Since the 1800’s, drug laws have been implemented, increasing incarceration rates at an alarming rate. Indeed, of the 2.3 million people incarcerated all over America, which is higher than any other place in the world, 1 and 5 of them is locked up for drug offenses. Of these detained for drug offenses, 46.9% are Black or Latino, despite making up only 31.5% of the U.S population. Such discrepancy leads to questioning. Why is this the case? Is it because Blacks and Latinos are simply more involved in crimes? Could there be more to it than what meets the eye?

Historically speaking, patterns suggest that white people regulate and implement certain drug policies to better serve their agenda. In fact, over the course of the past two hundred years, such occurrence can be noticed at least twice, with Chinese and Blacks. Throughout history, the United States, predominantly white, has felt threatened by minorities and often resorts to discriminatory policies to deal with their fears.

During the 1800s in San Francisco, Chinese immigrants were desperate for a job which meant that they were cheaper labor. However, when they were given jobs, they were seen as ‘stealing’ them from white people. (Brown and Barganier, 2018) As a result anti-Chinese sentiment increased and a remedy was sought to ‘control’ the immigrants. While the Chinese immigrated to the United States because of the need for labor in industry, they were also associated to opium consumption as Chinatown housed many opium dens. For this reason, white people thought it would be opportune to control them by policing and regulating more carefully opium dens.

As such, in 1875, San Francisco implemented the first anti-drug law. (Fisher, 2014) But, as Elizabeth Brown and George Barganier, authors of Race and Crime Geographies of Injustice, astutely point out, “the law did not outlaw opium use, only opium dens. Ingestion in other settings, which was a common practice in upper-class white society, continued unregulated.” Indeed, white upper-class citizens used the drug as well but only the Chinese immigrants were subject to legal prosecution … This serves to show just how keen white society was set on putting down the Chinese threat to serve their own agenda. By outlawing a particularity of the Chinese immigrants, the government aided in criminalizing the Chinese which ended up undercutting and denigrating their labor, enabling white control over “newly emerging industries”. (Brown and Barganier, 2018)

Similarly, industrialization had also caused black migration towards “Northern communities … which created white anxiety about racial boundaries”.  (Brown and Barganier, 2018) And once again, drug prohibition was used against an ethnicity to serve whites. At the time, cocaine was considered to have medicinal attributes and was popular: broadly promoted by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud it was used to cure toothaches, (U.S National Library of Medicine) and to treat upset stomachs as the original recipe of Coca-cola contained cocaine. As such, cocaine was majoritarily consumed by white upper class Americans and too expensive for most Black people to afford at the time.(Brown and Barganier, 2018) But why then did cocaine so quickly become prohibited and associated to black people?

In the early 1900s, a grossly inaccurate caricature of a black person that became known as the ‘negro cocaine fiend’ emerged. Additionally, racist commentary by the American Pharmaceutical Journal regarding cocaine use by Black people was published in 1901. It suggested that black people were “made wild by cocaine”. Furthermore, a New York Times article in 1914 entitled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are a New Southern Menace” commented that “the drug (cocaine) produces several other conditions that make the ‘fiend’ a peculiarly dangerous criminal. (…) Bullets fired into vital parts, that would stop a sane man in his tracks, fail to check the ‘fiend’.” The danger of these statements is that they suggested that Black people under the influence are no longer human but super-humans and therefore require controlling. As a result, the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed in 1914 to better regulate the drug problems in the United States. Therefore, ironically, pinning the cocaine as a problem on Black people served to regulate cocaine when Black people were not even the ones consuming it.


A look at the history of certain drug policies gives us more insight into the ways that drugs are regulated today and why minorities make up such a large percentage of those imprisoned for drug-related crimes. It leads us to question the intent of policing certain drugs in a time when mass incarceration rates are soaring. Why are these policies used to incriminate minorities still in place today? Like the American judicial system, is yours angled against minorities? Since these drugs were not all considered ‘dangerous’ before regulation and were used as tools to crush minorities should the laws be revised? Coming to the realization of the systemic racism that plagues the United States has left me feeling a sense of shame because I feel accountable for these awful people’s action. Perhaps the recent legalization of marijuana in some states and countries is a start …

Bibliography:

Berglund, Barbara. “Opium Dens in Chinatown .” FoundSF, www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Opium_Dens_in_Chinatown.

“Cocaine Toothache Drops.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101400866-img.

“Drug War Statistics.” Drug Policy Alliance, www.drugpolicy.org/issues/drug-war-statistics.

Fisher, George. “The Drug War at 100.” Stanford Law School, 19 Dec. 2014, law.stanford.edu/2014/12/19/the-drug-war-at-100/.

Hart, Carl L. “How the Myth of the ‘Negro Cocaine Fiend’ Helped Shape American Drug Policy.” The Nation, 29 June 2015, www.thenation.com/article/how-myth-negro-cocaine-fiend-helped-shape-american-drug-policy/.

“The History of Cocaine – Where Does Cocaine Come from? – Drug-Free World.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World, www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/cocaine/a-short-history.html.

Wagner, Peter, and Wendy Sawyer. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 | Prison Policy Initiative, 14 Mar. 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html.

Images links :

http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101400866

https://www.amazon.com/Cocaine-Fiends-White-Vintage-Poster/dp/B01KL6X20C

californiainnocenceproject.org/2018/06/the-mass-incarceration-epidemic
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