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From Misinformation to Mass Incarceration: The Role of Racism in Drug Policy Hysteria

June 06, 2024

Authored by John Fabricius, Senior Engagement & Legislative Campaigner. Research & analysis assistance from Perplexity, an AI Language Model

At Dream.Org, we've witnessed the devastating impact of addiction firsthand. Many of us have experience with substance use disorder, incarceration, and the difficult journey of re-entry and recovery. This issue is close to our hearts. For over 50 years, the United States has waged a costly and ineffective "War on Drugs," pouring over a trillion dollars into enforcement, criminalization, and mass incarceration. Yet despite this enormous investment, we find ourselves amid yet another addiction crisis, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl and dangerous emerging adulterants such as veterinary sedative xylazine ravaging communities and ripping families apart. Clearly, our current approach is not just failing, but actively making the situation worse.

Continuing to rely on the same harsh, pro-carceral drug policies while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. At this critical juncture, with overdose deaths at record highs, it's time for a fundamentally new approach – one that recognizes substance use disorders as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

Early American Drug Freedom

In the early days of the United States, there were virtually no laws regulating or prohibiting drugs. Substances like opium, cocaine, and cannabis were widely available and could be purchased over the counter at pharmacies and general stores.

Drug use was viewed more as a personal choice, not a criminal matter. However, attitudes began to shift in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

We see the emergence of corporate, law enforcement, and big media interests come together to create fears about drug addiction, often tinged with racism and xenophobia, to create profit and control in society.

Racist 1800s Anti-Chinese Propaganda

In the late 1800s, anti-Chinese racism was spreading like wildfire across America, fueled by sensationalized newspaper stories that painted a scary picture of the "Yellow Peril."

These articles often depicted Chinese immigrants as dangerous drug dealers, running shady opium dens that lured in innocent Americans. Xenophobic headlines screamed about the "filth and disease" supposedly carried by Chinese workers, even though the claims were preposterous and there was no evidence to back them.

This fearmongering by the media fanned the flames of hatred and led to discriminatory laws that targeted Chinese immigrants, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The racist stereotype of Chinese people as opium-crazed criminals became a common trope, reflecting the deep-rooted prejudices of the time. Sadly, this kind of biased reporting created a climate of fear and mistrust that made life even harder for Chinese Americans already struggling against racism and exclusion.

William Randolph Hearst, DuPont Chemical, and the Racist Anti-Marijuana Campaign

In the 1930s, a powerful alliance emerged between media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont chemical company, both of whom had a vested interest in demonizing cannabis. Hearst, who owned a vast media empire, used his newspapers to spread sensationalized stories about marijuana, tapping into the same racist playbook that worked so well against Chinese immigrants in the 1800s.

His papers ran outrageous headlines about "reefer-crazed minorities" committing violent crimes, even though there was no evidence to support these claims. Hearst also backed the infamous propaganda film "Reefer Madness," which depicted pot smokers as crazed lunatics prone to murder and mayhem.

But Hearst had an ulterior motive beyond just selling papers. He owned extensive timber holdings, which he used to produce the newsprint for his publications. Hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant, posed a threat to his business as it could be used to make cheaper, more sustainable paper. By demonizing marijuana and conflating it with hemp, Hearst sought to eliminate this potential competition.

Meanwhile, DuPont had recently patented several synthetic products, including nylon, cellophane, and other plastics. They saw hemp, with its diverse uses in textiles, paper, and other industries, as a major threat to their burgeoning petrochemical business. DuPont had a strong financial incentive to push for the prohibition of cannabis, and they found a willing partner in Hearst.

Hearst and DuPont ran massive propaganda campaigns against marijuana. They used their influence in the media and government to push the narrative that this "devil weed" was a danger to society, preying on the public's fears and racist stereotypes. They even funded "research" that purported to show the harmful effects of cannabis use, while ignoring any potential medical benefits.

This unholy alliance between Hearst's sensationalistic media machine and DuPont's corporate interests, combined with the government's eagerness to control and criminalize, created a perfect storm. Their efforts culminated in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned cannabis under the guise of taxation. This law laid the groundwork for decades of prohibition, stigmatization, and mass incarceration.

Impact of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

Source: Marihuana Tax stamp - Obtained US Customs &amp; Border Patrol

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was a strategic move by the government to effectively criminalize marijuana without an outright ban. By imposing an exorbitant tax on the sale and use of cannabis, the act made it financially prohibitive for most people to afford. This approach allowed the government to sidestep direct prohibition while still severely restricting access to marijuana. It wasn't until the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that marijuana was officially classified as an illegal substance under federal law.

