The Color Green

Categories History

Examining Racism Rooted in the Drug War

Byline: Cody Funderburk

2019 will be a conflicting year, as we begin our unwavering struggle for progress amid a defunct, shutdown government. Many question how we could find ourselves here in the 21st century, unsettled by the cyclical recurrences of seemingly antiquated history books depicting animalistic territorialism and egregious racial atrocity. Here we begin uncovering the parallels of the recent history of cannabis prohibition, and the adjoining eerily recognizable racial hostility.

Harry J Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst are important figures in the conversation about the history of the drug war. They’re regarded as having tremendously influenced the public perception of cannabis roughly 100 years ago. Harry J Anslinger was dubbed “the godfather of cannabis prohibition.” He used his power as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to draft the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” which catalyzed a proliferation of drug-related arrests and charges coordinated with the demonization of people and communities of color. Anslinger’s tactics included racist accusations linking marijuana to Mexican immigrants, and he’s quoted for saying “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

As for William Randolph Hearst, he was the owner of several major newspapers and was born to an elite California family worth millions. He, like Trump, was detached from the working class and hated Mexicans. An excerpt from Martin Lee’s, “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana- Medical, Recreational, and Scientific” reads:

“By stigmatizing marijuana and the ‘foreigners’ who smoked it, Hearst succeeded in exacerbating anti-Mexican sentiment during the Great Depression, when many Anglos felt they were competing with brown-skinned migrants for scarce jobs. More than two million Mexicans, who had been welcomed while the U.S. economy boomed in the 1920s, were deported when it faltered in the 1930s- a policy of ethnic cleansing vociferously championed by the Hearst conglomerate. Hearst also cheered the rise of fascist forces in Europe. “Mussolini Leads Way in Crushing Dope Evil” was the headline of a Hearst press screed that combined two of the owner’s pet passions- his support for fascism and the war on narcotics. Hearst Sunday papers published columns by German Nazi leaders, who conveyed Hitler’s point of view to thirty million readers without space for rebuttal. During the Third Reich, the verminization of religious and ethnic minorities went hand in hand with Rauschgiftbekämpfung, the “combating of drugs” to promote racial hygiene. Nazi racialist policies and the demonization of marijuana by Anslinger and Hearst were parallel historical phenomena- both exploited fear and hatred of the Other.”

In addition to blatantly false claims about the psychological and physical risks of cannabis use, Hearst and Anslinger used their power and privilege to stigmatize, stereotype, and damage communities of color. The legacy of the racially hostile proclivities of these men lives on as institutional racism manifested at the hands of the American government and in facilities incorrectly referred to as “correctional.” These are the facts:

  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latinx.
  • In the US, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession as a white person, even though research suggests both groups use cannabis at similar rates.
  • Black people account for almost half of all prisoners incarcerated with a sentence of more than one year for a drug-related offense.
  • Legalization doesn’t mitigate racial bias. A 2016 report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety found, “The decrease in the number of marijuana arrests by race is the greatest for White arrestees (-51%) compared to Hispanics (-33%) and African-Americans (-25%). The marijuana arrest rate for Whites and Hispanics is comparable, but the marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans is almost three times that of whites…”
  • Over 2,000,000 adults are currently incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, totaling over 2% of the US adult population.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
  • 1 in 3 Black men can expect to serve time in jail or prison.
  • According to Marijuana Business Daily, approximately 81 percent of cannabis business owners or founders are white, while only 4 percent are African American.

The final bullet point segways into the discussion about opportunities to provide reparations to Black, Native, and Latinx people, especially those who’ve been disenfranchised by mass incarceration, in an attempt to compensate for nearly a century of racially motivated animosity and war crimes (the term “war” is extracted from the phrase “war on drugs” invented by the Nixon administration). Rather than continue the system of white millionaires making more money from a market people of color have been politically excluded from, Washington, and all legal states, should reinvest revenue generated from cannabis sales to subsidize cannabis businesses for people of color who’ve been formerly imprisoned under the admittedly racist war on drugs.

The opportunity to provide reparations to communities of color is coupled with the opportunity to support affirmative action initiative 1000, which recently received enough signatures to be placed on the November 2019 ballot in Washington State. Initiate 1000, if enacted, will repeal legislation blocking affirmative action, which will positively impact minority owned businesses and the communities they serve.

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