The War on Drugs is a tool of state oppression

This article was first published by the Independent.



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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.

This peace treaty brought order and stability to warring nations, but what many may not know is that it heralded a beginning to international drug control. All states who ratified this treaty in 1919 agreed to a short and discreet note within Article 23: “[signatory nations] will entrust the League [of Nations] with the general supervision over […] illegal drugs”. After World War II, the League dissolved, and the United Nations took control of international law, and introduced the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which has defined prohibition ever since.

Today, in Britain, the oppressive legacy of the war on drugs lives on. Black Britons are six times more likely to be searched for drugs than their white counterparts, and are twice as likely to be criminally charged – rather than receive a warning – for possession. However, unlike the US, Britain does not have a long history of racism (at least on our own soil). The victims of the war on drugs in Britain are predominantly the working class – be they black, white or Asian. The manner in which the war on drugs is carried out protects the wealthy from prosecution; exemplified by the late Eva Rausing, from a billionaire family, who only received a caution in 2008 for the possession of 2.5g of heroin and 60g of cocaine. This sharply contrasts with the case of Daniel Richardson, a 23-year-old Morrison’s worker, who was jailed for four years in August after cocaine was found in his work bag.

Last week, Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton made headlines by claiming that drug prohibition in the UK has “comprehensively failed” and legislation to enforce it has “put billions into the hands of villains”. This week theInternational Centre for Science in Drug Policy put out a report calling for the consideration of drugs as an issue of public health issue rather than a matter for the criminal justice system. Drug addicts should be “treated and cared for, not criminalised”, the report stated.

However, regardless of scientific evidence and growingly progressive public opinion, countless Britons, who never harmed anyone in their lives, have been systematically jailed alongside murderers and rapists for 42 years. Just as racist American leaders once used prohibition to subjugate ethnic minorities, the current British government is using prohibition to keep the working class in their place. Prohibition is the penalisation of individuals because of their personal life choices; drug use is one of the only victimless crimes in British law. It is high time for Britain to withdraw from the UN Single Convention, and to repeal the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act.

Long before his country began criminalising lifestyle choices, Abraham Lincoln remarked on prohibition; “[it] goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control mans’ appetite through legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not even crimes”.


Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: The Injustice of the US Justice Department

The United States has, by far, the largest incarceration rate in the world – with nearly 25% of the world’s inmate population, despite having only 5% of the world’s total population. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, over 500,000 of these prisoners – in both federal and state penitentiaries – are non-violent drug offenders. Alongside the human cost of this repressive imprisonment policy, a considerable financial burden exists; imprisoning an individual in a minimum-security facility for one year costs $21,000, therefore, approximately $10billion is spent incarcerating non-violent drug offenders annually. One of the primary causes of this systemic incarceration, that has predominantly targeted Black and Hispanic individuals, has been the existence of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.


Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences has existed in varying degrees in the US for over half a century, and has targeted both dealers and users of illegal narcotics. This unjust practice essentially twists the arm of judges, disallowing them from making rational decisions on individual cases. The case for reform was put forward in a Senate hearing last week, and was a particularly noteworthy development as it garnered bipartisan support. Republican Senator Rand Paul insisted that “each case should be judged on its own merits […and that] mandatory minimums prevent this from happening”, while Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy labeled the sentencing program as “a great mistake” that is “costly [and] unfair”.

The Senate hearing was followed, on Thursday 19th September, by a groundbreaking declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder. Essentially, the announcement outlined an intention to halt mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences, except in certain extreme cases – such as those involving the use of a weapon or selling to minors.

The devastation that mandatory minimum sentencing has caused is unmistakable, and one man who knows that all too well is Anthony Papa. Papa is the manager of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as being a respected author, a revered artist and a doting father. He is also a convicted felon, who received a sentence of 15 years to life for a first-time, non-violent drug offence. In the early 1980s, Papa was offered $500 by an acquaintance to deliver an envelope to a mysterious recipient just outside of New York City. Unbeknownst to Papa, his acquaintance was a police informant, the envelope contained cocaine, and the recipient was part of a law enforcement ‘sting’ operation. Due to the strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws in New York – enacted by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 – the judge in Papa’s trial had little flexibility in the sentencing, despite the controversial and unethical circumstances of his arrest and indictment.

The movement towards a fairer justice system has grown considerably with the Attorney General’s announcement, and hopefully means that cases such as that of Anthony Papa will not reoccur. However, it is also important for the end of mandatory minimums to be applied retroactively – so that individuals currently serving inordinately long sentences for non-violent drug crimes can receive a more rational trial and sentence. It is hypocritical for representatives of both political parties, as well as the Department of Justice, to claim to be resolving the injustices of mandatory minimums while allowing countless harmless Americans to rot in jail. As Martin Luther King wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.