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New York, United States. 05th May, 2018. The NYC Cannabis Parade and Rally, New York's longest running annual pro-cannabis demonstration, returned for its 47th year on May 5, 2018. Alamy Stock Photo

Lynn Ruane Global drug laws can be traced back to a small group of conserative American men

The independent senator looks back at the influence of powerful US politicians with racist agendas on global drug policies.

DO YOU KNOW why we have the drug laws that we have today in Ireland, and around the globe?

To be blunt – excuse the pun – the reasons are racism and marijuana. As far back as the 1930s in the US, the infamous champion of severe punishment for drug users, Harry Anslinger, was arguing for total drug prohibition, even when people’s attitudes towards drugs were less critical.

On reflection, it is evident that American society did not shape the world’s attitudes to drug use. Instead, powerful men in the United States shaped those views.

The Anslinger effect

Anslinger headed up the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics for over three decades, from 1930 to 1962. In this space of time, he succeeded in exporting his anti-drugs mission to the world.

president-kennedy-attends-a-presentation-of-an-outstanding-record-citation-to-harry-j-anslinger-former-commissioner-of-narcotics-937am-president-john-f-kennedy-shakes-hands-with-former-commissio US President Kennedy at a presentation of an Outstanding Record Citation to Harry J. Anslinger, former Commissioner of Narcotics, 1962 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

He once stated, “American youth is jeopardised by weed – those who are lured into the use of marijuana are destined to be transformed into moral and mental degenerates – some riveting maniacs – others violent criminals”. It’s almost as if Anslinger’s ghost lives on in some of our policymakers today. 

However, Anslinger’s efforts to demonise drugs in the US was also a racist campaign. He once claimed that black people and Latinos were the primary users of marijuana; he made a concerted effort over decades to conflate violence, drug use, and race.

It is well documented that he cherry-picked evidence to present on drugs, ignoring the advice of the majority of medical professionals to convince legislators that marijuana was linked to violent crime.

I think of the enchanting sounds of Billie Holiday, who used Heroin, and who was hounded on her deathbed by Anslinger; Anslinger asserted that Jazz musicians created satanic music due to smoking marijuana. Johann Hari has written about the racial claims by the politician, whereby Anslinger stated that cannabis promoted interracial relationships. 

Global agenda

Anslinger took his anti-drugs mission to the United Nations, along with his unintelligent arguments, and won. Several conventions, such as the 1931 Narcotics Limitations and the 1936 Convention for Suppression of Illicit Traffic, have Anslinger’s fingerprints all over them.

Such conventions aimed to encourage other states to introduce criminal prosecution for the consumption of drugs. Anslinger managed to take personal bias and vendetta and impose it on a global scale. He ensured that the US was the authority on drugs at the UN between the 1930s and 1960s, using his high-level position to lead many of the negotiations on the international stage. He did so without the US ever joining the League of Nations.

After a decade of drafting, these efforts resulted in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Over 60 years on, in 2022, we are still handcuffed to this piece of legislation. Although amended over the years, the treaty remains the dominant law of many nations. It can be understood as a global policy on drugs prohibition.

The body count under this failed regime is immeasurable. The global scale of the treaty’s influence makes the suffering hard to capture in numbers, but the evidence is overwhelming and undeniable that this regime has failed.

At no point in the last 61 years of its existence has global drug use ever declined. A study in the British Medical Journal in 2013 found that since the 1990s, the supply of drugs across Europe and the US has increased, prices have fallen, and purity has increased.

Continuing Anslinger’s racist legacy, the war on drugs has targeted Black Americans: Black people comprise 13% of the US population, but 40% of those incarcerated for drug offences in the US. By adopting the 1961 Convention in Ireland, we have also achieved nothing. The addiction continued, drug markets exploded, generations of families have been wiped out, and to what end?

Failure of prohibition

Prohibition had no evidence base in America, and it’s not grounded in any evidence in our Drugs Act in Ireland either. In the 1970s in Ireland, Minister Brendan Corish said that the state was fulfilling its United Nations obligations when debating the Misuse of Drugs Act.

But these “United Nations obligations” were never founded on evidence. Even Corish expressed serious doubts when introducing the legislation. Tracking our drug laws back in time illuminates that it has always been ideology over the evidence; specifically, the personal ideology of a small handful of powerful, racist, conservative American men.

What we have witnessed under this treaty is death, debt and misery. What was once coined the “war on drugs” by President Nixon in 1971 (following decades of Anslinger’s lead) is now seen for what it really is: a war on people, on culture and the poor.

A 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy unequivocally concluded that the war on drugs was a failure. Indeed, the war on drugs has failed is a global consensus among health experts, drug policy advocates, and health authorities.

Despite this, last year, the International Narcotics Control Board published a paper called Celebrating 60 Years of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. It isn’t easy to comprehend that its authors are experiencing the exact times as the rest of us reading the document. The paper says that an underpinning principle of the 1961 Convention is the health and welfare of humankind: yet this completely ignores the realities of people’s lives under its existence. The paper states the convention has proved its value, yet, globally, around 150,000 people still die every year from drug overdoses. 

The 1961 Convention essentially created global prohibition. Prohibition brings violence, poor-quality drugs, and criminalisation, all of which fly in the face of integration and health. To say that the convention is based on health and welfare is a complete contradiction. References to treatment, education, and rehabilitation are paternalistic and tokenistic without real drug policy reform.

Even the World Health Organization has called for the decriminalisation of drug use. They are quoted as saying, “Bold policies can deliver bold results”. When will Ireland be bold and brave? The time is now for Ireland to have a Citizens Assembly on Drugs and rid ourselves of the cold chains of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is, in reality, a product of America’s racist and ideological War on Drugs.

It is clear to see how America’s anti-drugs politicians influenced international conventions, which in turn influenced Ireland’s drugs policy, never being led by any evidence. Our drug laws in Ireland have their roots in a war on people; our Citizen’s Assembly must not only end that war, but it must remedy some of the damage that this war has done to countless lives.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.


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