Adam Ruins Everything is a fantastic YouTube series. Short videos, usually pretty much spot on, that destroy cultural assumptions by…well, just demonstrating they are only cultural assumptions—and indeed, often created for sinister or stupid reasons, and never actually based on facts. It’s a superb example of not just cultural critique, and how valuable and powerful that is (to notice how much you take for granted as just “the way things are,” is in fact just some arbitrary invention of your culture, and often a terrible or obsolete one at that), and also how important knowing history is to understanding your world (sorry, apocryphal science fanatics, science alone isn’t enough…you need to be up on those pesky humanities, too!), but also of using humor to educate, while still being fact conscious (the skits often indeed cite their sources, and even cover key nuances).
I was recently turned on to the Adam Ruins video on criminalizing marijuana. And it was powerfully good. And provoked some interesting ideas about how to explore claims like these and address competing views by finding where the facts are (apart from opinions) and seeing if there is a synthesis that makes even more sense.
The Video & Its Thesis
The gist of the video (The Sinister Reason Weed Is Illegal) is that marijuana has only ever been criminalized as a way to punish minorities—particularly blacks and “Mexicans”—and liberals—especially liberal agitators, the liberals who don’t shut up but actually spread their ideology like a despicable fungus by…talking about their politics with other people, and the liberals who make trouble for the government by actually having the audacity to protest it, or openly disrespect it; the liberals who won’t conform or silently play nice. That, in fact, it has no other rationale.
Every other reason given for outlawing pot, is just bullshit apologetics, just the same way Christians defend their religion with bullshit and lies, when all along their real reasons are far more selfish—like not wanting to admit they and their loved ones are mortal; wanting others to conform and not be so frighteningly different; having a socially reinforced rationalization for all their prejudices; and wanting to maintain the social privileges being a Christian affords them in their communities or the social networks they have become dependent on. Indeed the similarity extends beyond even just the surface of that analogy. In both cases it’s also true that of those defending the indefensible (whether marijuana criminalization or Christianity), only some actually admit to themselves this is what’s happening…that they don’t really believe the bullshit reasons they invent to defend the faith; that their real motives are much less admirable. Whereas for most, it’s all subconscious; a systematic delusion.
The expected arguments are in there: no credible or replicated science shows weed any worse than alcohol or tobacco (even in respect to its effects on minors, which are irrelevant to adults; and we regulate minors’ access to tobacco and alcohol already without criminalizing them); and weed doesn’t gateway you to harder drugs (the same slippery slope fallacy conservatives always use against every liberty ever, up to and including gay marriage and death with dignity). In short, there is no reason to outlaw it. At all. Much less as severely and expensively and destructively as we have done.
And those two points are pretty much true. Minor nuances glossed over are that, for example, the “zero” deaths for cannabis the video touts is only for overdoses and cancer. And that’s true. But there are other ways drug use can kill you. It’s just, they’re the same ways alcohol and tobacco kill you, and frankly, alcohol and tobacco are much more lethal by any measure applicable to cannabis. So “it kills you” can never be a logically valid argument to outlaw marijuana, unless you also intend to outlaw tobacco and alcohol…and we already know what happened when we tried that. We just haven’t learned any lesson from it. Because we’re idiots. Outlawing marijuana has created exactly the same completely preventable problem, and the American public just won’t admit it. In fact, it is outlawing marijuana that has killed hundreds of thousands of people (thousands yearly in the U.S. alone). So if preventing deaths is your sincere aim, legalization is the only credible policy you can endorse.
So even if you pick at nuances, once you dance around that maypole, you end up in the same place: when it comes to the broad points, Adam is right.
But this Adam Ruins Everything video doesn’t just give you those points, which you probably already knew (if you are at all liberal and informed, and nondelusional). It tells you something you probably didn’t know, because it’s too scary and shameful for conservatives to allow it to be taught in American history classes in high school, and unless you take a course specifically on drug policy history in college, you won’t ever have heard of it (outside your own directed self-learning, or a random accidental collision with someone telling you…like now). It tells you why cannabis was ever targeted in the first place; and why the policing and punishments have always been bizarrely severe, and continually increased over time.
That reason? Mexicans. No, seriously. Mexicans.
