The War on Drugs is a tool of state oppression

Punishment falls harder, and more regularly, on the poor than the privileged

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Teaching Assistants needed in Chester

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teaching Assistants needed in Cheshire...

Male PE Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits