Drug prohibition - the illegality of many psychoactive substances - is an accepted norm in the UK, although this hasn’t been the case for long.
In 1971, Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs Act; the first major national prohibition legislation, and the cornerstone of the British war on drugs. A few amendments have been added since then, particularly in regards to ‘legal highs’, but overall, the essence of the law has remained the same for the past 42 years. It is no wonder that prohibition is so widely accepted; the majority of people in Britain were born after this Act was introduced, and many do not remember a time before it. For this reason, it is vital for people today to realise the relatively recent root of drug policy - as a tool of discriminatory state oppression in the United States.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”, said Harry Anslinger, the narcotics commissioner in the early 20th Century who was foremost responsible for the prohibition of cannabis in the US, “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races”. Similar racist myths were delivered to the white American public at the time, and they became terrified that opium incites the “Chinamen’s wiles” and that, in the words of one US doctor, “the negro who has [...] formed the cocaine habit seems absolutely beyond redemption”.
It was important for the US to introduce laws aimed at subjugating ethnic minorities, because as laws of racial segregation were wearing away, the government desired a legal and less overtly discriminatory way to criminalise sections of society and maintain the established social hierarchy. This is still evident in the US today, where statistics show that black and white Americans consume and sell drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for doing so. Since the beginning, drug policies have not truly been about controlling drugs, they have been about controlling people.
The US pushed for global prohibition of a number of substances, but without being able to intrude on the laws of sovereign states, it used the most effective available tool - the League of Nations. The League was the precursor to the United Nations, and formed at the end of World War I when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
This peace treaty brought order and stability to warring nations, but what many may not know is that it heralded a beginning to international drug control. All states who ratified this treaty in 1919 agreed to a short and discreet note within Article 23: “[signatory nations] will entrust the League [of Nations] with the general supervision over [...] illegal drugs”. After World War II, the League dissolved, and the United Nations took control of international law, and introduced the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which has defined prohibition ever since.
Today, in Britain, the oppressive legacy of the war on drugs lives on. Black Britons are six times more likely to be searched for drugs than their white counterparts, and are twice as likely to be criminally charged - rather than receive a warning - for possession. However, unlike the US, Britain does not have a long history of racism (at least on our own soil). The victims of the war on drugs in Britain are predominantly the working class - be they black, white or Asian. The manner in which the war on drugs is carried out protects the wealthy from prosecution; exemplified by the late Eva Rausing, from a billionaire family, who only received a caution in 2008 for the possession of 2.5g of heroin and 60g of cocaine. This sharply contrasts with the case of Daniel Richardson, a 23-year-old Morrison’s worker, who was jailed for four years in August after cocaine was found in his work bag.
Last week, Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton made headlines by claiming that drug prohibition in the UK has “comprehensively failed” and legislation to enforce it has “put billions into the hands of villains”. This week the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy put out a report calling for the consideration of drugs as an issue of public health issue rather than a matter for the criminal justice system. Drug addicts should be “treated and cared for, not criminalised”, the report stated.
However, regardless of scientific evidence and growingly progressive public opinion, countless Britons, who never harmed anyone in their lives, have been systematically jailed alongside murderers and rapists for 42 years. Just as racist American leaders once used prohibition to subjugate ethnic minorities, the current British government is using prohibition to keep the working class in their place. Prohibition is the penalisation of individuals because of their personal life choices; drug use is one of the only victimless crimes in British law. It is high time for Britain to withdraw from the UN Single Convention, and to repeal the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act.
Long before his country began criminalising lifestyle choices, Abraham Lincoln remarked on prohibition; “[it] goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control mans' appetite through legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not even crimes".
Avinash Tharoor is an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance.