Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How America Convinced the World to Demonize Drugs

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J.S. Rafaeli has an interesting article in Vice, with this subhead:

Much of the world used to treat drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one. And then America got its way.

The article begins:

In Baltimore, a young black man is sent to prison for felony cannabis possession. In Glasgow, Scotland, an apartment door is kicked in by the drugs squad. In Afghanistan, a field of poppies is incinerated from the air. In Mexico, police corrupted by drug cartels are implicated in disappearances and massacres.

The War on Drugs is generally presented as a global phenomenon. Each country has its own drug laws and enforces them as they see fit. Despite small regional differences, the world—we are told—has always been united in addressing the dangers of illicit drug use through law enforcement.

This is a lie.

When one traces back the history of what we now call the War on Drugs, one discovers it has a very specific origin: the United States. The global development of the drug war is inseparable from the development of US imperialism, and indeed, is a direct outgrowth of that imperialism.

Prior to the 19th century, drugs now illegal were widely used across the world. Remedies derived from opium and cannabis were used for pain relief, and less widely for “recreation.” Queen Victoria herself was fond of both opium and cannabis, before being introduced to cocaine later in life.

Then came the American railroads.

Thousands of Chinese workers came to America during the mid-1800s to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Once the track was complete, however, they immediately became regarded as a threat to white American workers. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only US law to ever successfully ban immigration solely on the basis of race.

One method of stirring up anti-Chinese hatred was to attack the practice of opium smoking. Although morphine and laudanum were popular as a medicine throughout the US, Chinese opium was seen as a threat to American Christian morality, and particularly to American Christian women.

By 1881, as the Exclusion Act was being debated in Congress, reports began flooding out of San Francisco of opium dens where “white women and Chinamen sit side by side under the effects of this drug—a humiliating sight to anyone with anything left of manhood.”

Newspaper editorials thundered that the Chinese opium menace must be wiped out lest it “decimate our youth, emasculate the coming generation, if not completely destroy the population of our coast,” and that for white Americans, smoking opium was “not at all consistent with their duties as Capitalists or Christians.”

Crucially, however, the first modern prohibition regime was not founded in America itself, but in its first overseas colony. In 1898, America conquered the Philippines in the Spanish–American War. Charles H. Brent, the openly racist Episcopal bishop of the Philippines, despised opium users, and appealed to President Roosevelt to ban this “evil and immoral” habit. By 1905, Brent had succeeded in installing the first American prohibition regime—not in the US itself, but in the Philippines.

Unsurprisingly, the ban failed. Bishop Brent decided that continued opium use must be the fault of the booming trade in China, and wrote again to President Roosevelt, urging that the US had a duty to “promote some movement that would gather in its embrace representatives from all countries where the traffic and use of opium is a matter of moment.” The idea of international control of the drug trade had been born.

In the American debate, drug addiction had been framed as an infection and contamination of white America by foreign influences. Now, that vision was internationalized. To protect white American moral purity, the supply of drugs from overseas had to be curtailed at their source. As the campaigner, Richard P. Hobson had it, “like the invasions and plagues of history, the scourge of narcotic drug addiction came out of Asia.”

In 1909, America succeeded in convening the first International Commission on Opium in Shanghai. Representing the US was Bishop Brent and the doctor Hamilton Wright, who was to become a major force in the American prohibitionist movement. For the next century, almost every major international conference and commission on drug control was formed through American pressure and influence.

Interestingly, despite what we are told about the “special relationship,” the country that offered the most consistent and organized resistance to the American drive toward drug prohibition was the United Kingdom. Time and again, Great Britain diplomatically frustrated American attempts to impose prohibition regimes and establish international protocols.

This was partly because the British were themselves operating lucrative opium monopolies in their own overseas colonies, but also because they resented “overtones of high-mindedness and superior virtue.” Britain had its own system of dealing with drug addiction—treating it as a medical rather than a law enforcement issue—and, for a long time, resisted the moralizing hysteria of the American approach.

But it was difficult for the US to push the prohibition of drugs on the rest of the world while not enforcing it itself. Wright began spearheading a fresh campaign for full drug prohibition within the US—once again built almost entirely on racial prejudice.

But this time, a new drug had emerged to capture America’s fevered imagination, with a fresh racial minority to use it to persecute. The drug was cocaine, and the minority was African Americans. In 1910, Wright submitted a report to the Senate stating that “this new vice, the cocaine vice… has been a potent incentive in driving the humbler negroes all over the country to abnormal crimes.”

There followed an explosion of headlines linking black people to cocaine use and criminality. The New York Times ran a typical story under the headline “NEGRO COCAINE FIENDS—NEW SOUTHERN MENACE.” The story tells of “a hitherto inoffensive negro” who had reportedly taken cocaine and been sent into a frenzy. The local police chief was forced to shoot him several times to bring him down. Cocaine, it was implied, was turning black men into superhuman brutes. As the medical officer quoted in the article put it, “the cocaine nigger sure is hard to kill.”

This hysteria resulted in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, instituting the prohibition of drugs across the United States. Over the next 50 years, America would aggressively seek to internationalize its form of prohibition across the world. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, to America’s shame.

Written by Leisureguy

15 August 2018 at 2:43 pm

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