Does anyone remember this Ronald Reagan quote?
“I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast."
Much has been written about the origin and evolution of the War on Drugs in this country.
Most people don't realize that the War on Drugs actually dates back to the nineteenth century, when states enacted broad measures to protect consumers from dangerous medicines and poisons. However, there is a theory that racism was often at the heart of the motivation to criminalize these substances.
Heroin was the first pharmaceutical to fall from favor. Chinese immigrants came to the United States for jobs in railroads and mines. These immigrants brought a tradition of smoking opium-based products (such as heroin) in the evenings to relax. Settlers accused the Chinese of stealing their jobs and the resentment evolved into false claims that Chinese men were luring white women into opium dens and causing them to become addicted to heroin. Rumors evolved to hysteria, which gave the politicians a motivation to react. In 1875, California passed the first anti-opium law, and enforced the law by raiding Chinese opium dens. Other states soon followed.
Cocaine followed a similar path towards punishing black Americans. After blacks gained economic standing following the civil war, white southerners believed that freed slaves had overstepped their bounds and "forgotten their place" in society. Rumors started about a drug that black men were smoking that supposedly incited violence. In the early 1900s, New Orleans became the first city to enact laws against cocaine with many other cities following.
There are many historians who believe that federal marijuana prohibition in 1937 was based not on facts, but on overt xenophobia fueled by rumor and false information. The theories suggest that Narcotics Bureau head Harry J. Anslinger, pushed a campaign of "reefer madness" that linked marijuana to maligned minority groups (Blacks, Mexicans, and Anti-War Hippies) and falsely accused the drug of triggering heinous crimes. Anslinger referred to marijuana as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
This brief history is meant to illustrate that drug policy has historically had little to do with relative risk or danger and more to do with a desire to punish or stymie progress of particular groups that pose a threat to the establishment. While all of these drugs certainly have potential to be dangerous and harmful, I believe it's important to understand that the policy and propaganda was not motivated by the actual risks.
The modern War on Drugs is commonly associated with Richard Nixon, who declared that drugs were America’s number one enemy as his administration officially launched what would be known as the U.S. ‘War on Drugs’. After Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter continued the focus on drugs, albeit with a focus more on harm reduction than punishment. However, when Jimmy Carter left office, drug use in the U.S. had peaked at 53% among 18-year olds.