‘There’s Never Been a Drug Law That Wasn’t Tied to Race’

Janine Jackson interviewed asha bandele and Laura Carlsen about the War on Drugs for the April 1, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

asha bandele

asha bandele: “It’s not like we do this stuff based on science or based on public health or public safety…. In fact, the laws we create generate public danger.”

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John Ehrlichman in 1969

John Ehrlichman: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Janine Jackson: Here is the quote, if you haven’t heard it, attributed by a recent story in Harper’s to John Ehrlichman, domestic policy advisor to Richard Nixon, referring to Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs:

You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies, the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Well, the Huffington Post story on the quote showed an update, noting that some of Ehrlichman’s former colleagues say he never said that, and if he did, he was being sarcastic. But our question might be, what difference does it make? Has the War on Drugs been less of an assault on black communities as well as social justice activists if we don’t have such a smoking-gun admission? Here to help separate words from reality when it comes to racism and the drug war is journalist and author asha bandele, who is senior director of grants, partnerships and special projects at Drug Policy Alliance. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, asha bandele.

Asha Bandele: Thank you so much. Hello, hello.

JJ: You get the patronizing vibe from its headline, “Was Nixon’s War on Drugs a Racially Motivated Crusade? It’s a Bit More Complicated.” This is a piece by Vox.com that ties itself into a pretzel, saying that Nixon was racist, but you have to keep in mind that also he “personally despised drugs, to the point that it’s not surprising he would want to rid the world of them.” But here’s the big finish:

None of that means that the drug war hasn’t disproportionately hurt black Americans, it clearly has. But the lessons of Nixon’s drug policies may not be so much that he was a racist power-hungry politician, although again he was, but rather that even well-meaning policies can have big, terrible unintended consequences.

I’m not going to ask you to make actual sense of that, but instead to talk about this useful confusion, if you will, the idea that a set of policies and practices can’t be properly described as racist unless you can show evidence of explicitly racist intent. How much should it matter what Ehrlichman said?

AB: Yeah. I mean, I think that it matters somewhat, but I’m not intent at looking at that. Right? I think that we look at every drug law that’s been started in America, and it’s always been tied to race. When you were talking about the first opiate laws, those were against Chinese people. The first cocaine laws are against black people, with the New York Times screaming about the Negro cocaine menace. You know, describing the Negro from the South in much in the same ways we heard Mike Brown described when Darren Wilson shot and killed him: that he was lurching toward him, he couldn’t stop him, you had to shoot down and kill this big, unstoppable black monster. And, of course, marijuana laws targeted in particular Mexicans who were coming into the United States.

And so you see that in all of these cases there’s a fundamental tie-in, and that’s around economic policy. Right? They were worried about blacks coming up from the South and taking jobs, the Chinese men who were here building the railroad and what else would happen after that was gone, and Mexicans coming up from Mexico and taking jobs. So there’s never been a drug law that has started in the United States that wasn’t explicitly tied to race, and wasn’t around race. When you had white women who were using opiates to soothe their pain in the 1800s, there were never any laws against them. They were treated as people who needed public health intervention, if in fact they were using it in a way that was deleterious to their lives.

And much in the same way, we see that now. Right? So now we’re getting a kinder, gentler drug war, because they’re concerned that white people are dying of opiate overdose. And we didn’t have that, and there’s been no plan to talk about what are they going to do to repair the harms that have been done to people who were criminalized.

And, you know, when it comes to black people and Nixon, I will say this. We do know that Nixon participated in various counterintelligence-type programs, including Project New Kill comes up under his administration, and all these ways to disrupt black people and activists in general. And it strikes me that the War on Drugs begins right at the time, under Nixon, that black people really had the world looking at us and looking at the human rights violations that had been going on in America for so long against black people. Right? We’re at the height of that. The civil rights movement coming to a close, and really, now that we’ve gotten civil rights, how do we demand full human rights, which was what the Black Power movement was doing?

And so, right as that’s happening, Nixon finds a way to criminalize a whole swath of the American populace, the African-American swath of the American populace. There’s so many lies tied up in it that we even begin to believe that—the kind of misinformation that’s put out, not just about drug users, but about drugs themselves. Right? So you have marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, you have 10, 15 years later, all the lies about crack that are put out, that really have been debunked at this point by people like Dr. Carl Hart. But, you know, that’s really what happened: In the moment we held the moral high ground, we were all criminalized.

JJ: And I think there’s confusion about saying that just because you can say that policies are about something in addition to race, that that somehow means that race and racism are not irreducible factors in those policies.

Well, you’re talking about the shift, and new compassionate outlook, as the demographics, if you will, or perceived demographics of drug use change. The New York Times ran a piece last September with the headline, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs.” And the reporter laid it out:

When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. Today’s heroin crisis is different.

And so on, to talk about the compassionate approach. Now, I take issue with the phrase “the public response.” People don’t make drug policy.

AB: Uh-huh.

JJ: But they are pointing to race as being a driver in this new compassionate approach to heroin. But what I wanted to get to is, in that piece, there’s an explanation given by Michael Botticelli, who heads the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, and he suggests that the reason these white and sometimes middle-class heroin addicts are getting a compassionate approach is their families and communities know how to politically organize and demand that kind of response. As if to suggest that if black people had only organized about the harms of the drug war, or as if to suggest that black people did not organize about the harms of the drug war, and that’s why that approach was different.

AB: No. 1, the only relationship that black people have continuously had to the government of the United States is a relationship of confinement and containment. Right? Whether it was chattel slavery, whether it was the terrorism imposed by the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow laws and then immediately following that—those ended officially in 1968—Nixon starts the drug war in 1971, or the modern drug war, in 1971, which begins the climb from 200,000 people in the prison system then to over 2 million now, and another 5 million on paper, as we call it. Right? Still being monitored by the criminal justice system through parole, probation and whatever, their citizenship not fully intact.

So there’s never been a relationship, and I don’t even know that America and the people we have in leadership now fully know how to create a relationship with black people, that is not bounded by that fact, and that’s what we’re pushing against. But when it comes to—what Botticelli says is extraordinarily insulting. It’s a black woman who leads the first and successful raid during the Civil War. That’s Harriet Tubman. There’s always been resistance to oppression by black people.

SWAT raid against the Black Panther Party (via New York Times)

Video image of the first SWAT raid–directed against the Black Panther Party (via New York Times)

Now, the response has been extraordinary. Right? We remember the first SWAT raids were leveled against the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. Right? So those weren’t done to, like, take down a whole bunch of criminals. Those were activists they used it against. It was activists in Detroit who had tanks rolled on them, and it was activists in Baltimore and in Ferguson who had tanks and rubber bullets. It was the police who started that violence against young people, primarily, who were protesting another murder of another one of our own at the hands of police. So we’ve always resisted. The response to that resistance, the response to that organizing against oppression and against state violence, has been extraordinary.

JJ: Let me ask you on another tip, because I think people think, you know, the winds of change are in the air, and one of the things people would point to is the decriminalization, in many states, of marijuana. Does that marijuana decriminalization automatically bring with it an improvement in the lives of black and brown people?

AB: Marijuana was decriminalized in my city, New York City, in 1977, and yet arrest rates went skyrocketing. Until De Blasio gets in office, it was an extraordinary skyrocket in the arrests for marijuana. So that’s no guarantee. I think in some places like Washington, DC, where there was a full-out legalization, you saw a precipitous drop, I think really almost down to zero in arrest rates, and I think legalization may allow us to get to that level where drugs are fully taken out of the criminal justice system. Decriminalization is helpful, but it’s not the full answer for something that you can’t—it’s legislating morality. Right? And in deciding which drug is licit and which drug isn’t licit, and it really makes no sense. If you were to take pure acetaminophen into your body, it’s actually more toxic to your body than pure heroin.

So it’s not like we do this stuff based on science or based on public health or public safety. That’s not what happens. In fact, the laws we create generate public danger. Prohibitionist policies generate public danger, they generate underground markets, they generate all of that, just like they did during alcohol prohibition.

I don’t know that that’s the full answer. I look more toward where legalization has had a better impact, and then that’s only one part of the equation there. Because even with legalization, are we talking about full economic justice or are we still talking about economic violence where people are locked out of any systems of wealth creation and stabilizing their families?

JJ: Right. And the key factor there being that in many of the states that have legalized marijuana, if you have a drug-related felony conviction, you can’t open that cannabis-related business. So that’s going to close that path for a lot of people who were victimized by the drug war. Now things have changed, but they will not be on the winning team in terms of —

AB: And even if you get that, what percentage of the money that’s made by an above-ground licit market now in marijuana, or anything else that comes down the road, is going to go to repair of the harm? This is a moment for repairing the harm, it’s a moment for reparations, which people don’t want to think about. But it’s hard to speak to people’s intent. Right? We think that we know their heart; maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I’m going to speak to just the outcomes and the policies, and I’m interested in changing people’s behavior on this stuff. And when this is the outcome of what you did, you have to pay a price. Communities were destroyed, families were destroyed. People were locked out of having any kind of jobs when they came home. They were locked out of being able to go to school. You have to hold people accountable for that.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with asha bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance. She’s author of The Prisoner’s Wife, among other titles, and you can find the Alliance on line at DrugPolicy.org. asha bandele, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

AB: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to be here.

Laura Carlsen (image: Emergencia Mx)

Laura Carlsen: “This repressive apparatus of the War on Drugs, that’s supposedly aimed at breaking down the drug cartels, is actually being turned against grassroots movements.” (image: Emergencia Mx)

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Janine Jackson: The impact of the US War on Drugs is not felt only in the United States, of course, and there is a vivid effort now underway to call attention to that fact. Our next guest is part of the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice traveling through Central America and Mexico to New York. Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, based in Mexico City. She joins us now by phone from Honduras. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Laura Carlsen.

