Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based non-profit organization working to end the War on Drugs.Nadelmann was born in New[…]

Inevitably drug laws will be disproportionately enforced against the poor, younger and darker-skinned members of society.

Ethan Nadelmann: If you ask the question why are some drugs legal and others illegal.  Why are cigarettes and alcohol legal and pharmaceuticals in the middle and these other drugs – marijuana and, you know, other ones illegal?  You know, some people sort of inherently assume well this must be because there was a thoughtful consideration of the relative risks of drugs and, you know – but then that can’t be because we know alcohol is more associated with violence than almost any illegal drugs.  And cigarettes are more addictive than any of the illegal drugs.  I mean, heroin addicts routinely say it’s harder to quit cigarettes than it is to quit heroin.

So, it’s not as if there was ever any kind of National Academy of Science that a hundred years ago decided that these drugs – these ones had to be illegal and those ones legal.  And it’s not as if this is in the Bible or in the Code of Hammurabi.  I mean, nobody was making legal distinctions among many of these drugs back in – until the twentieth century essentially.

So if you ask how and why this distinction got made, what you realize when you look at the history is it has almost nothing to do with the relative risks of these drugs and almost everything to do with who used and who was perceived to use these drugs, right.  So there’s – you know, back in the 1870s when the majority of opiate consumers were middle aged white women, you know – throughout the country using them for their aches and pains and for their, you know, the time of the month and menopause and there was no aspirin.  There was no penicillin.  You know, lots of diarrhea because of bad sanitation and nothing stops you up like opiates.  I mean, millions – many more – a much higher percentage of the population back then used opiates than now.

But nobody thought about criminalizing it because nobody wanted to put, you know, auntie or grandma behind bars, right.  But then when the Chinese started coming to the country in large numbers in the 1870s and 80s and, you know, working on the railroads and working in the mines and working in factories and, you know – and then going back home at the end of the night to smoke up a little opium the way they did in the old country.  The same way White people were having a couple of whiskeys in the evening.

And that’s when you got the first opium prohibition laws.  In Nevada, in California in the 1870s and 80s directed at the Chinese minorities.  It was all about the fear – what would those Chinamen with their opium do to our precious women.  You know, addicting them and seducing them and turning them into sex slaves and all this sort of stuff.

The first anti-cocaine laws were in the South in the early part of the twentieth century directed at black men working on the docks and the fear.  You know, what would happen to those black men when they took that white powder up their black noses and forgot their proper place in society.  You know, going out – the first time anybody ever said that, you know, the cops needed a 38 would not bring down a Negro crazed on cocaine.  You needed a 45.

I mean, the New York Times, the paper of record, reporting this stuff as fact back in those days.  That’s when you got the first cocaine prohibition laws.  The first marijuana prohibition laws were in the Midwest and the Southwest directed at Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans taking the good jobs from the good white people.  Going back home to their communities, smoking a little of that funny smoking, you know, marijuana, reefer cigarette.  And once again the fear, what would this minority do to our precious women and children.

So, I mean, it’s always been about that.  I mean even alcohol prohibition was to some extent a broader conflict between the white white Americans and the not so white white Americans, right. The white white Americans coming from northern and western Europe in the eighteenth, early nineteenth century with all of their stuff.  And then the not so white white Americans coming from southern Europe and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bringing with them their beer and their vino and, you know, their schlivowitz, right.  I mean, it was all about that type of conflict.

And it wasn’t as if the white white Americans weren’t also consuming.  It’s just many of them knew that when you criminalize a vice that is engaged in by a huge minority of the population and you leave it inevitably to the discretion of law enforcement as to how to enforce those laws, those laws are not typically gonna be enforced against the whiter and wealthier and more affluent or middle class members of society.

Inevitably those laws will be disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and darker skinned members of society.  So to some very good extent that’s really what the war on drugs has been about. When people talk about it as the new Jim Crow in this wonderful book by Michelle Alexander with that title, it’s about understanding that, you know, the war on drugs is not just about race and it’s not just about targeting black and brown young people because, God knows, I mean, millions of white people have been swept up in the war on drugs as well.

But it is disproportionately and overwhelmingly about that from its origins to its enforcement to who gets victimized today.

Produced/Directed by Jonathan Fowler, Daniel Honan and Dillon Fitton