I’ve learned a lot about the War on Drugs, but this guy digs in deep. He even connects it to ridiculous 150-year-old policies that left me speechless. And when he casually gives a shoutout to an incredible book at 4:36, I knew I had to share this.
If you ask the question why are some drugs legal and others illegal. Why are cigarettes
and alcohol legal and pharmaceuticals in the middle and these other drugs — marijuana
and, you know, other ones illegal? You know, some people sort of inherently assume well
this must be because there was a thoughtful consideration of the relative risks of drugs
and, you know — but then that can't be because we know alcohol is more associated with violence
than almost any illegal drugs. And cigarettes are more addictive than any of the illegal
drugs. I mean, heroin addicts routinely say it's harder to quit cigarettes than it is
to quit heroin.
So, it's not as if there was ever any kind of National Academy of Science that a hundred
years ago decided that these drugs — these ones had to be illegal and those ones legal.
And it's not as if this is in the Bible or in the Code of Hammurabi. I mean, nobody was
making legal distinctions among many of these drugs back in — until the twentieth century
So if you ask how and why this distinction got made, what you realize when you look at
the history is it has almost nothing to do with the relative risks of these drugs and
almost everything to do with who used and who was perceived to use these drugs, right.
So there's — you know, back in the 1870s when the majority of opiate consumers were
middle aged white women, you know — throughout the country using them for their aches and
pains and for their, you know, the time of the month and menopause and there was no aspirin.
There was no penicillin. You know, lots of diarrhea because of bad sanitation and nothing
stops you up like opiates. I mean, millions — many more — a much higher percentage of
the population back then used opiates than now.
But nobody thought about criminalizing it because nobody wanted to put, you know, auntie
or grandma behind bars, right. But then when the Chinese started coming to the country
in large numbers in the 1870s and 80s and, you know, working on the railroads and working
in the mines and working in factories and, you know — and then going back home at the
end of the night to smoke up a little opium the way they did in the old country. The same
way White people were having a couple of whiskeys in the evening.
And that's when you got the first opium prohibition laws. In Nevada, in California in the 1870s
and 80s directed at the Chinese minorities. It was all about the fear — what would those
Chinamen with their opium do to our precious women. You know, addicting them and seducing
them and turning them into sex slaves and all this sort of stuff.
The first anti-cocaine laws were in the South in the early part of the twentieth century
directed at black men working on the docks and the fear. You know, what would happen
to those black men when they took that white powder up their black noses and forgot their
proper place in society. You know, going out — the first time anybody ever said that,
you know, the cops needed a 38 would not bring down a Negro crazed on cocaine. You needed
I mean, the New York Times, the paper of record, reporting this stuff as fact back in those
days. That's when you got the first cocaine prohibition laws. The first marijuana prohibition
laws were in the Midwest and the Southwest directed at Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans
taking the good jobs from the good white people. Going back home to their communities, smoking
a little of that funny smoking, you know, marijuana, reefer cigarette. And once again
the fear, what would this minority do to our precious women and children.
So, I mean, it's always been about that. I mean even alcohol prohibition was to some
extent a broader conflict between the white white Americans and the not so white white
Americans, right. The white white Americans coming from northern and western Europe in
the eighteenth, early nineteenth century with all of their stuff. And then the not so white
white Americans coming from southern Europe and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century bringing with them their beer and their vino and, you know,
their schlivowitz, right. I mean, it was all about that type of conflict.
And it wasn't as if the white white Americans weren't also consuming. It's just many of
them knew that when you criminalize a vice that is engaged in by a huge minority of the
population and you leave it inevitably to the discretion of law enforcement as to how
to enforce those laws, those laws are not typically gonna be enforced against the whiter
and wealthier and more affluent or middle class members of society.
Inevitably those laws will be disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and
darker skinned members of society. So to some very good extent that's really what the war
on drugs has been about. When people talk about it as the new Jim Crow in this wonderful
book by Michelle Alexander with that title, it's about understanding that, you know, the
war on drugs is not just about race and it's not just about targeting black and brown young
people because, God knows, I mean, millions of white people have been swept up in the
war on drugs as well.
But it is disproportionately and overwhelmingly about that from its origins to its enforcement
to who gets victimized today.