This morning’s post on the evolving sentiment toward marijuana policy reminded me of this interview with Bill White from Bill Moyer’s Close to Home PBS series. I always thought that medical marijuana advocacy was a joke was an ineffective way to promote policy change, but I now think that they’re having success in changing who we associate with marijuana.
White: …you would be hard-pressed to build the case why in certain cultures opiates are celebrated and in other cultures alcohol is celebrated. I would suggest that it has little to do with science or pharmacology in either culture. It has much more to do with the historical niche that a drug fills within that culture. Most importantly, drug policy depends on whom we associate with that drug [emphasis added]. We almost always confuse our feelings about drugs with our feelings about the people we believe to use those drugs.
Moyers: How, then, were our drug laws developed?
White: They grew out of racial and class struggles, particularly on the West Coast and in the South. The first state laws were based on this sort of “dope fiend” caricature — showing somebody of a different race and a different culture. In California, it was Chinese railway workers smoking opium; in the South, it was black men using cocaine. The reality is that the vast majority of people addicted to narcotics in the late 19th century were white affluent women, who were primarily addicted through traditional medicine or over-the-counter “patent” medicines. The caricature which drove the prohibition campaigns in the late 19th century bore little resemblance to reality. And, to give you a modern version of that, in the mid-1980s, when cocaine was overwhelmingly a white phenomenon in America, the images which began to appear on television were overwhelmingly of African-Americans, particularly young African-Americans enjoying crack cocaine on a street corner. If you look at all the exposes of drug exposed infants, we see young African-American infants, trembling in neonatal intensive care units. But that image was not the reality of cocaine addiction in the United States in 1985.
White: At that exact point in time, those who were addicted to this drug were overwhelmingly white and affluent. The best predictors of cocaine use at that point were education and income. As years of education went up and annual income went up, the probable use of cocaine went up. Yet the image was and still is that we have poor inner-city African-Americans involved in all of these criminal illegal markets. Much of the anti-coke rhetoric and the changing of laws it generated was based on that early image. But in 1985, it had little relationship with reality.