by Tyler Rowe
If that wasn’t provocative enough for you, let’s take a trip down memory lane looking at drug policy, including racially motivated drug policy, in the United States. In the early 20th century, cannabis was one of the first drugs that became outlawed as a precursor to what eventually became known as the “War on Drugs.” Minority populations in the U.S. were the primary users of cannabis. For example, many migrant Mexican-Americans smoked the cannabis plant as a way to relax after a hard day of work, much like white blue-collar workers may have relaxed with a beer, or executives with a cocktail, their drugs of choice. This use of cannabis, however, correlated with a sweeping reform of state drugs laws.
As the temperance movement in the United States reached its zenith in the years following World War I, the 18thAmendment was ratified in 1919, effectively making the sale, production, and distribution of alcohol illegal until 1933. What we saw during the prohibition of this drug (alcohol) was a massive expansion of government overreach that created criminals out of normally law-abiding citizens and fostered unsafe illicit markets. This failed prohibition on alcohol should have been an instructive tale of the folly of outlawing drug use among adults.
Fast forward to 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was signed into law by U.S. President Richard Nixon. Being in large part a response to the counterculture revolution that was growing in association with the Civil Rights movement and antiestablishment protests of the Vietnam War, the CSA created a new, arbitrary schedule for the federal government to classify drugs.
Into the most stringent bucket of prohibited substances, Schedule I, went cannabis and many psychedelic drugs that had been studied since the 1950s and had risen in popularity for their medical and therapeutic potential. Schedule I proclaims that all the drugs listed in it have “high risk for potential abuse and no acceptable medical use.” Soon thereafter, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was given carte blanche to enforce regulations against the manufacture, sale, and use of a multitude of drugs throughout the country, in coordination with local law enforcement.
As the 1980s arrived, the federal government doubled down on the War on Drugs, fighting the war on two fronts, with increased bureaucratic oversight and a messaging campaign in the media. Mandatory minimum sentences were strengthened, while scare stories and anecdotes from law enforcement arrest reports crept into newspapers and TV news programs across the country, increasing the stigma attached with adult drug use.
Crack cocaine, which is the vaporized version of powder cocaine, and pharmacologically the same substance, was assigned sentencing for use and sale that outpaced 100-to-1 that of powder cocaine. The only explanation for the sentencing disparity is that crack was cheaper and used at a much higher rate by urban Black communities. Nobody in government, and few in a society of white privilege, seemed to blink at the overtly racist sentencing policy as the War on Drugs was in full effect.
In the 1990s, public opinion started to change. Americans began to question the inconsistency of widespread alcohol and nicotine use, while other substances were heavily controlled by the government, and some substances were relegated to limited prescription use without justification. In 1996, California became the first state to allow for legal medical cannabis use, in defiance of federal law. Maine soon followed suit in 1999.
Following the advent of medical cannabis in many states, widespread legalization began in the 21st century, again on the state level. As of today, medical cannabis is now available in 48 states, and more than half the states have fully legalized or decriminalized cannabis use for recreational purposes. Some localities and the state of Oregon moved in 2020 to decriminalize the use of a multitude of naturally occurring substances, in moves that look like the early days of cannabis decriminalization.
These moves are paving the way to increased research and treatment with psychoactive substances of a variety of mental disorders, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. In addition to the perpetuation of racist policy, another real tragedy of massive drug prohibition is that it has prevented several generations from access to potential treatment of mental health issues. The stigmas that have accompanied adult drug use have done massive harm by putting non-violent so-called “criminals,” often non-white individuals, in jail for crimes with no victims. These stigmas have caused bad actors in the illicit market to combine opioids such as heroin with much more potent derivatives such as fentanyl, which have contributed to avoidable overdoses and deaths that were complicated by cross-toxicities of several drugs interacting within a user’s body.
If a tiny fraction of the money spent on drug enforcement in this country over the last 50 years had instead been diverted to treatment of substance use disorder, hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. If media had covered substance use disorder as a treatable pattern of behavior that occurred hand in hand with other contributing factors such as poverty, relationship issues, and dosing mistakes, instead of sensationalizing anecdotes of outlying substance use, the stigmas related to responsible and therapeutic uses could have been largely made irrelevant.
Libertarian-minded citizens rightly question whether government should decide what consenting adults put into their bodies or otherwise consume. Many drug overdose toxicology reports include alcohol as a contributing factor in deaths, yet there hasn’t been popular support in outlawing alcohol for some 80 years. Most users of so-called “hard drugs” don’t ever become dependent on the substances, and most psychedelic drugs have a natural tendency against dependent use. Libertarians have long led on this issue and will continue to fight for the rights of the individual on this matter and for individual rights on every matter.
For too long, we’ve put people behind bars and created unsafe markets for the exchange of substances, violating the rights of the individual and the right to try new medical treatments. Rasmussen released a poll in 2018 citing that merely “10% of Americans think the War on Drugs is working.” For such an unpopular policy, the federal government has been unsurprisingly slow to act. The pushback will have to come from the states, and I expect Maine—whose motto is “Dirigo” or “I lead”—to be an early adopter once again on reducing the stigma and decriminalizing the use of naturally-occurring drugs. Like most of the wars the U.S. government engages in, the War on Drugs has been an abject failure.