Are America's Anti-Drug Laws Scientific? Or Are They Colonialist and Racist?

Neuroscience Journalist

American anti-drug laws need serious reevaluation, both because of how they came to be and because of how they affect drug users. Perhaps there is no better authority on the issue than Maia Szalavitz, a journalist fluent in the most recent neuroscientific research and herself a former drug addict. Understanding scientific research as she does, Szalavitz says American drug laws have little to do with science and everything to do with prevailing social attitudes, which have been at times colonialist and, more recently, institutionally racist.

There is no other possible explanation, for example, why marijuana use is more punishable than tobacco use, especially given the well-documented health harms of tobacco. Here, there is both a colonial legacy — southern tobacco farmers once sold their crop back to England — and a racist one, as anti-marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced on people of color. Moralizing justifications, such as marijuana making people lazy and unproductive, are empirically false.

There is also a fundamental paradox in how laws address addiction, defined as "compulsive behavior despite negative consequences," in that current anti-drug laws inflict negative consequences — fines, jail sentences, etc. — as a way to stop drug use. Addicts are not amoral rogues, says Szalavitz. They are people who are more than likely on the short end of society's stick.

At a time when the national economy is leaving behind the middle class, staying the course on national anti-drug policy will harm our fellow citizens more than help them, and the repercussions fall on them — and us.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Maia Szalavitz:  Our drug policy has really been traditionally based on racism and moralizing.  The reason that the currently illegal drugs are illegal has nothing to do with a scientific evaluation of the relative risks and benefits, otherwise you could never come up with a situation where marijuana is illegal and tobacco is legal.  We cannot make a rational argument for that.  That comes from racism and colonialism.  The drug laws were made in explicitly racist circumstances for explicitly racist reasons.  For example, the first anti-cocaine laws were made because cocaine supposedly made black men impervious to bullets and prone to getting involved with white women.  This is complete nonsense where there is no science to it whatsoever and yet it was published in the New York Times in the early 1900s.  So this is where our laws come from and we have to be honest about that and we have to stop pretending that there is some kind of rational basis for the laws that we currently have.

Then what we need to do is realize that you can't make policy based on I think it's bad for you to have unearned pleasure.  You have to make policy based on does this hurt you?  Does this hurt other people?  And that's where harm reduction comes from.  The basic idea of harm reduction is what policy will most reduce the harm related to drugs?  And once you start to focus on harm you have to look not only at harm associated with drugs but harm associated with drug policy.  And this is why so many harm reduction people rapidly become legalizers because the harm associated with drug prohibition has not produced the results that people would like.  It does not stop addiction.  It does not prevent kids from using drugs.  It makes the kids who use drugs be at higher risk of dying from them.  It doesn't save society's productivity by like keeping people from taking substances that will make them not work; it just doesn't work.  And when you think about it, if addiction is defined as compulsive behavior despite negative consequences and you're trying to use negative consequences in order to stop it, something is seriously wrong there.  So our drug policy has to acknowledge the reality that punishment doesn't fix addiction and that putting drug users in cages does nothing but worsen the problem and it doesn't deter kids.  This idea that like oh if we just really stigmatize this and make everybody hate drug users then kids will never use drugs.  Kids are going to do stupid risky things.  You want to reduce the chances that those things will kill them.  The idea that we can prevent adolescents from having sex or prevent adolescents from doing some kind of risky behavior is just absurd.  This comes out before humans even evolved.

Again, this is where comes back to racism.  Our image of the typical drug user or the typical drug addict is basically the same as our racist stereotype of whichever groups we happen to be targeting, so criminal, lying, manipulative, deceitful, you know, all of these things that we project onto other people and then stigmatize and attack them for we do the same with drug users.  Obviously if you make a behavior that someone feels is essential to their survival illegal, they are going to lie to protect that behavior.  That doesn't mean that they're fundamentally a dishonest person.

The reason that we continue to have these stereotypes about who drug users are is because of the ongoing racism of our society.  And until we acknowledge that like I am the typical drug user if there is such a thing.  I don't look like your stereotype but that doesn't mean that the stereotype is accurate.  So I think that's a really important thing that people really have to learn because for too long the media has enabled the racist view of addiction and has enabled people to sort of say I'm not the typical addict.  And I used to say that and then I realized wow that's like kind of racist.  It comes from images that we shouldn't of ever had.  So, I think that the way to get beyond that and the way to help people with addiction is to understand that people with addiction are not seeking extra pleasure, they are not hedonists who are just out there having so much fun using that you can't stop them unless you put them in jail.

People who get addicted, which are only ten to 20 percent of the people who use drugs like cocaine and heroin and prescription opioids, those people have problems.  The drugs seem like a solution to them.  Until we recognize that those people are speaking reasonably rationally to deal with emotional and psychological problems and sometimes economic problems, we are not going to solve this problem.  And one of the things that I think we're actually in denial about with regard to the opioid epidemic is that while big pharma certainly didn't do anything good here, to say that this is caused by Perdue pharma selling Oxycotton is to miss the fact that the people who are overwhelmingly becoming addicted are people who are either falling out of the middle class or never managed to get into it.  If you actually look at the economics of this problem, it's not that middle-class people certainly don't get addicted and it's not that rich people don't get addicted, it's just that if your life is despair and you feel like it will never get any better, which is often the case when you lose the American dream or you lose the hope for your future, opioids are going to become very attractive.  And the idea that we can solve this by taking away the supply is just ridiculous.

I mean as soon as we started cracking down on the pill mills we started seeing a rise on heroin use.  This is not an unpredictable outcome.  Since we supposedly believe that addiction is a disease why would we think that simply cutting off the supply from some patients like turning over like making a thousand people - if we take this doctor out there's a thousand people in withdraw now we don't provide any help for them, why are we thinking this is going to fix this problem and why are we thinking that an illicit market is not going to immediately grow up to satisfy that demand?  The people who – the other thing that's important economically in this is that drug dealing is a way to make a living.  And if you have a desperate unhappy people without jobs, some of whom want to self medicate and some of whom would just like to actually get some money, you are going to have a drug selling problem and you are not going to solve that problem by putting people in jail.