Laura Carlsen: Thanks so much, Janine. It’s a pleasure.

JJ: Tell us, what is Caravan 2016; what is it itself, and then what is the message?

LC: Well, the caravan is an initiative that’s been in the process of organization for months now, and the idea is we started in Tegucigalpa, in Honduras, and we’re going through five countries—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States—to end up on the 19th of April at the United Nations special session on drugs. And the idea is to open the debate on prohibition policies and the War on Drugs. And as we go through the different towns and cities and countries that we’re visiting along the way, what we’re hearing are scores of testimonies as to the specific and concrete impact of the War on Drugs policy in these countries.

Maria Herrera Magdaleno, mother of four disappeared children  (Image: Telesur via Popular Resistance)

Maria Herrera Magdaleno, mother of four disappeared children, speaks at the opening of the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice in Tegucigalpa (Image: Telesur via Popular Resistance)

Of course, we chose Central America and Mexico because the violence that’s generated by this war mentality in respect to the enforcement of prohibitionist policies is so keenly felt in these countries. And although we’ve only been on the road now for several days, we’ve already heard many accounts of this. After starting in Tegucigalpa with human rights groups, and hearing the problems that they’re facing in terms of human rights violations and the direct impact of militarization, we then went to the Atlantic Coast, with indigenous population of mostly Afro-descendants there, and they have a particular perspective on it. They’re very clear about asking the United States to withdraw all support for this militarization policy and for the Honduran security forces.

Because one of the classic cases was several years ago. Their population suffered a massacre in Ahuas that was actually carried out by a State Department helicopter with DEA agents on board and Honduran military that apparently mistook a boat full of Garífuna indigenous people and Miskito Indian people for drug traffickers, and just began shooting in the predawn hours. There’s no full investigation, and there’s no prosecutions. They’ve suffered several assassinations since then.

They joined the caravan, and then we went from there to the town where we are right now, where the environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated.  The relationship is that this repressive apparatus of the War on Drugs, that’s supposedly aimed at breaking down the drug cartels, is actually being turned against grassroots movements, and particularly grassroots movements like Berta Cáceres and like the Garífuna people that are fighting to defend their land and resources against the incursions of transnational corporations.

JJ: Well, what you’re making clear here is that the reaction here and the activism here is in response not just to violence from drug trafficking, but very much a response to the violence of those that are ostensibly seeking to reduce drug trafficking. This is not a caravan that is simply saying, drug trafficking and the drug business is bad; it’s very much about what we are told is an effort to root out that drug trafficking, but which in fact is not having that effect, and is having other harmful effects on communities.

LC: That’s exactly right. And the people that we speak to are very clear about this. Because there’s a number of problems that are rooted in US prohibition policies. And the first is that when you create a multi-billion dollar market for an illegal substance, then you’re delivering this huge business into the hands of criminals, by definition. And so the violence generated by the drug cartels is also a huge part of it, and it’s also avoidable with better policies that are more focused on health.

But the other part of it is that illicit drug trafficking has been going on for ages, as long as prohibition has existed. And what the people are talking about here is that it generated a fairly controllable, at least, or low level of violence until the government security forces turned it into a war. And then that destabilized relationships between cartels, in some cases between security forces and the cartels themselves. But it also initiated this era in which the corruption of the security forces, police and armed forces—because in these countries the army and navy are deployed against cartels as well, which is very questionable, to say the least, in itself—and the contact has created a high level of complicity and corruption. So that you have the state actively involved, by many indications, in the illegal businesses themselves, and the citizenry suffering the consequences of the violence that’s generated as a result.

JJ: How important is the building of international connections and international solidarity? It seems that the national boundaries have kind of skewed our understanding and worked against our making common cause, victims of the drug war in the US and in other countries. The international aspect of this caravan is very important, is it not?

LC: Absolutely. Just one of the major objectives of the caravan—by going through these countries, we’re hoping to enable, as people get to know each other who are on the caravan, as people on the caravan get to know the grassroots organizations in the other countries, to enable more linkages between people who are fighting this policy and asking for more sensible policies based on public health and public safety. To get to know each other, to begin to work together, to begin to see how regional this problem is, to be able to understand the linkages that it has. And there’s already a high level of understanding here of US policy and the extremely high levels of the sales of arms and military and defense and security aid from the United States that’s going into perpetuating this war.

And on the other side, it’s been already one of the most wonderful outcomes of the caravan to see the appreciation of peoples like the Garífuna, like the Lenca people here in La Esperanza, when the caravan arrived, what it means to them to know that in other places of the world, there’s an understanding of what they have to go through, the risks they have to take, and the obstacles they face in defending their rivers, their lands, their traditional and ancestral territories. So it’s an encouraging process to all those involved, and it’s a process that we’re hoping and we really do think will leave some long-term kind of a basis for continuing to build on.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. Thank you so much, Laura Carlsen, for taking time to speak with us this week on CounterSpin.

LC: Thank you for the opportunity.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.