HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Let’s step back a bit to begin to put this whole thing in historical context.
Okay so I went back 12,000 years actually, to the dawn of civilization: the earliest known use of cannabis was at this time in China.
Cannabis was used for fiber, paper, and food — and was quite possibly the world’s first agricultural crop (according to Carl Sagan). The medical uses of cannabis were recorded sometime around 3000 BC in China—it was used for the purpose of anesthesia. Additional medical records in ancient India, Africa, and Europe cite its uses for treating infections, glaucoma, and anxiety. Medical, religious, and recreational uses of cannabis were part of normal use in many cultures around the world — until the early twentieth century.
What much later became known as the Drug War really began in these early years, the 1930s. After prohibition of alcohol had came and went, Harry Ansliger who headed up the Federal Bureau of Narcotics worried that his agency would be downsized and shifted his attention to cannabis. Ansliger told the public that “the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.” Through propaganda like these posters, films, and other government and privately funded efforts, cannabis became, in the mainstream consciousness, a dangerous drug. Anyone associated with the drug — immigrants, artists, musicians — became vilified…
The hunt for Billie Holiday and other musicians had an explicitly racist agenda. It became through the subsequent decades — especially during the Nixon years — a cornerstone of what writer Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow, with reference to the extraordinary percentage of the African-American community in prison. Drugs and drug charges were deliberately used to incriminate and disenfranchise millions of physically and intellectually diverse people.
Richard Nixon ramped up efforts (and coined the term ‘War on Drugs’) during his presidency. Nixon’s top advisor, John Ehrlichman, later admitted that their administration used the crack-down on drugs for political gain: "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... 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." In 1972, when Nixon was up for re-election, he created the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement which would later become the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
In October of 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared that the government was going to “win the war on drugs.” He initiated a “planned, concerted campaign' against all drugs-'hard, soft or otherwise.” The public relations campaign put forth by the Reagan administration succeeded in creating in the eyes of the public, an enemy. The enemy wasn’t really “drugs,” it was people who used drugs, more specifically, black drug users. The discrepancy in penalties for “crack” vs “cocaine,” the militarization of police forces, disproportionate arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences all contributed to the mass incarceration of African Americans.In 1980 there were 50,000 people in prison for drug charges, now there are over 500,000. African Americans are nearly ten times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
The effects of the War on Drugs in the U.S. has also had tremendous international implications. Both the Bush administrations and the Clinton administration poured billions of dollars into efforts to Latin fight the war on drugs in abroad, particularly in Latin America. Money has been used to spray toxic herbicides on coca plants and other crops and to arm militaries to go to war against their citizens. These efforts did not curb drug use in the U.S. and only increased violence in Central and South America and Mexico.
After 40 years of failed policy and over 1 trillion dollars later, attitudes among citizens and leaders around the globe are shifting. Drugs are gradually transitioning from a criminal issue to a health issue, which is where they belong. President Santos of Colombia recently asked the Organization of American States to convene a dialogue of international experts on the drugs situation in the western hemisphere. They published this report, which makes the point that unless drug laws are changed, much greater harm could be seen in the coming decades.
Countries are beginning to legalize “drugs,” beginning with cannabis. Uruguay legalized marijuana last year, the first country in Latin America to do so. Other Latin American nations such as Bolivia have implemented national policies that emphasise the human rights of victims of the drug trade, who are mainly poor coca producers and drug users.
The legalization of cannabis is about so much more than access to medicine. It marks the beginning of a shift toward sane and humane global policies that we believe will lead to greater peace, safety, and public health.