by Mekalyn Rose
Editor in Chief
This is the second article of a two part series discussing drug decriminalization and its implications for Portugal, the United States and Mexico. Part One can be found here.
Portugal’s [decriminalization] methods are drastically different from the increasingly strengthened War on Drugs in the United States, where over half a million people die from prescribed, legal and illicit drugs combined every year. The question is, if Portugal has been so successful in combating their own drug epidemic with these methods, why has the United States been so slow––even resistant––to follow suit?
It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Understanding current U.S. motivations behind domestic drug policy warrants taking a look at why it all started.
On the surface, draconian style laws in the United States in regards to the War on Drugs seem to boast a noble mission of promoting widespread health and eliminating crime. However, the historical underbelly of drug policy reveals highly political and racial motivations for the enactment of laws. Today, the United States faces a raging opioid epidemic with an unsustainable influx of incarceration, which points to one key point: something isn’t working. In order to move forward in molding policies that do work, it’s important to recognize how we got here and what went wrong.
The Road to Radicalization: Origins of Drug Policies
The first push against drugs in the United States came in 1875. Shortly after the arrival of male Chinese workers during the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco passed a law against smoking opium. In 1909, the Anti-Opium Act made it a federal offense. These laws did not apply to the alternative method of injecting opiates, more commonly practiced by Whites; rather, they targeted a particularly Chinese practice. This was fueled by both the “perceived threat to white male workers” during a work shortage, as well as stories published as part of a fear campaign emphasizing the “Yellow Peril” led by William Randolph Hearst which “[claimed] white women were being seduced by Chinese men in the opium dens.”
Laws pertaining to cocaine use took a similar route of reasoning. In the late 1800s, cocaine was introduced to Black communities as dockworkers first used it to withstand up to seventy hour stretches of work before this method of coping was also adopted on the plantations. Many of the crimes committed by Black people in the South were subsequently blamed on cocaine addiction. In 1914, The New York Times published an article titled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace.” This article included the idea that heavier artillery was needed to take down a “cocaine-crazed negro,” further inciting racialized fear.
Twenty years later, new drug policies were directed towards Mexicans. Similarly to perceptions of cocaine effects, marijuana was claimed to give Mexicans “enormous strength” and that it would “take several men to handle one man,” statements left unsupported by any noteworthy evidence. Nevertheless, The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited its use or sale as a method of controlling the surge of immigrants following the Mexican Revolution, who were accustomed to using it as a medicinal plant.
Fast forward to the 1970s and marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, but for an entirely different reason. In 1994, John Ehrlichman––the former domestic policy advisor under President Nixon––admitted in an interview that the War on Drugs, which was speed-rolled during Nixon’s presidency in the ‘70s, was politically motivated against Nixon’s antiwar and Black opponents.
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.
It would seem that the debate of whether or not to reexamine our drug laws would end there, as history has reflected “how deeply embedded drugs are in our cultural frame of reference, the background ‘unconscious’ of our society where reactions are formed prior to conscious reflection.” However, both the cultural stigma against illicit drugs and political motivations continue to release a message of drug demonization and prohibition that constitutes an ideology the United States attempts to force onto its citizens and allies.
The Costs of Suppression and Regulation
Mexican President Vicente Fox has discussed the failed War on Drugs and U.S. denial of its own mistakes within a prohibitionist past, calling for a new paradigm. Ironically enough, the effort to curb illegal drug use turned out to be the very catalyst to create a breeding ground for drug trafficking. It wasn’t until after opiates, cocaine and marijuana were criminalized within the United States that the lucrative drug trade “materialized south of the U.S.-Mexico border.” Today, the United States faces a daunting realization. Almost half a century since Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs and nearly one trillion government dollars have been spent, efforts have adversely culminated into the antithesis of the “Land of the Free” with an estimated 450,000 people incarcerated for drug related offenses in 2016, compared to around 40,900 prisoners in 1980.
Notably, when it comes to marijuana, public opinion has begun to shift. Nine states and Washington D.C. have legalized both recreational and medical cannabis use and research on health benefits have produced many positive results. Despite this progress, the conversation of legalization, let alone decriminalization, usually doesn’t apply to other drugs and the legalization of cannabis––especially in California––has had an unintended consequence for the drug trade coming out of Mexico. Illegal substances create a market and cannabis is no longer profitable, at least not for the cartels. Now, heroin is the new market and U.S. pharmaceutical companies are partly to blame.
The current opioid epidemic can be traced back to a public health system saturated with the very substance that incited the original drug laws: opioids. The United States has a “pain” problem. In 2015, it was reported that around 92 million people, or 38% of the U.S. population, took a prescribed opioid painkiller. Despite a lack of pain reported in the last couple of decades, “sales of prescription opioids in the United States nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014.” While painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin have proven highly effective in treating pain, their abuse potential is significant. Around 4-6% of people who misuse their prescriptions turn to heroin, which happens to be a “cheaper and more powerful” alternative.
Questioning Current Approaches to Drug Policy
So, what do these changes reveal about current approaches? Will there always be another drug exploited to profit off the masses? History will indicate yes, unless society forgoes the fear and taboo of illicit drugs long enough to discuss honestly the realities of human culture and address the issue of drugs as a whole. Drugs have always been incorporated into human society and it is unrealistic to push a goal of complete eradication, nor is it always straightforward to define the line between safe drugs and dangerous ones. Anything used beyond the scope of necessity increases risk, as the abuse of opioid prescriptions indicates.
There is also no proof that the decriminalization policies used in Portugal will provide the United States with the same positive results. Some counter arguments cite the massive size difference in population and the cyclical nature of drug epidemics that cannot be helped by policy. However, it is maintained that “much of the American approach to drug policy is based on speculation, fear-mongering, and outdated methodologies and ideologies, instead of the empirical evidence that allowed the Portuguese task force to focus on specifics of poverty.” Today, there is growing support for decriminalization, backed by both the United Nations and World Health Organization.
Finally, the question remains why the United States has appeared resistant to change. Among several possible reasons, propagandist belief systems have shaped our perspective and knowledge of drugs, private prisons profit off drug crime, pharmaceutical companies benefit from addiction and language such as “druggie” and “junkie” continue to promote the dehumanization of people seeking help. A culture of shame replaced by a society of well-being would alter the label of “criminal” to “ill,” provide greater avenues for seeking help, allow for valuable medical testing and free up law enforcement to focus on bigger issues and improve their relationship with communities. Like Portugal in the 1980s, the United States is reaching a point of desperation. The rate of change is dependent upon our willingness to question the foundation of our current viewpoints and how to implement laws or strategies founded on principles of health and public good instead of racial or political underpinnings. Perhaps then the focus will be less on the thickness of physical chains and more on the alleviation of psychological ones on the road to healing.
Image by Anne Worner