It is easy to become sidetracked by emotion into the peripheries of the debate on illicit drugs. This only makes it harder to find a real solution to this tragedy that has harmed and continues to threaten to harm the lives of many Filipinos. Whether these are the victims themselves, the families of these victims and those in law enforcement who have lost their lives in this declared war on drugs, it does not matter. They are all victims. Rather than point fingers and engage in useless social media battles colored by political partisanship, it is probably time to step back and start to realize that we are all after the same goal – a long-term, rational approach to the problems that drug use brings. A logical starting point would be to educate ourselves. If anything, we owe this those who have already been victimized because to fight among ourselves would only make the justice that they seek even that more elusive. This is my contribution.
If we can associate a year as to when the drug wars began it was this year – 1914. This was the year when the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed by the US Congress. The law provided “for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax upon all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes.” While not outrightly banning opium and cocaine, the regulation did lead to a decline particularly in the use of opium. Yet, it also had the unintended consequence of starting the illicit drug trade. A report commissioned by US Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo in 1918-19 indicated that drugs were being smuggled by sea and across the Mexican and Canadian borders into the United States.
The drama that presaged the passage of the Harrison Act into law was nothing if not incredible. A New York Times article published on February 8, 1914 (image at the beginning of the article) associated murders by “Negroes” to the use of cocaine. You can still read most of the article and you’d probably come away amused by some of the claims made there. This fear of the “Negro” menace was by no means the only fear stoked by those who drafted this bill to push its passage – there was also the fear of opium-smoking “Chinamen” who were supposedly seducing white women.
This only, however, served as a preview to what would come about 2 decades later. Here we meet Harry Anslinger.
Harry J. Anslinger was the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under the Department of Treasury. This bureau had once been the Department of Prohibition which had lost its own war against alcohol. With a shrinking government department slowly sinking into oblivion, Anslinger had to find a new enemy to justify his department’s existence. At that time cocaine and opium were not such problems that they had been and that cocaine is now.
Despite all the manner of evidence presented to him, Anslinger focused on banning marijuana which at that time was legal. Anslinger himself had a previously benign position on marijuana going only as far as to consider it a nuisance. Yet, almost overnight he changed his view. Why? Because he believed that the biggest users of cannabis in the United States at that time were Mexican immigrants and African-Americans. In testimony in front of the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. Congress he stated that he had been told of “colored students at the University of Minn(esota) partying with (white) female students and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy”.
Then there was the case of Victor Lacata. The story was that here was this fine young 21-year old man who one day smoked marijuana, went into a “marihuana dream” and hacked his mother, his father, two brothers and sister to death with an axe. Anslinger rode this story stoking fear among Americans about this weed which could made your son go “loco” and hack you to pieces.
The result was the Marihuana Act of 1937 passed by the US Congress on August 2, 1937.
No amount of opposition from the scientific and medical community against the banning of marijuana could overcome the sensationalized, race-based fiction that Harry J. Anslinger had created. Sadly, it later came out that Victor Lacata had long suffered from “acute and chronic” insanity.
So there you go. Many have always assumed that this War on Drugs began as a result of a conscious, scientific and rational decision based on facts. That this War on Drugs was founded on the need to protect our children, reduce addiction and eliminate the violence associated with the illicit drug trade.
Tragically, it is clear that this War on Drugs was mainly a war against African-Americans, Chinese and Mexican immigrants. The beginning of this War on Drugs was nothing more than a cover for racial discrimination. A war based on fiction.
[To be continued]