As we confront the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the first US federal drug control law, it is difficult not to be haunted by current events. What is happening today in contemporary policing reflects the legacies produced by drug control and its origins in the deep racial animosities and inequities that contributed to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914. This centennial commemoration should provoke national soul-searching about the drug war’s contribution to racialized policing and its ties to economic inequality in American society. It certainly is not cause for celebration.
Listen to two accounts – separated by a hundred years, sharing too much.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 turns 100 years old tomorrow. The new federal law regulated traffic in opiates and cocaine and produced lasting effects for US and international drug policy (you can read the full text here). Today, four celebrated scholars offer 100-word reflections on first 100 years of the Harrison Act.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is the first in a two-part series by contributing editor Adam Rathge. The series is drawn from Rathge’s dissertation, which examines the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States by analyzing the development and transformation of medical discourse, regulatory processes, and social concerns surrounding cannabis between 1840 and 1940.
Robocalls. Partisan attack ads. Pundit punditry. It’s midterm election time in America! As this post goes live, Nate Silver’s projections over at FiveThirtyEight suggest the GOP will take back the Senate. But that’s not the only measure of intrigue to be settled on November 4th. In Alaska and Oregon, voters will decide whether to implement legislation modeled on the laws passed by Colorado and Washington in 2012, making marijuana sales legal for adults in those states. Voters in Washington, D.C. will also decide on marijuana legalization (with a ballot measure that will make it legal to possess or grow small amounts, but not buy or sell it). Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana. And if we take a quick look ahead to 2016, we find a half-dozen additional states considering marijuana legalization initiatives.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this recent turn toward medicalization and legalization are the contradictions it inspires. For example, if “soft legalization” passes in Washington, D.C. next month, and Congress allows it to stand, marijuana possession would be legal throughout the city, but acquiring it would still require a series of acts that remain illegal. In fact, according to federal law, none of these ballot initiatives are legal. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is “considered among the most dangerous drugs” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Despite this, twenty three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. Moreover, following the implementation of recreational legalization in Colorado this year, the state now allows the sale of marijuana to any adult over the age of twenty one while doctors continue to write marijuana prescriptions for patients. Cannabis is both medicine and intoxicant. All this has led the Justice Department to recently clarify its policies as the nation lurches forward toward what many consider a tipping point for widespread marijuana legalization. As such, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at how we got here in the first place. And I mean way back. A hundred and fifty years back.
Recent Points inductee Kyle Bridge devoted some of his M.A. research to drug use trends and crime rates in Jacksonville, Florida. Here he presents a modified and abridged version of his work.
Since at least the early twentieth century, as regular Points readers will know, many Americans have associated illicit drug use with criminality or otherwise deviant behavior. This holds especially true in the last fifty years of U.S. history, and some politicians have made significant hay with the issue. Combating drug abuse was a prominent plank in Richard Nixon’s 1968 platform. “Narcotics are a modern curse of American youth,” he claimed in a campaign speech, and in his first term the President committed to an “all-out assault” on what he labeled “public enemy number-one.” National worries were based on a legitimate correlation: in 1969 users made up a significant portion if not the majority of criminal perpetrators in metro areas including Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, New York, and Boston.
As a student of history and lifelong Jacksonville resident (actually Callahan, a small town just north of the city), I was curious about the local dynamic of this association, and how it changed over time. The Jacksonville public regarded drug use with an unsurprising wariness, similar to Americans nationwide. Still, policing drug use warranted little attention in local politics until around 1995, almost a half-decade after crime rates peaked during the crack epidemic. In fact new attention to drug use surfaced three years into what would become an almost entirely consistent twenty-year crime decline. By the turn of the millennium, the drug arrest rate had jumped to 1,115.18 per 100,000, almost doubling rates from the height of the crack epidemic (never higher than 689.62).
On May 31, 2014, the White House issued a cryptic press release, a brief letter from President Obama to Congress. The letter announced that the US government had decided to levy economic sanctions against Victor Cerrano, Jose Umana, and Francisco Barros, three foreign individuals from Colombia, El Savador, and Cape Verde, respectively.
For some of us, it may be surprising to learn that the United States sometimes declares what amounts to an economic war  against individuals. If we survey the history of economic statecraft  from the Peloponnesian War, to Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo,  to the growing popularity of economic coercion since the 1970s, it’s clear that sanctions against non-states actors are a relatively new development (Baldwin 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, & Elliott 2007; Drezner 2003).
Today, such economic restrictions against individuals and entities (e.g. businesses, charities) are rapidly outpacing embargoes against states, and US non-sovereign targets currently number in the thousands. In the War on Terror, non-sovereign sanctions have also emerged as a critical instrument of non-military aggression in the form of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.  Those listed—either as SDNGT (global terror) or as a SDNK (global narcotics trafficker)– quickly find that they are essentially ‘locked out’ of the American economy and that their US assets are “frozen.” All US persons and organizations are prohibited from economically transacting with a SDN.
The concerted use of non-sovereign sanctions was pioneered in the War on Drugs, and not in the War on Terror. 
On February 28, 2013, the People’s Republic of China executed the Myanmese (Burmese) drug trafficker, Naw Kham (Ch. Nuo Kang 糯康, Th. Jai Norkham), and three associates for the 2011 murder of thirteen Chinese boatmen. What was notable about this particular capital case was the preceding live broadcast where cameras followed Naw Kham in his last hours until moments before his execution by lethal injection.
The state media CCTV footage, excerpts of which are available online, can seem slightly surreal. A little before his execution, the prisoner is shown in what looks like an office waiting room surrounded by fruit and snacks as if he were a guest. However, he is shown seated, facing what seems to be a large pink vomit bucket—an aberrant reminder of his impending fate. In the aftermath of the broadcasts, several human rights organizations as well as Chinese netizens criticized the state’s handling of this execution.
