Drug prohibition – the illegality of many psychoactive substances – is an accepted norm in the UK, although this hasn’t been the case for long.
In 1971, Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs Act; the first major national prohibition legislation, and the cornerstone of the British war on drugs. A few amendments have been added since then, particularly in regards to ‘legal highs’, but overall, the essence of the law has remained the same for the past 42 years. It is no wonder that prohibition is so widely accepted; the majority of people in Britain were born after this Act was introduced, and many do not remember a time before it. For this reason, it is vital for people today to realise the relatively recent root of drug policy – as a tool of discriminatory state oppression in the United States.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”, said Harry Anslinger, the narcotics commissioner in the early 20th Century who was foremost responsible for the prohibition of cannabis in the US, “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races”. Similar racist myths were delivered to the white American public at the time, and they became terrified that opium incites the “Chinamen’s wiles” and that, in the words of one US doctor, “the negro who has […] formed the cocaine habit seems absolutely beyond redemption”.
It was important for the US to introduce laws aimed at subjugating ethnic minorities, because as laws of racial segregation were wearing away, the government desired a legal and less overtly discriminatory way to criminalise sections of society and maintain the established social hierarchy. This is still evident in the US today, where statistics show that black and white Americans consume and sell drugs at similar rates, yet blacks are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for doing so. Since the beginning, drug policies have not truly been about controlling drugs, they have been about controlling people.
The US pushed for global prohibition of a number of substances, but without being able to intrude on the laws of sovereign states, it used the most effective available tool – the League of Nations. The League was the precursor to the United Nations, and formed at the end of World War I when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.