I Thought We Banned Cocaine For Health Reasons. Nope. Not Even Close.

Rohan Grover

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

a 45.

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.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Stumbled across this video while hunting for truth bombs about racism in America. You know, just another lazy Sunday. Check out other cool educational videos on Big Think’s YouTube channel. And I highly recommend reading "The New Jim Crow."


Next bit of Upworthiness:

Flash Video Embed

This video is not supported by your device. Continue browsing to find other stuff you'll love!

Hi there, internet friend. We need to talk. You're using a painfully old web browser, and frankly, it's getting a little weird. It's not safe, and we want the best for you. We think it's time to upgrade.

Download Google Chrome, and try it for a week. Don't think about it, just do it. You'll thank us later.