Although the human rights and capital punishment aspects of this case have been the objects of critical scrutiny, the international relations and substance policy issues have received far less attention in the media. The execution of four foreign traffickers, as well as the unprecedented multinational manhunt leading up to their arrest arguably represents the culmination of a ramped up Chinese war on drugs that is being waged domestically and, increasingly, internationally.
This past weekend alcohol and drug scholars across the globe descended upon London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to learn from each other about what they know best, alcohol and drugs. The interdisciplinary conference does much to encourage scholarship across lines of disciplinary specializations, but also, the nation-state. Below please find assorted notes from my time abroad:
Perhaps most noted for his work Andean Cocaine, Paul Gootenberg gave a keynote speech addressing the concept of blowback. Entitled “Controlling Cocaine? 1900-2000,” Gootenberg began with what might be considered an obvious truth for drug historians—that is, that if read from an historical perspective, the term “drug control” is an oxymoron. Throughout the 20th century, drug control often perpetuates the antithesis of control. Drug control efforts by the United States have bred more chaos, more illicit trade, more use, and worst of all, more violence. In supporting his claim, Gootenberg examined the ways in which United States efforts to control the global supply of cocaine produced various unintended consequences.
Originally an economic historian by trade, Gootenberg makes good use of global commodity chains to explain the story of cocaine and attempts at its control. In framing the long history of cocaine commodity chains and blowback, Gootenberg broke down the century into several distinct phases, each with specific unintended consequences. In the first forty years of the 20th century, particularly after 1914, the United States attempted to push anti-cocaine measures onto the international agenda. During this period, Andean trafficking in cocaine remained relatively benign, marginal, and nonviolent. Between 1948 and 1973, cocaine came to be increasingly criminalized as illicit networks began to shift outward from the Andean region in response to FBN attempts to crush production in the region. A pivotal moment in cocaine commodity chain development passed in 1960 when traffickers were exiled under the Cuban Revolution. These exiled traffickers quickly became a Pan-American Network of traffickers, thereby expanding the commodity network for cocaine traffic. Still though, Gootenberg carefully noted, the trade remained small and fairly peaceful through 1970. Read More »
Last week two prominent critics of the War on Drugs independently declared that their years spent witnessing the civil liberties abuses involved in enforcing drug policy left them largely unmoved by the exposure of the National Security Agency’s comprehensive, only secretly and ambiguously legal, telecom monitoring program.
David Simon and John Stossel are the most unlikely of proverbial bedfellows and, when it comes down to their actual positions, they are not really sharing a bed at all. Stossel is a libertarian who has never met a government program he couldn’t mock in the exasperated, contemptuous style he developed on ABC’s 20/20 and now plies for Fox News. He opened his piece inReason last week with familiar rhetoric about the ways “politicians abuse us.” Simon is a former newspaper reporter and the creator of Homicide, The Corner, and most famously, The Wire. Essentially a voice of the left, in his blog entry Simon made it clear how he feels about “libertarian selfishness,” in which “there’s never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility.”
Simon’s post went much deeper than Stossel’s column, which argued mainly that the dangers of drugs have been exaggerated. Simon blasted through the struggle that some NSA critics have had marrying world-weariness (of course they’ve been spying on us) and anger by diagnosing instead full-blown myopia on the left. The basic legal and practical framework for telecom snooping has been in place for decades, he contends. It was established not in what we knew about the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, but in the wiretaps and home-raids of the war on drugs. Its abuses are not in some imagined future dystopia, but have been in plain sight, affecting real people.
If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue it’s because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain. Thus far, the sum of liberal argument against the NSA program amounts to a Maginot Line of legal ignorance, borrowed libertarian selfishness and positive proof that those who fear a civil liberties apocalypse and wish to fight against such were decades late to the fields where those battles actually rage. Shit, they’re still not in the right place.
When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized in efforts for reform to “take back their streets”. Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil. The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods. Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress. Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool. Read More »
Editor’s Note: Guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue returned from a recent conference entitled “From Punishment to Wellness: A Public Health Approach to Women and the War on Drugs” with some questions about the coherence of the public health paradigm.
To celebrate the release of a joint report published by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) entitled a Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, WORTH (Women on The Rise Telling Herstory) organized a conference focusing on women and the War on Drugs. The conference brought together formerly incarcerated women, direct service providers, researchers, policy analysts, and advocates and activists to discuss how to move from a criminalization model of drug use to a public health model. “The war on drugs is more than a failure,” the organizers announced. “It has swollen the prison system, left millions of people with criminal records and damaged communities.” The one-day event was aimed at exploring “practical examples of public health alternatives,” through discussions around four main themes: prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and safety.
What was interesting to me during the panel sessions and the break-out groups was the relative absence of public health professionals and clinicians in these discussions (one notable exception was Professor Lynn Roberts of Hunter College’s Department of Community Health). While “public health” was one of the buzzwords of the day, it seemed to stand in for other things that the conference attendees were actually more interested in talking about: structural violence, poverty, racism, patriarchy—often referred to as the “structural determinants of health.” One possibility is that “public health” was being used rhetorically as a means to talk publicly and politically about race, class, gender and various axes of social inequality under “public health’s” cloak of respectability.
There was some discussion of specific legislation and public-health oriented programming by several of the speakers—for example, Good Samaritan Acts, needle exchange programs, the decriminalization of sex work, and bills against the criminalization of HIV status—but the conference neglected how the massive apparatus of the War on Drugs endeavor will be “public health-ified” on a large scale. What will be the unintended consequences of doing so?