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Ron Paul: Drug War In U.S. Has Racist Origins

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Ron Paul’s presidential campaign has spent the last two weeks dealing with the political consequences of the reemergence of racist newsletters that went out under his name in the 1980s and ‘90s. During that same time period, however, Paul also laid out an historical analysis of the racist roots of the drug war that accurately and honestly reflects its origins.

In 1988 Paul made a presidential campaign stop at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws while running on the Libertarian Party ticket. "What was so bad about the period from 1776 to 1914?" Paul wondered, referring to a time in American history when drugs were legal on the federal, and, in many towns, local level. "In the 20th Century, the doctors, like all business people, decided that there ought to be a monopoly. ‘If you wanted a little bit of codeine in your cough medicine, it would be much better if you come to me so I can charge you $25 for a prescription.'”

Paul, in a speech aired at the time on C-SPAN went on. “Before the 20th Century there was none of that and it was the medical profession as well as many other trade groups that agitated for the laws. And you know there’s a pretty good case made that this same concept was built in with racism as well. We do know that opium was used by the Chinese and the Chinese were not welcomed in this country,” Paul said. “We do know that the blacks at times use heroin, opium and the laws have been used against them. There have been times that it has been recognized that the Latin Americans use marijuana and the laws have been written against them. But lo and behold the drug that inebriates most of the members of Congress has not been touched because they're up there drinking alcohol.” (In the same speech, Paul delves into drug trafficking and the CIA, which I’ll cover in a follow-up article.)

For the book This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, I looked into the type of historical analysis Paul’s comment, which comes at roughly the 16-minute mark, represents, given that it is a fairly common interpretation of the origins of the drug war among its critics.

It holds up. The reaction of the American government, and its people, to drug use was -- and still is -- a complex mix of factors, involving lobbying by the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol industry, temperance advocates, and religious movements. Historically, the argument has played out -- and continues to play out -- amid a backdrop of racism and class antagonism. Racism and bigotry were generally not the drivers of prohibition movements, but instead were the weapons used by temperance advocates to achieve their ends. The movement to ban alcohol, for instance, gained its strongest adherents without resorting to bigotry, but when World War I broke out, the movement was quick to tie beer and booze to instantly despised German immigrants, pushing the effort over the Constitutional hump.

Paul’s history of Latin Americans’ involvement with marijuana is more or less accurate, though weed was popular among white soldiers and African Americans as well, particularly in the port city of New Orleans, where it infiltrated jazz culture. Its association with Latinos and African Americans was, in fact, used to demonize it.

When the West Indies banned slavery in the 1800s, plantations there began hiring workers from India. They brought cannabis with them, and recreational pot smoking soon became a part of everyday life on Jamaica and other nearby islands. In the early 19th century, thousands of Jamaicans traveled to Panama, Cuba, and Costa Rica looking for work and bringing pot with them. In the early 1900s, American workers building the Panama Canal were smoking it. They returned through New Orleans.

A military commission looked into the situation in 1932 -- which suggests that the trend must have started a good decade or more earlier -- and found that Panamanian farmers were growing marijuana and selling the excess to American soldiers. During the same period, around a million Mexicans migrated to the United States following the 1910 revolution in their homeland. They, too, smoked marijuana, and they, too, brought the practice with them across the border.

The Chinese were scapegoated too. Conventional wisdom holds that Chinese immigrants brought opium with them when they were shipped over to build the transcontinental railroad. But there is strong evidence that opium was plenty popular before they ever got here.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that there were just over 1,000 people born in Asia living in the United States in 1850, by which time the rise of opium was already well underway.

In 1827, the first year the federal government began tabulating opium imports, almost none was brought into the United States. Five years later, the number has climbed to around 50,000 pounds. In several years during the 1830s and early 1840s, importation peaked at more than 70,000 pounds. If a dose is less than half a gram -- and it can often be much less -- then 70,000 pounds would be enough for more than 30 million opium highs in a nation with an 1840 population of roughly 17 million. Importation statistics suggest that use continued to rise throughout the 1840s and '50s.

By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Asian-born immigrants living in the United States, and their entry into American culture certainly aided the growth of the opium trade.

The Chinese became symbols of opium abuse. The first American narcotics law was passed in San Francisco in 1878, and it targeted not opium but opium dens, which were run by Chinese immigrants and attracting a multicultural crowd. By 1885, opium was less socially acceptable than alcohol, which it had begun to replace only a half-century earlier. A New York Times article about a courtroom scene published that year displays the prevailing attitudes of the decade:

James Bradford...was nobbily attired in a tight-fitting Prince Albert coat, carried a new-market on his arm, and he held a silver-headed cane and a high hat in his hand. He was an ideal of the creature known as "dude." He denied having smoked the drug.

