Roots of Drug Prohibition

Far from a noble cause, drug prohibition started in the United States in bigotry and hatred. "Zero tolerance" is indeed an apt description for drug prohibition, based as it is in fear and intolerance.

"We hold the presence of the Chinese in our midst as an unmitigated evil, ruinous alike to the people and the State," said the 1872 Platform of the California Democratic Party. In this atmosphere of intolerance the first drug laws were passed in the United States.

The first U.S. drug laws banned importation of opium by Chinese, but not by whites. It was explicitly racist, and motivated by racist fear that white women, after visiting "opium dens," would have sex with Chinese men.

Each drug was associated with a detested minority, and the drug prohibited in order to harass and persecute minorities.

Cocaine was linked in the public mind to blacks (and still is). Use of crack cocaine, more popular in predominantly black areas, has harsher penalties and stricter enforcement than use of powder cocaine, more popular in white communities but nearly identical in effects.

Marijuana was linked to Latinos. In fact, marijuana was a staple crop in this country until the 1940s, but it was known then as "hemp." Opponents of recreational hemp use and of Latino immigrants began calling hemp "marijuana" in order to make it appear foreign.

Alcohol was linked to German, Irish and Italian immigrants. Few people today realize the intense bigotry shown towards those European immigrants in the early 1900s. Alcohol Prohibition was not a Noble Experiment, but yet another experiment in intolerance.

Bigotry is not merely an artifact of drug war history. It is an inherent part of drug policy today. Drug enforcers use "profiles" to target minorities for traffic stops and searches. Enforcement efforts are strongest in minority communities, despite illegal drug use being spread almost evenly through the population.

In 1995, the ACLU won a case against the use of racist "profiles". Federal prisoners rioted after the U.S. Congress rejected a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to eliminate the racial disparity in penalties for cocaine offenses.