Psychedelics Scare 1960s-70s

In the 1960s and 70s, the government's anti-drug efforts shifted focus to psychedelic drugs like LSD, which exploded in popularity among young people. These mind-altering substances were linked to the anti-war, hippie counterculture movement, with its message of peace, love, and rebellion against authority. At first, researchers were excited about the potential of LSD for treating mental health issues, but as recreational use skyrocketed, the government cracked down hard.

By 1968, LSD was banned and harsh penalties were put in place, even though the drug wasn't considered physically addictive. PCP, known as "angel dust," also emerged as a new super-drug that gave users superhuman strength.

The media sensationalized stories of people on psychedelics jumping out of windows or going crazy, fueling public fears. Despite the scare tactics, many young people continued to experiment with these drugs as a form of self-discovery and a way to "expand their minds." The government's response was to ramp up anti-drug education campaigns and increase penalties, setting the stage for the full-blown War on Drugs that would dominate the next few decades.

Nixon Declares Drug War

In 1971, President Richard Nixon officially declared a "War on Drugs," calling drug abuse "public enemy number one." He dramatically increased funding for drug control agencies and pushed for strict enforcement. This marked the beginning of an era of zero tolerance and harsh penalties for drug offenses. Nixon's drug war was like a military campaign, with a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 to coordinate the fight, like a general leading an army into battle.

The focus was on punishment rather than treatment, with longer sentences and mandatory minimums for drug crimes. This tough approach fell hardest on minority communities, especially African Americans. Even though drug use rates were similar across races, Black people were far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and harshly sentenced. It was like the old racist playbook from the 1800s and 1930s was dusted off and reused, with drugs as the excuse to target certain groups.

Nixon's drug war set the tone for decades to come, with each new president trying to outdo the last in being "tough on crime." The prison population exploded as minor drug offenses led to long sentences, tearing families apart and damaging communities. The roots of this "zero tolerance" approach can be traced back to Nixon's fateful declaration in 1971, which fundamentally changed how America viewed and responded to drug use and addiction.

Reagan's Cocaine Crusades

In the 1980s, cocaine use exploded in the United States, driven by its glamorization in entertainment and an insatiable demand. South American cartels flooded the market, despite President Reagan's efforts to combat trafficking by funding anti-drug operations in countries like Colombia. First Lady Nancy Reagan launched the "Just Say No" campaign, but the crack epidemic ravaged inner-city Black communities. Crack, a cheap and highly addictive form of cocaine, fueled violence and family breakdown. The government responded with harsh mandatory minimum sentences, disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic low-level offenders.

Source: Texas National Security Review

Meanwhile, cocaine remained a status symbol among the wealthy and famous, highlighting the drug's disparate impact. Reagan's policies in Latin America, such as supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, allegedly fueled drug trafficking as groups used profits to fund conflicts. The "War on Drugs" became an intractable problem, failing to curb cocaine use while devastating minority communities through tough-on-crime policies and discriminatory enforcement. The consequences of this era continue to reverberate today.

Crack Scare Fuels Panic

In the 1980s, a new drug swept through America's inner cities like a tidal wave of destruction – crack cocaine. This cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine ravaged Black communities, leaving a trail of broken lives and shattered families in its wake. But instead of treating this as a public health crisis, the media and politicians whipped up a moral panic, demonizing crack users as "super predators" and pushing for harsh criminal penalties.

Sensationalized news stories painted a picture of crack-fueled violence and depravity, with racist stereotypes of Black men as dangerous criminals preying on society. This "copaganda" fueled public fears and provided cover for draconian drug laws that disproportionately targeted communities of color.

One of the most blatantly racist official acts of government since the Dred Scott decision was the passing of the 100:1 crack cocaine sentencing laws that disproportionately targeted the Black community. The media spread stories of so-called "crack babies," intentionally demonizing and othering Black Americans while creating hysteria in society. Politicians like Joe Biden made dehumanizing comments about "Gang leaders," "super-predators," and "marauders" assaulting his mother to justify draconian penalties in a thinly veiled reference to Black and Brown communities from the floor of the Senate.

Biden's Harsh Drug Laws

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with former CIA Director George H.W. Bush in the White House, then-Senator Joe Biden played a key role in crafting some of the most draconian anti-drug legislation in American history. The Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, along with the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, ushered in an era of harsh mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration that devastated communities, especially those of color. Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a driving force behind these laws that prioritized punishment over rehabilitation and disproportionately targeted crack cocaine offenses. The 1986 Act created a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, with crack penalties falling much more heavily on Black Americans.

The 1994 Crime Bill, which Biden helped write, further escalated the drug war with provisions like "three strikes" laws, expanded death penalty offenses, and billions in funding for new prisons. These policies fueled an explosion in the prison population, tearing apart families and decimating entire neighborhoods.

