Bill Gillmore: Drug laws need reform


Bill Gilmore



The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 was a bill that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products. Actually, since it banned the sale and use of them, the tax part has never been implemented. Senator Harrison was a New Yorker, but the real source of the bill was the South.


Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania testified that "Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain."


On February 8, 1914, the New York Times published an article entitled "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks" by Edward Huntington Williams, which reported that Southern sheriffs had increased the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 to bring down Negroes under the effect of cocaine.



Despite the extreme racial focus that took place in the buildup to the Act's passage, the contemporary research on the subject indicated that black Americans were using cocaine and opium at much lower rates than white Americans.


Since its passage, enforcement has been predominantly against African-Americans.


During debate, the Senator from South Carolina said, "We need this legislation. We have to control the Negro!"


To make things worse, in 1937, Congress added marijuana to the list. In 1937, African-Americans were, by far, the major consumers of marijuana.


The Dispatch publishes a list of arrests each week. Most weeks, at least half of the arrests are for "possession of controlled substances." And most of those arrested for that are African-American.


August Vollmer, founder of the School of Criminology at University of California, Irvine and former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote, "Stringent laws, spectacular police drives, vigorous prosecution, and imprisonment of addicts and peddlers have proved not only useless and enormously expensive as means of correcting this evil, but they are also unjustifiably and unbelievably cruel in their application to the unfortunate drug victims... Finally, and not the least of the evils associated with repression, the helpless addict has been forced to resort to crime in order to get money for the drug which is absolutely indispensable for his comfortable existence."


Our War on Drugs has not only been ineffectual at controlling proscribed drugs and devastating to addicts, it has created a vast criminal organization with almost national wealth and power across the world, especially in the Americas. It has all but destroyed the societies of the countries that traffic in cocaine. Cartels are better armed than state armies in those countries, far better than their police. This misery and horror may be laid only at the door of the Harrison Act.


The War on Drugs was created as a tool for social control, especially for control of our African-American population. Its success is stark. At the stroke of Woodrow Wilson's pen, an entire category of our population was criminalized. Our prison population, with almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners, dwarfs that of even the world's worst tyrants, and African-Americans, with 13 percent of the general population, make up 40 percent of the prison population, most of those for drug-related crimes.


People do not risk their lives and freedom to buy and use proscribed drugs for no reason. They are an escape from pain and anguish. People with nearly nothing, and with institutional walls standing in the way of their ever having anything, find, in the words of that great Southern poet, Edgar Allen Poe, surcease of sorrow.


"Controlling the Negro" leads to prison. Never to opportunity. Never to help and support. It also provides for social control of the population at large. The Drug Enforcement Administration has chilling powers. They may seize your property without any due process, and the burden of proof is on you to show that they were wrong. If you have five thousand dollars or more in cash you must prove its source or it is deemed drug money and seized. They even have seizures built into their budget.


It is far past time to end this. We must decriminalize these drugs and find socially productive ways to deal with the ill effects of their use.




Bill Gillmore is a bookseller transplanted to Columbus from Ann Arbor, Michigan.


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