Exploring the Irrational Biases Behind the War on Drugs

Why have drug laws been disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and darker-skinned members of society?

Why are some drugs legal and others illegal?  Why are cigarettes and alcohol and pharmaceuticals legal and marijuana and other ones illegal?  Some people inherently assume this must be the result of a thoughtful consideration of the relative risks of drugs.

But that is obviously not the case because we know alcohol is more associated with violence than almost any illegal drug.  We know cigarettes are more addictive than any of the illegal drugs.  Heroin addicts routinely say it’s harder to quit cigarettes than it is to quit heroin.  

So, it’s not as if there was ever any kind of scientific assessment one hundred years ago that was made to determine that certain drugs had to be illegal and other ones legal.  And it’s not as if this is in the Bible or in the Code of Hammurabi.  Nobody was making legal distinctions among many of these drugs until the twentieth century essentially.

So how and why was this distinction made? When you look at the history it has almost nothing to do with the relative risks of these drugs and almost everything to do with who used and who was perceived to use these drugs.  Back in the 1870s when the majority of opiate consumers were middle aged white women, using them for their aches and pains when it was that time of the month or during menopause. There was no aspirin.  There was no penicillin.  There was lots of diarrhea because of bad sanitation. And nothing stops you up like opiates. So a much higher percentage of the population back then used opiates than now.

But nobody thought about criminalizing it because nobody wanted to put auntie or grandma behind bars.  But then the Chinese started coming to the country in large numbers in the 1870s and '80s, working on the railroads and working in the mines and working in factories. They would go back home at the end of the night to smoke up a little opium the way they did in the old country, the same way white people were having a couple of whiskeys in the evening.  

And that’s when you see the first opium prohibition laws, in Nevada, in California, in the 1870s and 80s, directed at the Chinese minorities.  It was all about fear: what would those Chinamen with their opium do to our precious women? You know, they would get them addicted and then seduce them and turn them into sex slaves and all that sort of stuff.

The first anti-cocaine laws were in the South in the early part of the twentieth century directed at black men working on the docks. Again, the fear was what would happen to those black men when they took that white powder up their black noses and forgot their proper place in society? People started saying "a 38 won't bring down a Negro crazed on cocaine.  The cops need a 45."  

The New York Times, the paper of record, reported this stuff as fact back in those days. That’s when you got the first cocaine prohibition laws.  The first marijuana prohibition laws were in the Midwest and the Southwest directed at Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans taking the good jobs from the good white people.  But it was, once again, the fear of what this minority would do to our precious women and children.

It’s always been about that.  Even alcohol prohibition was to some extent a broader conflict between the white-white Americans and the not-so-white white Americans.  The white-white Americans came from northern and western Europe in the eighteenth, early nineteenth century with all of their preferred stuff.  And then the not-so-white white Americans came from southern Europe and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bringing with them their beer and their vino and, you know, their slivovitz. 

It wasn’t as if the white-white Americans weren’t also consuming.  Many of them knew that when you criminalize a vice that is engaged in by a huge minority of the population and you leave it inevitably to the discretion of law enforcement as to how to enforce those laws, those laws are not typically going to be enforced against the whiter and wealthier and more affluent or middle class members of society.

Inevitably those laws will be disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and darker-skinned members of society.  So to a good extent that’s really what the war on drugs has been about. When people talk about it as "The New Jim Crow," as in the title of a wonderful book by Michelle Alexander, it’s about understanding that the war on drugs is not just about race and it’s not just about targeting black and brown young people because, God knows, millions of white people have been swept up in the war on drugs as well.  

But it is disproportionately and overwhelmingly about discrimination from its origins to its enforcement to who gets victimized today.


In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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Image: SRF
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  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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