Commentary | The colour of pot

Racism and ignorance are behind illicit drug prohibition

The federal Liberal government’s campaign pledge to legalize marijuana has come under scrutiny as the long-standing debate over drug prohibition continues. The focus of this debate is often on avoiding usage among youth, or on the health and social effects of cannabis. What is often overlooked is the racist roots of laws that prohibit the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs, which continue to disproportionately target poor people of colour both in Canada and the U.S..

In the U.S., the regulation of cannabis began in the 17th century, but it did not take the form of prohibition at the national level until 1937. Many would probably assume that marijuana was made illegal through a thoughtful debate in Congress, where health experts scientifically evaluated the effects of the substance. However, that is not what happened; instead, the decision was rashly made based on unsubstantiated information. And, most importantly, there is good evidence that racism fuelled the move.

During the Great Depression, resentment toward Mexican immigrants soared as they were scapegoated for economic problems. Mexican workers’ use of cannabis became a basis for discrimination and condemnation, and state after state outlawed marijuana, specifically targeting the Latino population. As one state senator said on the floor of the Texas State Senate, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.

Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) for most of the Great Depression, transmitted the notion that marijuana users posed a significant danger to health and social order, targeting particularly Black and Mexican Americans. Using the mass media as his forum, Anslinger propelled the anti-marijuana sentiment at the national level. Using racial slurs in many of his statements, he wrote that the main reason behind marijuana prohibition was the substance’s effects on racialized people, as it made them “think they’re as good as white men.” He further insisted on using the Mexican Spanish word “marijuana” instead of a more common word like “hemp,” obscuring the natural origins of the substance and creating a pejorative, racist connotation.

After incredibly short congressional hearings, the Marihuana Tax Act (MTA) was passed in 1937. Looking back, the lack of scientific debate on the matter in Congress is astonishing, with representatives relying mostly on racist anecdotes that Anslinger provided. As anticipated, violations of the MTA expedited the deportation of Mexican nationals, already increasing in the 1930s.

Prohibition acts for other drugs followed the same trajectory of targetting certain racial groups. Cocaine was associated with Black Americans, while laws prohibiting opium demonized Chinese railroad workers. Yet, opium had been widely used among the white middle class, especially women, for medical and recreational purposes without any racial associations being made.

Predating similar development in the U.S., Canada prohibited “non-medicinal” uses of opium through the 1908 Opium Act, in the wake of white supremacist attacks on East Asian immigrants in Vancouver. Another racist drug panic over opium took place in the 1920s, leading to laws, such as amendments to the Opium and Narcotics Act of 1920, that not only mandated harsher sentencing, but made drug trafficking punishable by deportation.

What is similar across all these cases is that drug usage was conceptualized in different ways depending on the identity of the user. Drug addiction is a medical problem when the typical user of a drug is, for instance, a middle or upper-class white person, but it turns into a criminal justice problem when the average user is a poorer person of colour.

Since the origins of these drug prohibitions are racially driven, it is not surprising that in practice, the court system disproportionately penalizes the poor and people of colour. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, reveals how the American court system disproportionately incarcerates Black people on drug charges. In some states, Black people have been sent to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 57 times higher than those of white men, depending on the state. This stark disparity is especially worrying because research has shown that Black and white people use drugs at similar rates. Stricter penalties for crack cocaine than powder cocaine, which many believe are two forms of the same substance, inevitably criminalize Black people at a higher rate, as poorer people are more likely to consume cocaine in the much cheaper crack cocaine form, and Black people are disproportionately affected by poverty.

Both in the U.S. and Canada, the adoption of minimum sentencing, financial support from the federal government for anti-drug initiatives, and the ample discretion given to authorities create a high risk of racial profiling in the investigation of drug crimes, influenced by prevailing racist stereotypes and biases. Once charged, poor people of colour are often provided with inadequate legal defence and pressured into plea bargains, lacking the financial resources and expertise to win in a court hearing.

Alexander concludes that the U.S. government uses the war on drugs as a tool to discriminate against and repress racialized groups, serving as a “racial caste system.” While some might argue that there are legitimate motives driving the war on drugs, which could have some positive effects on reducing narcotics addiction, the racial discrimination embedded in these drug prohibition efforts is often ignored. Indeed, if an incarceration rate similar to that among Black people in the U.S. had ever occurred among the white middle class it would have triggered a political backlash a long time ago. The unaddressed racial injustice in the American criminal drug code shows systemic oppression based on race and socioeconomic status.

In both Canada and the U.S., the evolution of drug prohibition has elements of irrationality and discrimination. Moving away from it requires scientific and unprejudiced investigation. As the debate on marijuana legalization unfolds, it is important that the government take conscious steps to address the bias and inequality in current legislation and to avoid the danger of reintroducing such biases in its new policies.

Laura Xu is a U2 Political Science student. To contact her, email