"Well, Officer Reynolds caught you in the place," said the court. "How do you account for that?"

"Well, Judge, to tell the truth," he replied faintly, "I was a little bit—a little bit—well, I must admit that I was full, and I don't know how I came to go into such a disreputable house."

"The officer further claims that you had an opium pipe in your mouth," said the magistrate. "What is your explanation of this charge?"

"That I can't tell," he answered meditatively, "unless some fellow put it in my mouth for a joke. I was full, you know, and they could have done anything they pleased without my knowing it."

Assistant District Attorney Purdy said that the case was a very clear one, and from the evidence he thought the prisoner guilty of the charge of selling opium to be smoked on the premises. He said he thought it was bad enough for a Chinaman to be charged with this offense, but it was a crime of more importance when one of our own race is caught in the act of selling this cursed drug, and he implored the court to show no leniency to the accused.

The opium den’s owner was sent away for three months and fined $500, which the Times reports was the highest penalty given to date in New York. Bradford got a $25 fine and 10 days in the city jail. "He was unable to pay his fine and he stepped down stairs a very crestfallen 'dude,'" the article notes.

As amusing as the story seems, its author is working with some seriously held assumptions: that opium use should be confined to the Chinese, that drinking -- or being "full" -- is more acceptable than getting high, and that opium is a "cursed drug."

Opium and alcohol are rather different experiences that don't mix -- either physically or psychically -- which might account for the dude's memory lapse. Thomas De Quincey, the popular author of the 1821 autobiography "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," describes it well: "The pleasure given by wine is always rapidly mounting…after which as rapidly it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight to ten hours: the first, to borrow a technical distinction from medicine, is a case of acute, the second of chronic, pleasure; the one is a flickering flame, the other a steady and equable glow. But the main distinction lies in this—that whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony."

At the time, little research had been done exploring the relationship between opium use and drinking. But there was at least one noteworthy study: an 1872 look at the opium boom by the Massachusetts State Board of Health. The reason for the dramatic upswing in opiate use, it concluded, wasn’t the Chinese or the Civil War -- it was the temperance movement.

This unintended consequence of the call for sobriety wasn't unique to the United States, the board found. "It is a significant fact ... that both in England and in this country, the total abstinence movement was almost immediately followed by an increased consumption of opium," it notes.

The study suggests that easy accessibility to the drug through pharmacies was part of the reason for the increase, but that many other sources existed as well. "Opium has been recently made from white poppies, cultivated for the purpose, in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, the annual production being estimated by hundreds of pounds, and this has generally been absorbed in the communities where it is made. It has also been brought here from Florida and Louisiana, while comparatively large quantities are regularly sent east from California and Arizona, where its cultivation is becoming an important branch of industry, 10 acres of poppies being said to yield, in Arizona, twelve hundred pounds of opium," one official, referred to as a State Assayer, reported to the board.

Although this description of a thriving domestic opium crop might sound surprising today, the board’s characterization of that crop’s consumers certainly doesn't: "[T]he opium habit is especially common among the manufacturing classes,” it asserts, “who are too apt to live regardless of all hygienic laws." It puts some of the blame for such lower-class use on doctors, who are "in no small measure responsible for the moral, as well as physical, welfare of their patients," and shouldn't be allowed to get away with the "injudicious and often unnecessary prescription of opium." American women made up "so large a proportion of opium takers,” the study suggests, because they were "doomed, often, to a life of disappointment ... of physical and mental inaction, and in the smaller and more remote towns, not unfrequently, to utter seclusion."

The "most important cause" of opium taking, however, is "the simple desire for stimulation,” an urge hitherto satisfied by alcohol consumption. Opium, the report notes, was both more available and more socially acceptable than alcohol. The narcotic "can be procured and taken without endangering the reputation for sobriety. In one town mentioned, it was thought 'more genteel' than alcohol." The report goes on to say that it was "between 1840 and 1850, soon after teetotalism had become a fixed fact, that our own importations of opium swelled," citing a rise of 350 percent. In England, "one doctor noted," "opium chewing has become very prevalent, especially since the use of alcoholic drinks has been to so great an extent abandoned, under the influence of the fashion introduced by total abstinence societies." The board also found it "curious and interesting" that as wine drinking advanced in Turkey, opium eating retreated.

As always in America, the limits of what exactly is moral behavior depend on what the meaning of “is” is. By following their version of God's code to the letter, teetotaling Americans of the 19th century freely violated its spirit.

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