In the past year, 55 million Americans have used marijuana. The other 260 million are pretty divided in how they feel about that.
A good portion of the country still believes that cannabis is a sinful, addictive substance that can ruin your life. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and just this week Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly described pot as “a potentially dangerous gateway drug.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the U.S. is eager to treat pot like a regular commodity. State legislators and small-town pols are scrambling to figure out how to skim as much tax money as possible off of a crop that is expected to be worth $20 billion in less than three years. Investment bankers are quitting their jobs to become cannabis consultants. High-end chefs are organizing weed-infused pop-up restaurants. Musicians are lending their names to all manner of vape pens and edibles.
As we reflect on this schizophrenic state of affairs, it’s necessary to take some time to talk about how we got here, and why certain substances became illegal in the first place, while others did not. After all, many of the folks who pooh-pooh pot see no problem unwinding with a glass of wine, or a cigarette, or a tumbler of whiskey. They believe booze and tobacco are different, somehow. Legal. Sanctioned. Not “drugs”.
But as it turns out, it was only quite recently that we decided, as a society, which intoxicating chemicals and plants were bad for you, and which were not that big of a deal.
It will probably not shock you to hear that a substance’s potential to cause addiction, health problems, and social harm has little to do with whether or not it’s legal. Instead, as law professor and criminologist Toby Seddon recently found in a wide-ranging study and historical review, there are two primary factors that influence what we consider to be drugs: race and money. These factors have long been deeply ingrained in how we view intoxication, from the origins of the War on Drugs in the 1970s to the responses to today’s opioid epidemic.
According to Seddon, the very idea that using drugs was sketchy or wrong did not emerge until the late Nineteenth Century.
“There was a lot of opium use in England during that century, and it wasn’t particularly seen as problematic. It was fairly standard,” Seddon tells me over Skype from his home in Manchester, England. But then, in the 1870s, the Western world began to worry about the social and moral costs of people getting fucked up in their spare time.
So how did intoxication come to be seen as bad? Seddon points to the anxieties of an emerging liberal society. If the modern man was defined by freedom, and by an ability to work and make money to become upwardly mobile, then drugs were the thing that could take all that away. Addiction is still frequently seen as a form of enslavement, something that drags people out of economic productivity and removes their ability to make independent decisions.
This is why we often drug test poor people who receive government aid, but not, as one Congresswoman suggested last year, one-percenters who exploit tax loopholes. Certainly some substances, like methamphetamine or heroin, can ruin lives. But for pot, and for other less harmful drugs like MDMA, inebriation is only considered OK if you are making money. If you’re broke, getting high makes you a drain on society – a nonsensical but seductive narrative, especially when it comes to marijuana.
At first, back in the late 19th Century, academic and medical conversations about the dangers of inebriation included every popular mood-altering substance: cocaine and opium, yes, but also alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. But in the next 50 years, concerns about inebriation only translated into law if the substance wasn’t already controlled by a powerful industry, and if there was a perception, accurate or not, that a given drug was being used by poor people, immigrants, and people of color.
The growing fears around substance use dovetailed with the established, dehumanizing stereotypes about anyone who wasn’t considered white and economically self-sustaining: that poverty or darker skin made you somehow biologically more likely to commit crimes, to be lazy and filthy, and to have no self control when it comes to sex, violence and intoxication. Localities passed laws in response to fears of anyone outside a respectable, white mainstream culture, especially inebriated men of color looking to have sex with white women, or else employ them as prostitutes.
San Francisco passed an opium ordinance, aimed at Chinese men. Cities in the South prohibited cocaine following race riots in New Orleans and Atlanta “that equated cocaine with uppity Southern blacks and race-mixing drug parties,” according to historian Paul Gootenberg. Across the country, law enforcement consistently harassed poor people and people of color for getting high, while anyone living in a nicer neighborhood got a pass for the same behavior.
Today, we know that people of all races are about equally likely to use and sell drugs, and that racially biased law enforcement has left black people between two and ten times more likely to get arrested for pot crimes in every county in America. It’s impossible to know exactly who was doing what a hundred-odd years ago, but Seddon agrees it was unlikely that people of color were disproportionately drinking, doing coke, or smoking opium. “My assumption would be the use was across different groups, and it’s really about whose use was seen as problematic,” he says. “It’s the same sort of story you have now, really.”
Seddon skims over the brief and wildly unsuccessful period of alcohol prohibition in the US, summarizing the work of many historians to show that the alcohol industry was always too powerful to truly go away. Same went for tobacco: both were just too popular among middle and upper class white people, and were making Western plutocrats too rich. None of this, of course, had anything to do with health or safety.
“If you go to an emergency room a hospital on a Friday night, it’s just full of drunk people. If you go to a police station on a Saturday night, the cells are full of people who drank too much and got into fights or caused trouble,” Seddon says. “Nobody thinks this is weird. It’s normalized.”
Judging by historical standards, the increasingly powerful and politically entrenched marijuana industry seems to bode well for legalization. Already, you could argue that legal pot is Too Big and Too White To Fail – regardless of what that buzzkill Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants. Too many rich and powerful men have too much money tied up in weed. Too many privileged folks enjoy getting high at the end of the day, or have discovered the therapeutic powers of cannabis on everything from arthritis to epilepsy. These are ridiculous and disgusting standards for what is legal, but this is our reality: one nation, under God, with racism and capitalism for all.