The policy formerly known as the War on Drugs has been widely criticized in recent years. I have been involved in drug policy reform activism in the past, and I still believe many of these criticisms are well-founded. However, I have been disappointed to see anti-Drug War rhetoric focus more on race and victimology as it has recently. The currently popular race angle is one of the weakest arguments against drug prohibition and is only supported by societal taboos against more honest examination of the issue. What follows is based on my own experience in this area.
I first became interested in the subject in high school, when I first heard of marijuana and started reading about the marijuana laws online. Knowing very little about race or crime at the time, I was outraged by what I found, which seemed to be corruption, “racism”
and fanaticism far beyond the norms of politics. I felt like a detective and found it fascinating to learn how I had been deceived. I was also personally insulted by the knowledge that there were laws telling me what I could not put into my own body. I wrote several papers for school and many articles for various websites, and also
did various other low-level work for several activist organizations.
During all this time I had very little contact with the opposition. I never paid much attention to the views of law enforcement on the issue, with the exception of those in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a pro-legalization group full of mostly former law enforcement officials. I knew that top anti-drug officials such as Barry McCaffrey had been known for making outrageous claims, and that official anti-drug propaganda was laughable. Their side’s distortion of the numbers was often noted and was even the subject of an entire book entitled Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics. However, I read very little writing from the prohibitionist side. “The War on Drugs has never been about drugs,” says an anti-prohibitionist documentary released in 2012, and I believe this is true but not quite in the sense the director intended.
Growing up, I had absorbed the usual liberal line on race. All conflict between Whites and others was the fault of Whites. “Racists” were evil people who we should be ashamed to even share a national history with; references to them normally included an expression of something like rage or disgust. In our society we can say things about “bigots” that could probably get us prosecuted if we said them about people who had actually wronged us personally, and I accepted this as normal. I attended a private high school, where I met a white teacher from South Africa. She felt that the African National Congress’s terrorist attacks were justified simply because the victims were “racist,” and appeared to have no shame about saying so. This was at a Quaker school, although few of the students adhered to the religion.
I was never given any reason at all to believe that Whites and other races were fundamentally equal or similar. It was simply assumed that they were somehow the same, and that equal life outcomes between Blacks and Whites would thus be fair. This was so obvious that it was practically never stated explicitly, let alone argued for rationally. For a very long time, I did not question this, and strained my mind to ignore the evidence of my own senses concerning the dramatic differences in intelligence between Blacks and Whites. Jared Taylor’s
comment that “it is pleasant to feel oneself superior to mean-spirited conservatives” applies here. Naturally, I never met anyone who openly disagreed with the standard view, and this meant that I could have a sort of pleasure in being a righteous opponent of evil without the risk of ever facing that evil in reality.
It is often alleged, not only by drug policy reform organizations but others such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, that the War on Drugs is “racist.” The title of a 2012 book by the Black law professor and attorney Michelle Alexander was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This complaint is partly based on more explicitly racial propaganda which served to support the drug prohibition laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and partly on the current “disparate impact” of the drug laws on blacks and Hispanics. Blacks have long been far more likely than whites to be arrested or incarcerated on drug charges, with blacks about four times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges according to 2010 data. It was implied, and sometimes stated more explicitly, that the behaviors police should be focusing on in this context were not significantly different between the races.
The issue of predatory crime and criminals was rarely mentioned in the anti-prohibitionist literature except to suggest that it was exacerbated by prohibition. At most there was a reference “fears of crime,” including early
1900s propaganda themes such as “Negro cocaine fiends,” creatures which allegedly could not be stopped with the usual caliber of bullet. Similar propaganda was mentioned in connection with opium smoking by Chinese and marijuana use by Mexican immigrants, but the question of how or if these people’s behavior actually differed from that of native Whites outside of drug use was not seriously raised. I read of H.R. Haldeman’s infamous quote that in President Nixon’s opinion, “...the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to,” and had the response I had been taught to have. I saw all of this as “racist” and proof of the absurdity of the whole anti-drug project.