The state initiated a racist policy to scourge and expel loathed Mexican populations in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and since Prohibition was overturned leaving a whole apparatus in place to fascistically police controlled substances, it was retooled almost immediately to go after marijuana…because everyone thought Mexican = pothead. And white people were all in a new panic over Mexicans at the time. In just the same way only a couple decades earlier they thought Chinese = opium den, and thus to crack down on Chinese immigrants, opium was outlawed. The same exact tactic. They couldn’t outlaw being Chinese or Mexican. So they drummed up a fake moral panic over marijuana (just as with opium; of which heroine is simply a concentrated product; in between is the concentrate known as morphine, which escaped vilification because doctors used it and Americans were too stupid to know it was the same drug). And then used that as a proxy to abuse and regulate disliked ethnic groups, producing excuses to rough them up, imprison them, deport them, disparage them, harass them with searches and seizures, pipeline them into the prison system, and run them out of white neighborhoods.
This almost ended in the 1970’s when Nixon had a commission investigate if there was any point in continuing the criminalization of marijuana. The commission overwhelmingly concluded the answer was no. But Nixon said fuck you, I’m cracking down even harder! A perplexing action in response to that information. But guess how history repeats itself. Wonder why he decided to do that? Adam Ruins Everything may shock you (if you hadn’t already known this) by simply directly quoting Nixon’s own Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Learning the Erlichman quote alone is worth watching the whole video. It wasn’t a secret. It was published in Harpers. So now rancor had turned from the Mexicans, to African Americans. Well, okay, Hispanics never stopped being a target; Nixon didn’t care, but the American public and legal system was still awash with anti-Mexican racism, so a policy that let them continue oppressing that ethnic group, they happily employed to that end as well. Collateral damage, Nixon might have said. But importantly, even in the 1930s under Harry Anslinger, and as we can see explicitly in the statement of Erlichman, it wasn’t just ethnic groups being targeted with drug policy as a smokescreen. It was liberals. In particular, the liberals who didn’t stay at home and conform and stay quiet and play nice. But the liberals who spoke up, acted out, and spread dangerous anti-American propaganda! They loved weed, too. So by outlawing weed, the state not only got to oppress racial minorities, it got to oppress an entire political class, the one most critical of state-power overreach. Ironically. (Or maybe not ironically at all, depending on how you think about it.) Anti-marijuana laws are thus, in fact, a covert form of fascist political oppression. Conform and play along, or we’ll ruin your life.
This is all pretty much true.
I had long suspected the real motive for the drug war was this stock fascist policing strategy of outlawing something everyone you hate does that isn’t actually bad, so you can selectively punish them whenever you want “for that,” because you aren’t allowed to punish them for what really pisses you off about them—like, say, being black, Mexican, or an outspoken liberal. This explains, for example, why a black person caught with pot is four times more likely to be prosecuted for it: police can use their ‘discretion’ to decide when to apply the law, and thus selectively apply it to punish not criminals, but just people they don’t like; to search the person and private property, not of anyone actually doing anything bad, but of anyone they want (because, if everyone you want to abuse is doing weed, that means you can legally harass anyone you want…and if they are disliked enough, such that everyone will readily assume they’re on pot, you can even plant weed on them if perchance they aren’t users).
In the same way, you’ll notice drug laws are selectively punished (more searches and arrests; and harsher punishments) not just along racial and political affiliation lines, but also by class. The rich get a pass. The poor get the jackboot. In other words, it’s almost like sex in 1984: because there actually isn’t anything wrong with drugs, and drugs are fun, it will be widely permitted and thus prevalent in the very circles the state most wants to crush; consequently, you can use “outlawing drugs” to effect any abusive policy you want. It’s classic cryptofascism.
This video all but proves my suspicion was correct. With actual facts. And history! And as a historian, I love history. I also love great facts, and tightly structured, succinct arguments; and well-conveyed complex ideas, especially with the brilliant use of art. And this has all of that. I then checked its sources, and other resources to confirm it had it’s story straight. And, well, yeah. It does.
I really found only one line of pushback against its narrative. And that provides a handy lesson in critical thinking, especially about claims in any field of history.
