The war on drugs is built on racism. It’s time to decolonise drug policies.

DEA - US Public Domain


The war on drugs is built on racism. It’s time to decolonise drug policies.

26 June 2020

Today, the 26th June, is the annual International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking – an occasion that governments created to commemorate their efforts to achieve the lofty goal of “an international society free of drug abuse”. This costly and futile “drug-free” pursuit has left a trail of destruction and human suffering of unimaginable proportions over the last half century. Draconian law enforcement measures have disproportionately impacted those on the margins of society, people who are poor, women, indigenous peoples, people who are socially disadvantaged because of immigration status, gender orientation, ethnicity or race.

The acute racial injustices of drug control efforts around the world cannot be overstated and are the subject of growing attention. Last year, a group of UN experts on people of African descent noted that “the war on drugs has operated more effectively as a system of racial control than as a mechanism for combating the use and trafficking of narcotics”. Drug law enforcement has led to mass incarceration, arbitrary arrests and detention and devastating police brutality, the burden of which has fallen disproportionately on people of colour across the globe. All of this repression has sought to eliminate the illegal drug trade, yet year on year the UN’s own data shows an ever growing, diversifying and robust global market and this year’s World Drug Report released today, once again confirms the trend.

In the US, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people with nearly half sentenced for drug related crimes. In the UK, Black people are more than eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, while in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, 80% of those killed by police are black. The burden of these racist policies and policing on indigenous communities has unfortunately received little attention to date. In Australia, indigenous people are 15 to 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous people. While in Canada, despite being constantly praised for following Uruguay in legally regulating cannabis markets, criminal law continues to disproportionately harm Black and Indigenous communities at similar rates as the US.

While repressive drug policies have weaponised the state against communities of colour, it is sadly crucial to remember it was in part designed to do just that. Remnants of colonialism and racism remain embedded in the UN drug control system to this day. Amid the growing clamour of global anti-racist protests and the thuds of fallen monuments of colonialism and white supremacy, it is time to closely scrutinise the racist and cultural imperialistic roots of the so-called “war on drugs” and demand redress and reparations.

Psychoactive substances have been widely used by humans all over the world for millennia. In pre-colonial Africa and much of Asia, cannabis was cultivated, traded, and used as medicine. The plant has a sacred role in the Rastafarian, Sufi and Hindu religions, and its medicinal uses are mentioned in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, which was used as an authoritative medical text in Europe well into the 18th century. The coca leaf is revered among the indigenous peoples of the Andean Amazon region, whose worship of the coca plant is central to their culture and spirituality. While the opium poppy has a centuries-old history as a traditional medicine and for ceremonial use in Asia and the Middle East.

Initially, colonial interests in many parts of the world viewed these plants as important commodities to enrich their coffers. In particular, British, French and Dutch colonial powers conducted lucrative trade by producing opium, coca and cannabis for export in their colonies in India, Burma, Indonesia, Morocco and Algeria. The British famously won the Opium War of 1840-42 which enabled unfettered export of opium from British-India to China. Early discussions on opium prohibition were resisted by Britain, as they fought to protect their profitable opium trade.

However, the anti-opium movement backed strongly by the US, which had economic interests in weakening Europe’s political and economic dominance in Asia, was eventually successful in laying the foundations of a global system of drug control. Racism also played a key role in the push for prohibition, as substances like opium and cannabis were associated with Chinese and Mexican immigrants and African Americans, while cocaine was linked to Black men, who according to US government propaganda would either seduce white women with the lure of the substance or become violent under the influence.

Following decolonisation, newly independent countries did not have the might of their colonisers to fight back against the strong arm of the US in their quest to institute global prohibition. The resulting international drug control regime subsequently sought to eradicate traditional practices with flagrant disregard for the human rights of indigenous peoples. UN treaties, negotiated with the tough tactics of the post-war global superpowers, forced countries to criminalise and eradicate the very plants that had been at the cornerstone of local communities' spiritual and healing traditions for centuries. A legacy that to this day has not been rectified.

Racism and imperialism have pervaded the arguments for prohibition from the start and bolstered drug control as an instrument of repression and oppression. Records show that successive international conferences on drug policy in the early 20th century featured predominantly male and white negotiators, who decided that the psychoactive plants that Black and Brown people used should be prohibited, while they drank cognac and smoked cigars. Incidentally efforts to create an international agreement to control alcohol were heavily resisted by the wine-producing countries in Europe, revealing both the double standards of the architects of global drug control and ongoing inconsistencies in the scheduling and regulation of harmful drugs.

Stigmatising certain substances and making their use seem deviant has served to demonise, dehumanise and marginalise the communities who use them. This approach then justifies the use of harsh punishment against certain communities that vested interests seek to oppress. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs made a frank admission of this tactic in 1994:

“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.”

This strategy has been employed the world over to harm and repress ethnic minority groups and political dissidents.

Recent developments in drug control have included a trend towards cannabis regulation, in a break with the prohibitionist regime of the last century. Uruguay, Canada and many US states now have legally regulated markets for adult use of cannabis. While several countries across Asia and Africa have begun to consider allowing medical cannabis for domestic use as well as production for export. The economic lure of participation in the burgeoning global cannabis market, expected to be worth USD 166 billion by 2025, is now too strong to resist. Unfortunately, these developments have scarcely benefitted those who have borne the brunt of the war on drugs. The global cannabis industry is largely owned by companies based in the Global North and small traditional farmers who have produced cannabis illegally under prohibition in the Global South now find themselves excluded from the legal market. In the US, only 4% of cannabis businesses are owned by African Americans, while Canada has resisted fully expunging criminal records for previous cannabis convictions despite opening up the adult recreational market to industry players.

The shift away from prohibition is long overdue, however; it would be a travesty if these developments further entrenched post-colonial power imbalances and privilege. Steps taken to remove prohibitions on drugs must seek to redress the harms of decades of prohibition on marginalised communities, particularly on people of colour. Governments must decriminalise drug use and cultivation of prohibited plants, ensure full respect for indigenous rights, and divest from law enforcement and prisons. Social justice must be a central tenet of legal regulation initiatives.

The International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on 26 June, is also the Global Day of Action for the Support. Don’t Punish campaign – a growing grassroots solidarity movement that calls on governments to end punishment-centred drug policies and to prioritise seriously-underfunded health and welfare interventions. Today, hundreds of local groups in over 175 cities of 84 countries around the world will echo the same message – that it is time to end the war on drugs, to dismantle the racist global drug prohibition regime and its instruments of repression. The struggle to decolonise drug policies is essential to end their tyranny, and it is only just beginning.