Nixon officially declared a "War on Drugs." Nixon's motivations are still debated.[17] Jimmy Carter's Drug Czar resigned when it was reported he snorted cocaine with Hunter S. Thompson and Senator Robert F. Kennedy's son, David Kennedy, at a Christmas party.[18] Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush made the War on Drugs a priority. The draconian drug laws implemented under the War on Drugs banner were totally offset by the fact that the drug war has provided priceless hours' worth of cheesy anti-drug PSAs. What's better than Pee-Wee Herman telling you about the dangers of crack or an after-school special starring the Looney Tunes and Alvin and the Chipmunks helping some kid beat his drug addiction?[19]

Death Toll[edit]

One of the common conservative talking points is that "every kilo of cocaine kills 6 people". However, the world consumes 1 and a half million kilograms of the stuff each year,[20] which would mean 9 million murders occur each year just from cocaine and not heroin, opioids, etc. This is obviously bullshit.

More realistically, the US alone spends $150 Billion each year on drugs.[21] Assuming that a little under half of the murders in the US are drug related, that's about 7500 drug murders each year, or 1 US murder per $20,000,000. However, deaths are much higher in other countries. Mexico's drug cartels kill around 10,000 (both other cartel members and innocents), Columbia loses around 5000 per year, plus Nicaragua, Paraguay, Chile, etc etc. After all said and done, it's around 1 death for every $2,000,000 in drugs consumed. This does not include people dying of overdose, which is another 70,000 in the US, which if included would make that 1 death per $1,000,000 spent on illicit drugs. Much of that would probably disappear if the drug trade was legalized/regulated, but then again, people are murdered over diamond and gold mining every year and that's legal worldwide. As is, a rich person consuming $2000 of drugs per days kills a person every 3 years. Then again, construction projects also cause deaths,[22], as does shipping, so no one is really guilt-free.


See drug liberalization for more on whether to make it legal or not.
All those [marijuana] arrests do is make people hate us. Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop. They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem.
—Cathy Lanier, Washington DC Police Chief[23]

The "War on Drugs" has been criticized by libertarians and liberals as a violation of civil liberties, not least because the war imposes ridiculously high penalties for increasingly petty drug offenses.[24] They argue if a person is taking drugs in the privacy of their own home, it is his/her own choice to be able to gather information and make an informed decision, and denying them the right to consume drugs is a basic violation of human rights.[25] They do not, however, appear to consider too closely the case where someone gets a little too high and goes crazy and terrifies his/her family. Or they have considered it and have decided that, since going crazy and terrifying your family are not inevitable consequences of drug use, banning drugs on those grounds is like banning cake because someone could eat too much, and then sit on their family, crushing them to death. Conversely, the known dangers of drinking and driving, or violence associated with alcohol consumption, hasn't exactly pushed that drug into any bans. Moreover the so-called "war on drugs" has resulted in the widespread problem of untreated or undertreated pain.[26]

The War on Drugs has also received criticism from the left due to the somewhat obvious racism that comes with it. Despite whites doing the most drugs and also the hardest drugs, minorities tend to be arrested disproportionately for drug crimes.[27] An example of this could be seen in legislation regarding cocaine and crack. Despite being the same drug scientifically, crack had much stiffer penalties for literally no logical reason other than the fact that it was a cheaper drug that primarily black Americans used while white Americans used cocaine.[28] Whites caught using cocaine were also more likely to be put into drug treatment programs while blacks were simply incarcerated.

As a result, the War on Drugs has decimated the black community. Maybe redlining a group of Americans into jobless sectors of our cities and then enforcing a racist and draconian drug policy on them wasn't a good idea, especially if we're worried about crime.

Another criticism is the lack of a proper recourse for false or fraudulent positives. In New York it was discovered by testee Landon that "Kroll Laboratories used a lower than recommended threshold for testing for the drug THC in the bloodstream, which made it likely that the results would be false positive".[29] In Massachusetts things were far worse where "investigators discovered that the state crime lab had falsified thousands of drug test results and regularly communicated with the district attorney's office, which heavily influenced the results of many forensic tests."[30] Because of this 330 people have been released from prison and another 1,100 cases dismissed or not prosecuted.[31]

It is also worth noting that since the Taliban receives a large portion of its funding from the illegal trade of opium, the illegality of drugs may be considered a contributing factor in making the "war on terror" more difficult to win.[32] Idiotic war impedes idiotic war. What next? Will an idiotic war impede this? Lord only knows. It's also important to consider the fact that US troops protect poppy fields in Afghanistan.[33][34][35][36]

Critics of the War on Drugs like to deride it using the snarky honest moniker "The War on (some) Drugs."

This is purely a coincidence: French Indochina (that's "Vee-yet-nam" or "Naam" to Americans) was eventually identified as a "colonie d'exploitation" (colony of economic exploitation) by the colonial French government circa 1900-ish. Funding for the colonial government drew upon (what else?) taxes levied against the local population. During this colonial period of exploitation, the French maintained a virtual monopoly on the trade of opium (as well as salt and rice alcohol, but those are unimportant) To promote and expand the tax base, the French government proclaimed quotas of consumption for EACH Vietnamese village, to include the "voluntary", i.e. forced, consumption of rice alcohol and opium.[37] Notoriously, the French failed to defend Dien Bien Phu (which monitored the primary opium transportation routes through north central Vietnam), and then handed the country over to the United States of 'Murica. This is a coincidence. The link between waning U.S. efforts in Vietnam and President Nixon's declaration of the "War and Drugs" in 1971 is also merely a coincidence. As is our (and the former Soviet Union's) invasion of the major producer of opium poppies, Afghanistan. And the invasion of the major Far-East-to-European smuggling transportation routes through Iraq (or whatever ISIS calls it these days). And probably the recent relaxation of trade bans on Iran (since you can't easily get to Iraq from Afghanistan overland without Iran's cooperation). Sure, "it's all about the oil"... but what KIND of oil?


The list of enumerated powers in the United States Constitution does not explicitly empower Congress to pass any law against drugs, suggesting that such laws, if any, should be passed at the state and local level. However, the Supreme Court, in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005), upheld such laws under the Commerce Clause. The court held that even though growing cannabis for one's own use is neither interstate nor commerce, it can still affect interstate commerce and is therefore subject to regulation by Congress. The court relied heavily on Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), which had upheld a restriction on wheat growing that was part of the New Deal. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, famously wrote, "By holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution's limits on federal power."

See also[edit]


  1. Top adviser to Richard Nixon admitted that ‘War on Drugs’ was policy tool to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’, New York Daily News
  2. Drug mandatory minimum sentencing
  3. Prison Brief - Highest to Lowest Rates, King's College, London
  4. The Origins of California's 1913 Cannabis Law
  5. Anslinger quote
  6. Reefer Madness (Tell Your Children!), free movie!! Similar scare tactics is found in the equally hilarious The Terrible Truth (1951)
  7. The LaGuardia Committee Report
  9. Debunking the Hemp Conspiracy
  10. [1]
  11. Not without often putting on top of it taxes, sometimes with exceptions—such as beer and wine in Spain—which escape those taxes.
  12. [2]
  13. American Addiction Center
  14. drug mandatory minimums
  15. Heroin: The History of a "Miracle Drug"
  16. How do medications to treat opioid addictions work
  17. "Nixon’s War on Drugs Decision"
  19. Pee-Wee Herman crack PSA, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue
  20. Mass of world consumption of cocaine
  21. US consumption of illicit drugs nears $150 Billion
  22. [3]
  24. The Economist - Too many laws, too many prisoners
  25. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness , and Potheadedness.
  26. "Drug Cops and Doctors: Is the DEA Hampering the Treatment of Chronic Pain? - Conference". Cato Institute, September 9, 2005. [4]
  27. The New Jim Crow
  29. Clark, Maggie (October 17, 2013) "Can drug labs be sued for faulty drug tests?" USAToday''
  30. Clark, Maggie (October 17, 2013) "Can drug labs be sued for faulty drug tests?" USAToday''
  31. Clark, Maggie (October 17, 2013) "Can drug labs be sued for faulty drug tests?" USAToday''
  32. Afghan opium production on the rise despite U.S. troops, inspector says, NBC
  33. Geraldo Rivera in Afghanistan
  34. How Opium Greed Is Keeping US Troops in Afghanistan, Breaking The Set
  35. U.S. Troops Patrolling Poppy Fields In Afghanistan
  36. US Military Helping Afghan Farmers Grow Opium Poppies!
  37. Peters, Erica (2012). Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam. AltaMira Press.