The Alternative Narrative
Few historians contest the claim about Anslinger’s role, that pot was criminalized to harass Mexicans. And that it was criminalized on a package of lies in defense of such an absurd policy. Well, also for Anslinger to keep his job after Prohibition ended (which the Adam Ruins video also mentions; before practically creating and the first to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics…Anslinger co-ran the Bureau of Prohibition). Oh, also, Anslinger was a racist’s racist: he also used pot laws to harass the jazz community…aka black people. So, basically, a total dick. Whom we can blame for wasting billions of dollars over nearly a hundred years ruining millions of lives for no worthy purpose.
But unlike Anslinger, many historians struggle to pretty up the legend of Nixon. There’s a fashionable trend to try and insist Nixon wasn’t so bad as everyone said. Other than being a criminal and a traitor and a racist asshat. But, you know, apart from that, he was actually a pretty good guy and a swell President, we’re supposed to believe. So surely Nixon can’t really have been so racist and explicitly diabolical as Erlichman said. Erlichman must be lying! (Cue total absence of evidence for this alternative theory.) You can read up on this pushback in an article about this at Vox (Was Nixon’s War on Drugs a Racially Motivated Crusade?).
Apart from the harumphing opinions of historians who are intuitively sure that that couldn’t be Nixon’s reasoning, there is no evidence otherwise, and it comports exactly with the entire history of pot enforcement beginning with Anslinger. But those dissenting historians try to offer one piece of evidence. It’s not really evidence of what they claim. But it’s all they have to offer. Basically: that Nixon split his pot enforcement budget between prosecution, and treatment & prevention. And surely that bespeaks compassion, not racism. He was the “nice guy” who tried medicalizing rather than criminalizing pot. If he wanted to use pot criminalization to crack down on and oppress his opponents among the black citizenry of America, why, we’re asked, would he spend so much on just trying to help them?
Of course, in terms of general principles, this is a possibiliter fallacy—just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it’s probable. And it’s also a fallacy of naive history: assuming that what a policy looks like on the surface, is actually what it is. Historians don’t fall for that fallacy on the enforcement side—they fully recognize that what Anslinger and Nixon claimed were their reasons for criminalizing pot, were not only false, but known to be false by both Anslinger and Nixon. So why do they immediately fall for it when looking at the prevention side of the same policy? Similarly, it’s naive to think that a policy that gets enacted is exactly what the advocates of that policy wanted. In democracies, compromises are needed to persuade people to vote your policy into law; so the final result may contain things the advocates didn’t want, but needed to include, in order to get the parts they did want. This is so routine in lawmaking it’s astonishing to see any policy historian forgetting it.
The flaw in their reasoning about Nixon is therefore twofold.
It implausibly assumes Nixon could just go straight for fascism in any plan to use drug policy to suppress his political opponents. He wasn’t a dictator. He might have loved to have been. But he had that pesky democracy thing in his way. He had to convince Congress to budget his plan. That required playing the fiddle of “I’m just concerned about my people,” and thus required hiding the hundreds of millions he ramped up on enforcement, behind the facade of hundreds of millions spent on “just trying to help people.” And yes. He ramped up drug enforcement from a few million to hundreds of millions in budgeted dollars. He is the guy who created the DEA in 1974, after having described drugs in 1971 as “public enemy #1” on which we must “wage” a “war,” hence the press coined the phrase “Nixon’s War on Drugs.” And hell yeah, that’s what he launched. It was code for “War on Blacks and Liberals.” And the fake charity side of it looked like the same smokescreen Hamas uses: fronts that do so much charity, how could they possibly be evil?
But really, even that interpretation is charitable. Because it’s also folly to claim that his budgeting so much to treatment and prevention actually signals his sincere compassion for pot victims. He had the data. Commissions had told him: there are no pot victims. So it’s not in evidence that that’s what he thought. He may have thought that for other drugs, e.g. heroine; but we’re talking only about pot here. This is an important confusion to note: whatever compassion Nixon had for Viet Nam war veterans, for example, it was for heroine addicts, and much of his treatment budget targeted them, e.g. funding methadone clinics; that does not explain why he criminalized pot. Whereas it is in evidence that he used the same lies and tactics Anslinger did to justify spending so much on oppressing his own citizens for marijuana possession and trafficking.
