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

Neuroscience Journalist
Over a year ago

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.