It did not occur to me to seriously consider the character of many people involved on what Bill Hicks would call the winning side of the War on Drugs. The natural thing was to assume that the claims about the connection between drugs and violence or other antisocial behavior were at best rumors developed by the fevered imaginations of racist anti-drug fanatics. I had certainly learned of the corruption of many who worked on the prohibitionist side, and of infamous examples of brutality such as the drug treatment program Straight Inc. I had also read about the shady legal (arguably illegal) maneuevers which were the foundation of drug prohibition. If I ever thought about the offenders, though, it was only to feel outraged by their treatment. I was even proud to think that I did not care about whose interests I was defending or what type of people they were.
In one book I cannot recall the name of, there was a quote from a gang member on why he
and his associates engaged in violence. The author was trying to argue that there was more behind the violence than the pressures of prohibition. Not only did I not give it much credence at the time, but I felt racist just to be reading it, and tried to put it out of my mind. The offender’s description was something like “you know, we be just funnin’, gunnin’ and funnin’.” In other words they shot people for the lulz. This was at odds with one anti-prohibitionist explanation for much of the violence of the drug market, namely the lack of access to courts to settle their differences peacefully. It did not
occur to me that these were not the type of people to prefer the briefcase to the handgun method of dispute resolution.
I was initially puzzled when I read about black leaders in Congress going along with the hysteria around crack cocaine in the 1980s. Most of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, including the infamous 100-1 disparity in mandatory minimum sentences between crack and powder cocaine. Similar support for other anti-drug policies has come from the CBC and many other
blacks over the course of the Drug War, and this has included essentially blaming crack for crime. I knew that the usually reported effects of cocaine—crack or powder—were not as dramatic as popularly claimed, and that no drug could simply make respectable people into criminals. Again, I did not read between the lines.
I had more hints of what was really going on, which I similarly did not think much of. One article in the compilation After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, edited by Timothy Lynch, was written by a former law enforcement officer. Although a supporter of drug policy reform himself, the author explained that the charge that they were
targeting and incarcerating people solely for drug possession was laughed at by police. They only targeted suspected dealers for arrest, but found that it was difficult to prove a distribution charge in court, while possession was easy. This accounted for the figures1 which some on our side took to mean that the police were mainly wasting their time on harmless users. This should have been a hint to me that offenders have likely committed many offenses for which they were not convicted or even charged, so the frequent references to “nonviolent drug offenders” were not presenting the full picture.
I do not doubt that the War on Drugs has punished some people who were no threat to society. I assume Norm Stamper is telling the truth when he discusses his experience as a DEA informant, stating that those he informed on were normal college students rather than dangerous criminals. But not everyone can be targeting peaceful college kids, particularly in areas where college education is practically unheard of.
I cannot point to a single “eureka” moment in which I changed my views on crime or race. I was however particularly moved by Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, a collection of essays on the British underclass. Dalrymple, a former prison doctor, argued against drug legalization in a debate in 2012. The people in the neighborhoods Dalrymple discusses are White, but no less dysfunctional for it, similar to what is on display on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Long-term gainful employment is rare, domestic violence is the norm, and local police have essentially given up prosecuting many serious offenses. I understood while reading this that any responsible person living in or around this sort of hell would rightly fear for their safety or even their lives. I also understood that poverty and general backwardness was not a condition imposed on some by the rest of society, but the product of a self-destructive worldview which could not but guarantee essentially Third-World living conditions. These were people who not only showed very little interest in improving their own situation but violently discouraged the more sensible among them from bettering themselves.
Reading Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow, a Virginia psychiatrist who ran an intensive attitude-modification program for inmates, was also important. Samenow described the predominant personality type among criminals, explaining that they love to hear and repeat sociological excuses for their crimes. The mantra of “society is at fault” allows them to deny responsibility for their actions, which frees them from any obligation to change their behavior, let alone the attitudes behind it. The norm for these people is a victim mentality, often coupled with an aversion to work and a grandiose conception of themselves. With this mindset, of course, they feel little obligation to respect the rights of others. By rejecting their excuses and focusing on correcting their distorted worldview, he had some success in changing the behavior of a large minority of participants in his program.
