War On Drugs

Critic says arrest numbers don’t reflect user truth

NNPA COLUMNIST

Gary L. Flowers

Contrary to public opinion, white people in the U.S. account for more arrests for drug use than do people of color. Yet, the widely-held and erroneous belief that 1) most drug crimes are committed by people of color, and 2) most people of color commit drug crimes that result in the disproportionate imprisonment of non-whites. How did America become come to target people of color for socalled “war on drugs?”

Most Americans have no idea that drugs such as opiates, cocaine, and marijuana were not always illegal in the United States. In fact, in the early 1900s, many wealthy people commonly used such drugs recreationally, peaking with 250,000 American addicts among the nation’s 76 million citizens.

During the 20th century, while some Americans were addicted because of doctor-issued prescriptions, drug use by wealthy whites was considered a medical problem. For others, addictive drugs were considered chic—so much so that Congress enacted the first Food and Drug Safety Act in 1906, requiring drug companies list contents in drugs on their labels. Accordingly, largely due to economic status, the rich were given rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

By 1909, the phrase “war on drugs” was first used and targeted Chinese, African American, and Mexican people as drug users. California passed laws prohibiting smokable opium as people of color were perceived as the “problem.” For example, Chinese immigrants became the face of opium use, despite their low percentage of California’s population. The result came in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As would be the case with other people of color later in America’s history “respectable white women” were thought to be corrupted by Chinese, leading to loose sexual habits. In 1902, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit of the American Pharmaceutical Association declared: “If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope, we can get along without him.” Truth be told, competition for cheap labor by Mexicans influenced the discrimination towards Chinese.

 

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