The Drugging of the American Mind
By Isiah Smith | Nov. 28, 2020
America’s war on drugs was a fraud. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, it was a “tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Nothing, that is, but a pretext to punish disfavored individuals and groups. Addicts needing medical care were treated like hardened criminals and thrown into prisons. Murderers often received less prison time than drug offenders.
Law enforcers victimized urban communities while drug use and trafficking flourished in white suburban communities. The current decriminalization movement for simple possession came about only after authorities had to concede that, “Hey, you know what? White people are doing drugs, too! And they’re doing them a lot! Maybe it’s a medical problem, not a criminal one.” Really?
Privately, the government admitted this “war” wasn’t real. The parameters of America’s war on drugs have a distant echo that correlates closely with other official efforts to exercise raw power over disfavored groups. Government claims of moral outrage should always be met with general skepticism.
Consider this: Research shows that Blacks comprise 62.7 percent, and whites 36.7 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prison, even though federal surveys and other data show that this disparity bears little relation to racial differences in the frequencies of drug offenses. Selective prosecution is as old as the American legal system.
This disparity was always intentional. Privately, the Nixon Administration made an astounding admission. President Nixon launched his war on drugs in 1971, declaring drug abuse “public enemy No. 1.” In an interview with Harper’s magazine in 2016, however, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman painted an entirely different picture:
“The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and [B]lack people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or [B]lacks, but we could get the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. Then by criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities, weaken their leaders. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The lying didn’t just start with the Nixon Administration. Billy Holiday started shooting heroin in her mid-20s. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics assigned several agents to Lady Day’s case during the late 1940s. They busted her on multiple occasions, including a 1947 conviction that sent her to Alderson Federal Prison Camp, in West Virginia, for almost a year.
By the time Holiday finally collapsed, in 1959, she was 44 and beyond recovery. She was emaciated, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and covered in old track marks. After getting checked into Metropolitan Hospital, narcotics agents found (or planted) a tinfoil pouch of heroin in her hospital room. As Leslie Jamison shares in her 2018 book, “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath,” Holiday was handcuffed to her bed, two policemen stationed by the door. Her mug shot and fingerprints were taken in that room at Metropolitan.
The drug agents were reading from a racist script that viewed Black users as deviant criminals, but white users as victims needing medical attention. Harry Anslinger, one of the agents assigned to Holiday’s case, hounded her incessantly over the years. At the same time he was hunting Holiday, he reportedly told Judy Garland that she should kick her heroin habit by taking longer vacations between movie shoots!
On November 6, 1982, Mercury Morris, the former Miami Dolphins star running back, was convicted of trafficking in cocaine. The facts tell a different story. After his football career was over, Morris became addicted to cocaine. Hearing this, and desiring a big drug bust in a city awash in cocaine, DEA agents repeatedly urged Morris to obtain cocaine for them. When he finally delivered, he was arrested, convicted of trafficking, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After serving three years, he was released on probation.
This writer has relatives in Miami who still believe Morris was a drug trafficker; such is the strength of government propaganda.
In 1994, a man named Michael Thomas received a life sentence in Michigan for selling a pound of marijuana; today he would be considered a successful entrepreneur. The list goes on.
Now, however, the drug abuse problem in America has gotten worse. The government estimates that 10 percent of U.S. adults have drug-use disorders at some point in their lives. This estimate is partly based on self-reporting and is probably low. Drug use and sex are the most frequently lied-about activities in America.
After the government finally realized that whites also abused drugs, they decided users needed compassion and treatment, not punishment. Red and blue states are increasingly voting to liberalize drug laws. Oregon in the most recent election even passed a referendum that would decriminalize possession of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
As Michelle Alexander wrote in her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of [black] people in [America] than the war on drugs.”
American’s war on drugs is a stark reminder that the government’s actions are seldom animated by purity of purpose. Just ask its real victims, Black and brown communities.
Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.