In light of all this, I could not see such people as victims over whose treatment I should feel outraged. On the contrary, I could understand the desperation of police and citizens to do something about this incredible backwardness.
Rhetorical victory over many prohibitionists such as former DEA head Asa Hutchinson is remarkably easy, as can be seen in various articles, books and televised debates. At first I thought this was simply because our side was overwhelmingly righteous and the other side was a bunch of idiotic bigots. As it turns out, it is essentially a fight against a disarmed opponent.
The character of violent criminals, let alone Black or underclass criminals in particular, is off the table as a topic in public discussion of the drug policies. This is despite it being the most compelling justification for a policy which manages to put away many of these people, restricting their ability to commit further crimes. Explaining that we are dealing with people from a different culture who have no interest in being a productive part of our society would be out of the question. It would violate the orthodox view that all men are created equal, and that society is at fault when they do not
turn out that way. The taboo against “hate” is also relevant, as an honest description of these people’s attitudes and behavior would inspire at least contempt or disgust in many normal people.
Not being able to honestly describe the nature of the people they are targeting leaves the prohibitionist side defenseless in debate. They are required to fall back on exaggerations of the dangers of drugs themselves when the issue is essentially the dangers of criminals, which to a large
extent means Blacks. An honest desire to remove violent offenders from the neighborhoods they prey on ends up looking like some capricious crusade to eradicate offensive plant products.
I have never had much contact with the criminal type in person to the best of my knowledge, but neither have I ever found any real reason to believe that those that have are lying. Growing up, I was exposed to a fearful worldview which essentially stated that, especially concerning anything political, it was wiser to suspect someone of lying to you than to believe them. Of course, I never applied this rule consistently, but I did to some degree believe it. It did not occur to me for some time that we live in what has been described as a “trust society,” in stark contrast to much of the world. Despite our declining trust in institutions, people in the West can still count on a high degree of honest behavior in day-to-day life, and without this we would be much more like Somalia.
Without a suspicious attitude towards much of society it is much more difficult to maintain an egalitarian worldview. The idea that the races are equal in criminality or in other critical personality traits implies belief in massive dishonesty in a “racist” direction, both by those who have had the most experience of different races in their own lives and by generations of scientists. I recall reading the popular article by Thomas Jackson, “What It’s Like to Teach Black Children,” and finding a seemingly endless string of comments from many different people claiming that their own experience had been similar to his, along with various details. One comment accused all of the others of lying, and another even accused the author of never having any experience teaching blacks. Another commenter sarcastically responded with “yeah, all those people are lying.” There was no dramatic epiphany, but I remember at this point thinking about the absurdity of my “consider the source” pretensions. Of course, in reading about the issue further, I found the evidence against the orthodox view on race to be just as overwhelming as I had earlier found the arguments against the War on Drugs.
It is true that the effects of illegal drugs themselves are commonly exaggerated. Many anti-drug authorities have made absurd claims about drugs, including methamphetamine, and about their own effectiveness in combating them. The average drug user is not a violent threat to others, even while under the influence. None of this means, though, that the authorities are imagining the threat of certain people for whom the best the prosecution can get is a drug possession charge.
Many violent criminals use and/or sell drugs. They often belong to a culture which does not accept values which many Whites assume are universal. For whatever reason, this is an environment in which cooperation with the police is not the norm. Unlike some offenses, drug possession does not require a victim or other witnesses to assist the police, so cases can be prosecuted regardless. The War on Drugs is not some malicious attempt to punish Blacks out of jealousy for their resemblance to chocolate. Drug prohibition, despite its flaws, is an understandable
attempt to put away dangerous people.
- See pages 14, 15, 39.