By Kojo Koram

That Justice is a blind goddess,
Is a thing to which we black are wise,
Her bandage hides two festering sores,
That once perhaps were eyes.

Langston Hughes,Justice (1923)

Last week, at the annual convention of the NAACP, President Obama recognised that the US criminal justice system is in critical need of reform. With $80 billion being spent in the U.S. each year to maintain the world’s largest prison population, it is not surprising that 7 years into his presidency, this was an issue that the US President could no longer ignore. Obama even acknowledged that lengthy sentences for drug offences have been a major driver of America’s over-crowded prisons. However, to really address this problem, an awareness of the long history between questions of law, race and drugs is required.

The relationship between the law and anti-black racism in the modern western world has always been an intimate one. As the foundation of liberal democracy, the rule of law is presented as objective, rational and ultimately just. The law is supposed to be blind; that is what the statue of Lady Justice promises. She treats equally all who come before her to face judgement. Yet the long history of  the transatlantic slave trade was legal, as was the Congress of Berlin, the Dred Scott decision and the system of Apartheid in South Africa.

Today, when we look at the demographics of those imprisoned in the West, we can see how racism continues to be a productive element in our legal systems. In the UK, we too often assume that this is an American problem, yet an EHRC report showed that in relation to their total population numbers, proportion of people of African-Caribbean and African descent imprisoned here is even greater than it is in the US This begs the question: why are Black people so over-represented in Western prison systems?

A key part to that answer is the ‘War on Drugs’. In recent times, the drug war has propelled the racial discrepancy in criminal convictions. In the US, ‘Black men have been admitted to prison on drugs charges at rates of up to 50 times that of white men,’ despite there being no discernible difference in the use, supply or production of drugs between Black and white communities.[1] This discrepancy in the application of drug laws is shown to exist in all regions of the US, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, leading Michelle Alexander to diagnose the drug war as bringing about ‘the New Jim Crow.’ This phrase means that through the drug laws, a division is being cleaved in society in a manner analogous to the Jim Crow laws that used to enforce racial segregation before the civil rights movement.

The situation is fairly comparable in the UK. For example, in 2009/10 Black people in England and Wales were subject to drug searches at 6.3 times the rate of white people. ‘Searching for drugs’ provides the police with a licence through which they can maintain perpetual surveillance on Black and ethnic minority communities. Furthermore, the racial disproportionality continues at every level of the criminal justice process. Following from being disproportionately searched, if drugs are found on them Black people are then more likely to be charged and sentenced, with 56% of white people caught in possession of cocaine received cautions, while the remaining 44 % were charged. In contrast, when Black people were caught in possession of cocaine, 22 % received cautions, while 78 % were charged for the offence.

These statistics problematise the assumption that the laws prohibiting certain drugs are, like law itself, neutral. We are told that certain drugs are inherently dangerous to all humans; therefore the law benevolently bans those drugs in order to create a more harmonious society. Yet when a main driver of the American drug prohibition movement, which was later expanded globally through the ‘War on Drugs’, was fear of the Black, the immigrant; the racial other. The belief emerged that particular drugs corrupted the moral fibre of decent white society, whilst amplifying the racial others’ supposed innate propensity to violence, laziness and lustfulness. This can be seen when reading archived newspaper reports from the early 20th century, which demonstrate the depth of the racial paranoia in the early days of drug prohibition.[2]

In 1914 The New York Times ran a story titled ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends Are The New Southern Menace’, which reported on how cocaine was turning Black people into monsters [Editor Note: stories on ‘Excited Delirum‘ is like the modern day equivalent]. The article tells the reader that ‘the cocaine nigger is hard to kill – a fact that has been demonstrated so often that many [police] officers in the south have increased the calibre of their guns.’[3] These were also the beliefs that were held by those in the highest offices of power. Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a man who did more to drive the prohibition of drugs than anyone else, was an unashamed racist who understood his campaign to criminalize drug use and his belief in white supremacy as intertwined.  For Anslinger, the problem was that ‘Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.’ Such vulgar ideas provide the roots of laws on drugs that are still in place today.

This historical perspective casts a new light upon the aforementioned racial discrepancy in application of drug prohibition today. That our drug laws continue to be applied in a discriminatory manner appears to simply be consistent with the original purpose of these laws. The ‘War on Drugs’ has been, and perhaps was always meant to be, a ‘War on People’, and a particular group of people at that. The laws on drugs must be reformed if there is to be any hope of stopping the conveyor belt of Black imprisonment in practice on both sides of the Atlantic.


[1] Michelle Alexander; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press; Reprint edition 2012) p.7
[2] ‘The Opium Dens’; San Francisco Chronicle; Nov 16, 1875
[3] ‘Negro Cocaine Fiends Are The New Southern Menace’; The New York Times. February 8, 1914

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This is part of the Black Friday series on ALL BLACK EVERYTHING section of Media Diversified. We are publishing articles from a range of activists, poets, artists and writers which will culminate in a real-life discussion and meet-up in London on Saturday 1st August. Adam Elliott-Cooper will be a speaker at this event.

Free tickets are now sold out but solidarity donation tickets are still available and also there is a waiting list

One thought on “Are Britain and America’s Drug Laws Racist?

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