The War on Drugs and Systemic Racism
The “War on Drugs” has been a bi-partisan effort spanning several decades that is one of the key components of “systemic racism” and anti-blackness in the United States and elsewhere. The roots of the War on Drugs lie in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, but it did not become a comprehensive program until Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1971. This War then led to the mass incarceration of many Americans, but disproportionately black males through the strict enforcement and sentencing requirements of the Reagan administration, as well as Joe Biden and Bill Clinton’s “Crime Bill” in the 1990s. Incarceration rates doubled between 1980 (501,800) and 1990 (1,148,700) and doubled again by the year 2000 (1,937,400).
Mass incarceration, however, is not the point of this essay. Rather, I wish to focus here on how Christian values are directly opposed to the motives for the War on Drugs. First, it should be noted that strict “Prohibition” of mind-altering substances is not an Orthodox position. Indeed, we use alcohol, the substance rated as the most dangerous in terms of cumulative personal and social harm, as part of our most sacred rite, the Eucharist. And Orthodox paschal celebrations are typically full to the brim not only with beer and wine, but also vodka, ouzo, and arak, all of which have their origins in predominantly Orthodox cultures. Strict prohibition has its origins in Protestant temperance movements, many of which had strong anti-Catholic and anti-Orthodox biases.
And where America’s failed experiment in alcohol prohibition ends, the War on Drugs, and its racist and un-Christian underpinnings, begins.
Cannabis was for the first time made a federally regulated substance in the United States in 1937 due to the efforts of Harry Anslinger, the first “drug czar” in the history of the U.S. government under FDR. Anslinger had three primary motives for making cannabis regulated (and nearly illegal). The first reason is because he had been the head of alcohol prohibition enforcement, and the repeal of alcohol prohibition meant he was out of a job unless there were new prohibited substances. The second reason is because he teamed up with corporate interests (namely the Hearst media corporation and DuPont) in order to propagandize against hemp in order to aid synthetic fibers like nylon coming into manufacturing dominance.
Both of those reasons are bad enough and are related to systemic racism in both the economy and law enforcement. But his third reason, the one that concerns the subject of this article, was that he was a committed racist and eugenicist. A true opponent of “pro-life” causes, he ardently supported forced sterilization of “undesirables” to prevent their reproduction. Directly related to this, he was also a proponent of the “white genocide” conspiracy theory, believing that measures must be taken to enforce white racial purity.
Completely missing from Anslinger’s motivations was public health—the main reason many Christians were successfully propagandized to believe was the purpose of the war on drugs. This is evident in that he (1) is on record saying that cannabis was harmless, until alcohol prohibition ended (see above), and (2) he consulted 30 pharmacists on the subject and 29 out of 30 told him there was no public health risk. (It is worth noting that the 29 represent a 97% consensus, the same percentage as the consensus on anthropogenic climate change). Anslinger destroyed the records of the 29 and kept only the one dissenter in his files.
Anslinger then rebranded cannabis with the term “marijuana” in government documents in order to portray cannabis as a scary Mexican substance coming over the border to corrupt American (specifically white American) youth. He also argued that prohibitions on cannabis were essential to maintaining white supremacy and racial “purity.” Here is Anslinger in his own horrifying words:
Reefers make darkies think they’re as good as white men.
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the USA, 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.
Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy. . . . Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.
Despite Harry Anslinger’s racist mania leading to the regulation of cannabis, the United States (and the world at large) did not attempt to heavily criminalize substances for decades after Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Harvard professor Timothy Leary (despite his personal failings, which were many) became an ambassador for the ways many so-called “drugs” could be genuine medicines for a host of diseases and disorders resistant to conventional therapies. Leary even succeeded in getting the Marihuana Tax Act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1969.
In response to Leary’s victory, the deeply racist and extremely paranoid Richard Nixon. began the War on Drugs by lobbying for and signing into law the “Controlled Substances Act” of 1970. Through political pressure, the implications of this legislation was forced on most of the world in 1971.
Nixon’s racism is well documented, but I will focus on one harsh truth about him that should be especially relevant to pro-life Christians. When the Roe vs. Wade ruling was handed down about by the Supreme Court, Nixon was indeed disturbed and voiced his opposition to abortion both publicly and privately. However, Nixon did believe that there were some instances where abortion was necessary. Most Christians in the pro-life movement would not be deeply scandalized to hear that rape, incest, or the mother’s life might be considered as one of these exceptions. But Nixon’s privately expressed primary reason was driven by a similar concern for racial purity like Anslinger’s. In Nixon’s own words, abortion was sometimes necessary, “for example, when you have a white and a black.” (Nixon is recorded saying this behind the scenes on the infamous “Nixon tapes.”)
Did Nixon’s racism tie into the “War on Drugs” and the Controlled Substances Act? His disgraced advisor John Ehrlichman (who spent time in prison for the Watergate break-in) had this to say to a reporter in the 1990s:
You want to know what [the War on Drugs] was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? 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.
(It should be noted that Ehrlichman’s family has disputed this quote arguing that their father wasn’t himself racist. This is an odd objection, however, given that Ehrlichman is clearly disgusted with having been a part of the administrations actions.)
The War on Drugs was created and perpetuated for explicitly racist reasons. It has undeniably played a prominent role in propagating a systemically racist society with astronomical and disproportionate incarceration rates and felony convictions (and felons are stripped of core constitutional rights!). It is not based in the science of public health. And it is incumbent on we Christians who are concerned with the perils of substance abuse to put forward alternatives to mass incarceration rooted in genuine Christian values and restorative justice.
Rico Monge is an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.