Looking back, it's clear that these laws were misguided and deeply harmful, reflecting the "tough on crime" hysteria of the era rather than evidence-based approaches to public safety and drug policy. The consequences are still being felt today, with a legacy of shattered communities, racial inequities, and a bloated criminal justice system in desperate need of reform.

1990s Meth Madness Scare

In the 1990s and early 2000s, a new wave of drugs, led by methamphetamine and designer drugs like MDMA (ecstasy), swept across America. Meth quickly gained popularity, especially in rural areas, due to its cheap production using over-the-counter cold medicines and toxic chemicals. The government responded with shock campaigns like "Faces of Meth," which featured grisly before-and-after photos of addicts to deter potential users, portraying them as zombies with rotten teeth and scabby skin.

Law enforcement cracked down hard on meth labs, busting thousands in small towns nationwide, while media outlets sensationalized the dangers of these "clan labs." Despite the scary propaganda, meth use continued to rise, fueled by its affordability and intense high, ravaging communities in the rural Midwest and South and leaving behind broken families, increased crime rates, and environmental destruction.

Meanwhile, club drugs like ecstasy gained popularity in the rave culture, carrying risks including dehydration, heatstroke, and the potential for adulterated pills. The government responded with harsh enforcement and fearmongering, yielding mixed results. While some labs were shut down and addicts were scared straight, the root causes of drug abuse – such as poverty, despair, and lack of opportunity – went largely unaddressed, setting the stage for future waves of addiction.

Opioid Crisis Hits Home

By the early 2010s, the prescription opioid epidemic was no longer limited to stereotypical "junkies" or people of color. Middle-class whites, including suburban soccer moms and pastors' kids, were falling victim to OxyContin and other painkillers. This shattered the image of addicts as "others" and revealed that addiction could happen to anyone, regardless of neighborhood or family background.

The shift in understanding led to calls for compassion, treatment, and public health solutions instead of harsh criminal penalties. The opioid crisis exposed deep flaws and inequities in America's approach to drug use and forced many to confront their biases about addiction.

Fentanyl's Deadly New Threat

In the late 2010s, a terrifying new wave of drugs hit the streets, led by the incredibly potent synthetic opioids fentanyl and xylazine. Fentanyl, 50-100 times stronger than morphine, could cause a deadly overdose with just a tiny amount. As overdose deaths skyrocketed across the country, law enforcement and media fell back into old habits of fear-mongering and demonization, spreading wild stories of cops overdosing from merely touching fentanyl, despite experts debunking such claims. It was reminiscent of the "Reefer Madness" days, with exaggerated warnings of a "fentanyl epidemic" that could kill with a single grain.

The scary truth was that fentanyl and other synthetics were indeed causing record numbers of deaths as they flooded the illegal drug supply. Due to their potency and low cost of production, dealers began mixing fentanyl into heroin, cocaine, and fake prescription pills, often without the users' knowledge. To make matters worse, xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, also started appearing in the drug supply, increasing the risk of deadly overdoses when combined with fentanyl. The one-two punch of fentanyl and xylazine caught communities off guard as the death toll mounted.

Despite the very real dangers, the media and law enforcement too often resorted to the same old playbook of hype and stigma instead of treating the crisis as a public health issue. False reports of contact overdoses spread unnecessary panic, while the focus on criminalization over harm reduction only exacerbated the problem. The fentanyl and xylazine surge served as a stark reminder that in the face of new and evolving drug threats, America still hadn't learned from past mistakes when it came to responding with compassion and science instead of fear.

The Fear-mongering Playbook & Manufacturing Moral Panic

Corporations, law enforcement, and media throughout history have repeatedly used fear-mongering and manufactured consent to demonize specific drugs and the people associated with them. They follow the same playbook of creating moral panics to justify harsh crackdowns on marginalized communities, from the anti-Chinese racism fueled by sensationalized stories of opium dens in the 1800s to the propaganda film "Reefer Madness" that pushed outrageous claims about marijuana and Mexican immigrants, paving the way for cannabis prohibition.

Even as the opioid crisis hit white America, authorities spread false reports of police overdosing from trace fentanyl exposure, echoing past "copaganda." The media consistently manufactures consent for harsh drug policies by preying on society's fears and biases, using hyperbolic danger warnings and dehumanizing language to create a perceived crisis requiring extreme measures. This cynical tactic criminalizes certain groups rather than treating addiction as a public health issue. Despite changing times, this toxic pattern of fearmongering and scapegoating persists as a way to manufacture support for the failed War on Drugs.

Breaking the Cycle: A New Approach

At Dream.Org, we advocate for a compassionate, evidence-based approach to addiction that prioritizes health over criminalization. By investing in treatment, addressing root causes, and amplifying impacted voices, we can expose fearmongering tactics and build a future where everyone has the opportunity to heal and thrive. Together, let's work towards a world beyond the failed War on Drugs.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.