“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” — Harry J. Anslinger
We know that the war on drugs is racist. We know that black men are arrested for drugs disproportionately — 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. At any given time, 40 to 50 percent of black men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five are in jail, on probation, or have a warrant out for their arrest, overwhelmingly for drug offenses. (93) The US imprisons blacks at rates higher than South Africa during the apartheid. We know this. Some explain that we attempted to rein in harmful drugs while we, as a society, were still racist. I am here to shatter this illusion. We never started the war on drugs because of its harm. We started it because of racism. Drugs are not harmful. They are not this unique danger to our society that we need to oppress and rein in. I will be writing a series of essays tackling each of the myths haunting the war on drugs. In this essay, I will try to explore the origins of the war on drugs to demonstrate how it was racist from the beginning.
Harry Anslinger was the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Harry started the war on drugs because of racism, prejudice, and fear. He argued that marijuana made blacks unleash their lust for white women. (17) He claimed that blacks and Hispanics used more marijuana than whites. Anslinger and his people believed that cocaine turned blacks into superhuman hulks who could take bullets to the heart without flinching. “It was the official reason why the policed across the South increased the caliber of their guns.” (27) Anslinger hated jazz because it wasn’t white, or as he explained:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” — Harry J. Anslinger
He relentlessly cracked down on jazz musicians like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. In fact, Anslinger contributed to Billie Holiday’s addiction by planting drugs on her to make an example of the evil, black junkie. Yet, when Judy Garland confessed her drug use to him, he did not arrest her. This was the same with his friend, Joseph McCarthy, who also revealed to Harry his heroin addiction. Anslinger only had problems with non-whites.
Furthremore, Anslinger was afraid that the Chinese were after white women. He believed that the prevalence of drugs even after his repressive reign was due to a Chinese plot trying to corrupt White Americans. (43) As evident from his friendship with Joseph McCarthy, Anslinger was terrifed that the Chinese were trying to spread their communist poison throughout his beloved country. This might explain why he befriended Colonel White. White was Anslinger’s right hand man. He was Anslinger’s favorite subordinate and he was suspected of planting drugs on Billie Holiday – one of Harry’s favorite targets. White is also infamous for spiking womens’ drinks with drugs and strangling a Japanese man to death even though he wasn’t sure if he was a spy. White later bragged about it to his friends and had the picture of the poor man hanging on his wall. (28) These were the minds from which the war on drugs was born.
The war on drugs is racist. It has always been racist and is still racist. I kept this essay short, because I did not wish to bombard you with a slew of facts all at once. Instead, I will divide my argument into different parts that refer to each other. The first essay introduced us to the origin of the war on drugs. The second essay will cover the harms and costs of the war. The third and final essay will delineate the problem of addiction.
Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari