As more research emerges on cannabis and psychedelic substances like psilocybin, it’s becoming nearly impossible to ignore their medical merits.
And as we look back on the history of these substances in the West, it’s likewise impossible to avoid concluding that the War on Drugs was not only a failure, but also a testament to a long hihasstory of systemic racism in this country. America’s so-called War on Drugs not only inappropriately conflated cannabis and psychedelics with harder, addictive, and generally more destructive substances like heroin and crack cocaine, but it also unjustly targeted and demonized immigrants, Black people, and people of color.
Thankfully, Americans (and the world) are ready to move beyond this unsavory chapter of our history. We are adopting anti-racist morals and to returning cannabis and psychedelic substances to their rightful place in medicine.
Let’s take a closer look at how we got here.
Harry J. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA) during the Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations. Perhaps as a ploy to ensure his own job security once Prohibition was over, Anslinger fabricated the War on Cannabis (marijuana) in the 1930’s.
Anslinger argued the scientifically unproven idea that cannabis induces violent behavior. This fraudulent message was captured in the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness.
Anslinger also believed that cannabis made people of color “forget their place” in society, saying, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Anslinger has also been quoted as having said:
“Most [marijuana smokers] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
In the first year after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, Blacks were roughly three times more likely than Whites to be arrested for narcotic drug law violations. Mexicans were almost nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charges.
The criminalization of cannabis was further “convenient” to the government when the anti-Vietnam War hippies took a liking to the plant.
Nixon and the Controlled Substances Act
Between the years of 1953 and 1973, the United States federal government spent $4 million researching LSD in 116 “above ground” studies involving 1,700 subjects. The government also spent an unknown sum on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s classified research.
The merits of LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelic substances were nevertheless dismissed with the Nixon administration’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Nixon’s anti-drug stance likely had less to do with a legitimate concern for public safety than his disdain for people of color and the anti-war left.
John Daniel Ehrlichman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs during the Nixon years, summarized it like this:
“The Nixon White House… had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The 1970 Controlled Substances Act created five schedules used to classify drugs based on their abuse potential, accepted medical use, safety, and potential for addiction. Drugs placed in Schedule I became illegal overnight. To this day, Schedule I substances include heroin, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and cannabis.
The media popularized the term “War on Drugs” after a press conference on June 18, 1971, in which Nixon referred to drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created.
The Reagan Years
A crack cocaine epidemic ravaged American inner cities in the 1980’s. Something truly needed to be done to help save the communities affected by the addiction epidemic, and then-president Ronald Reagan believed he had the solution: He was going to get tough on drug users.
In 1986, Reagan passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, substantially increasing the number of drug offenses – including those related to cannabis – with mandatory minimum sentencing. This zero-tolerance policy directly contributed to an increase in nonviolent drug arrests and higher rates of incarceration in America.
The Act instituted a five-year minimum sentence – without parole – for those convicted of possessing either five grams of crack cocaine, a drug more commonly used by poor Blacks, or 500 grams of powder cocaine, an expensive preparation more commonly used by affluent Caucasians. This penalty disparity of 100:1 has been criticized as inherently racist, and certainly affected the Black community more adversely than the White. Prior to the Act, African Americans were subject to 11% higher federal sentences for drug possession/sales than Whites; by 1990, it was 49% higher.
What Did the War Accomplish?
The War on Drugs did not stop people from using cannabis and psychedelic substances. What the War did do, however, was destroy people’s lives, make the privatized prison and bail bonds industries rich, separate families, and thwart decades of research.
Fortunately, we are waking up to the story, and we are rewriting it. Most Americans understand now that cannabis is nothing like the substance depicted in the propaganda film Reefer Madness. And a new wave of research and books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind are setting the record straight on psychedelics.
The day when cannabis, LSD, peyote, and psilocybin are removed from the DEA’s Schedule I is not far away.
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A longer version of this article by Dr. Erica Zelfand was first published in Psychedelia Magazine.