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May 20, 2007 -- Honolulu Star-Bulletin (HI)

Column: Racism And Sleazy Business Practices -- A Fine Start To U.S. Drug War

By Rich Figel

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I USED to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when I drank. Polite, well behaved at first. A few drinks later, I could become nasty or turn violent. In a way, I think that duality sums up the American experience with drugs. It's always been a love/hate relationship, clouded with contradictory feelings about morality and free will.

Since ancient times, alcohol and other natural highs have been used for medicinal purposes, religious ceremonies, and yes, sheer enjoyment. But detrimental effects were usually blamed on the Devil, or the drug itself as being the cause of "evil" desires.

The Puritans brought this schizophrenic attitude with them to the New Land, along with 10,000 gallons of wine and 42 tons of beer on their ships. A solemn lot, they condoned drinking in moderation, and wound up cultivating another habit-forming drug -- tobacco -- for profit. You could say the Puritans' work ethic and values are still part of our national psyche.

However, this country was also founded by rebels, who fought for liberty, personal freedom and alcohol. Taxation without representation didn't just apply to tea. The colonists resented high taxes on their booze, too. In fact, John Hancock was a wealthy bootlegger before he famously signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

YET THERE WERE no anti-drug laws until 1875. The San Francisco Opium Den Ordinance was prompted by fears that Chinese men would "Shanghai" white women. This same type of racism would resurface throughout history and shape drug policy.

For instance, having cocaine with wine was in vogue during the 1800s. The Pope, Mark Twain and Thomas Edison endorsed it. Coca-Cola originally contained the real thing, too. So how did that drug become stigmatized? Again, race. Black workers were being given cocaine to make them work longer. But malicious rumors and fictionalized newspaper stories spread fears that "drug-crazed Negroes" would turn into violent rapists.

The press succeeded in demonizing pot as well. In the 1920s-1930s, William Randolph Hearst's newspapers linked the "Marijuana Menace" to Mexicans who grew hemp and smoked it. Hearst had invested heavily in the timber industry to produce paper, and worried about competition from Mexican hemp. He also had lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa's army.

Besides that, it sold papers. The public ate up the lurid stories about the "Devil Weed" threat. Later, Hearst included blacks and New Orleans jazz musicians as part of his anti-marijuana propaganda.

To be sure, there were valid reasons for concern about alcohol and drug use. Liquor was a prime cause of domestic abuse against women. But the early temperance movements that started in the 1700s focused on moderation, not abstinence.

IN THE 1800s, bolstered by an unlikely coalition of feminists, progressives and religious zealots, the movement became a broader campaign against gambling and other activities that were deemed "immoral." Supporters contended Prohibition would solve the problems of crime, violence and poverty. By 1917, half the states had banned alcohol.

The crusade was helped immensely by America's entry into World War I, according to a New York Times book review of "Dry Manhattan." It was patriotic to keep our soldiers away from booze and loose women. But New York was "overrun with immigrants" and drinking was part of the culture for Irishmen, Italians, Jews and Germans. They remained silent, though, because to oppose the ban would have cast suspicion on them as being un-American.

WHEN Prohibition was passed in 1919, thousands of men who used to work for distilleries and breweries were suddenly unemployed. Many became moonshiners just to feed their families. The noble intentions of the Moral Crusaders had turned law-abiding citizens into criminals.

Initially, moonshiners took pride in producing a quality product. As competition heated up, some took shortcuts to make a quick buck. They added sugar and poisonous stuff to the mash. Bootleggers mixed up dangerous concoctions, sometimes adding embalming fluid to give their "bathtub gin" a kick.

There were more than a thousand deaths from bad liquor in the first year of Prohibition. Thousands more would die from drinking unregulated "rotgut" during the next 13 years.

The biggest profiteers were gangsters, who moved in to control the speakeasies that sprouted like weeds. Bloody mob wars broke out. The government's futile efforts to keep up with the crooks was largely undermined by corruption and bribery. Even the Moral Crusaders admitted that the "zero tolerance" approach had made things far worse. In 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed.

FOLLOWING World War II, two very different groups took a special interest in new synthetic drugs created by scientists: the military, and the Beat Generation that would evolve into the peace-loving hippies of the Sixties. Which explains why the military abandoned its experiments with MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD. Test subjects were more likely to hug somebody than kill them.

I was just a kid in the Sixties, but I remember the feeling of something big happening. There was a new openness. A willingness to experiment in every area of our lives. Music. Movies. Fashion. Computer technology. Was it the drugs? Maybe. The vibe was contagious. And dangerous to the so-called Establishment.

That kind of free thinking, drug-induced or not, was a threat to President Nixon's administration. The image of long-haired hippies smoking pot and tripping on acid gave Tricky Dick an easy target to shift the public's attention from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs, which he declared in 1971.

When Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency in the 1970s, I was in high school. Nearly everyone I knew had tried grass at least once. It wasn't a big deal to us. Things didn't get violent among pot growers or dealers until the crackdown on weed got tougher, which increased the street value of the product -- the same thing that happened with alcohol during Prohibition.

THEN President Reagan escalated the drug war by introducing mandatory minimum sentences in 1986. His administration's goal was to punish users, not get them off drugs. Sadly, despite all we've learned about addiction in the past two decades, very little has changed in the government's failed strategy.

It's time we stop making blanket moral judgments about drugs and the people who use them. No one starts out wanting to become an addict or a criminal. But if everyone took a long hard look in the mirror, they might see there's potentially a bit of Mr. Hyde in all of us.

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