Treatment and prevention also really meant education and stigmatization. Which allowed Nixon to spread and give authority to his lies and spread and increase the link in the public mind between “pot user” and the notion of being “depraved,” a “criminal,” or a “threat.” And it increased the likelihood fellow citizens would rat each other out (thinking the treatment system would result; when in fact the punitive system was usually brought to bear). It essentially sold the package of propaganda that he then used to justify spending more on the actual war. The treatment & prevention side, in other words, was just his corporate marketing budget for what he actually wanted: hell on earth for his political enemies. And it played exactly into his racist, fascist goals, by convincing the public to share the very views he was exploiting to get that tool into his hands.
So, no, I don’t think Nixon gets a pass because he budgeted so much for treatment & prevention. That was either not for pot anyway, or just a propaganda vector to stimulate and facilitate the machine of oppression, and a pretty picture behind which to hide it. Subsequent administrations found the whole system useful in just the same way, but with even less interest in the treatment & prevention, and ramped enforcement up even further—or couldn’t get it reduced, blocked by a conservative-minded legislature and a populace now ginned up into a moral panic. The biggest war on drugs exploded under Reagan, whose racist policy targeted crack (used by poor blacks) far more than cocaine (the same drug, mostly used by rich white people), for example; and still demonized pot.
Notably, even what quotes are cited to show Nixon personally despised pot, his reasoning against it was that it was a disease infecting even white kids and turning them into liberals bent on antisocial activities. It promoted anti-war activism. It promoted protest movements disrespecting the government. So it wasn’t just about disliked races but also disliked social behaviors and views, particularly of a political nature, that conservatives associated with pot and thus wanted to punish, just as Erlichman said—and not just punish, but also ‘prevent’ with ‘reeducation’ that would teach anti-drug propaganda and thus spread and perpetuate the very views that proxied it to racism and promoted hostility toward liberals and (by association) their politics. If liberal = pothead, and pothead = criminal, then blacks and liberals would be thought of as and treated as criminals; no one would want to be like them or even be thought to be like them. That was the goal.
It sure looks like that’s what’s been going on these last eighty years, from Anslinger to Nixon to Reagan to now. Even Obama, who tried softening the war a little, couldn’t, for fear Congress would thrash him and his party for going soft on crime. So effectively have racist and fascist Republicans moved the Overton Window on public perception of pot. Even now, though some states have gained majorities flipping the bird to all this; most still have not. That’s how slowly reality encroaches on the public’s worldview. That’s how effective the propaganda has been.
Even many liberals support criminalization of pot. But if you examine those who do, you’ll find they tend to be on the conservative side of social policy, or otherwise have more in common with conservatives than liberals. Anti-pot liberals are the liberals obsessed with respectability politics, with “fitting in” in a conservative America. These are the same liberals who will vote Democrat but punish a girlfriend of mine for being polyamorous by telling their kids they can’t be friends with her kids anymore. (Yes, there are liberals who do that.) So they are prone to many of the same delusions, and harbor many of the same racist and classist attitudes. They associate drugs with not being respectable, and with losers and minorities and “dirty hippies” (on the left side; with “white trash” on the right). Because disgust with the poor, and political boat-rockers, and the heathen who adorn themselves with piercings and tattoos, isn’t just popular among the conservative middle and upper classes; it can be found among liberals as well. And really, quite often, it’s they who keep tipping the scales against legalization, every time, state by state. But it’s all the same thing: racism and prejudice. Not rational, evidence-based policy.
This is true regardless of whether a pot criminalizer is aware of the fact. They have the racist and classist associations in their minds about pot, and that is what maintains a matrix in their head that convinces them that it must be “bad,” because “those people” are bad. And consequently, the drugs (and thus “those people”) become imagined as an existential threat to their kids, their neighborhoods, the fabric of society. That’s how racist and classist propaganda works. It plays on the prejudices already in the public, and gives the public cool rationalizations that let them feel like they are really just compassionate, law abiding citizens protecting the innocent, and not racist fucks suppressing an entire political class distasteful to them. But any objective observer can tell, reality does not comport with the delusion.
It looks pretty clear to me now that the drug war is a war on the poor, liberals, blacks and “Mexicans”. Maybe you should start taking seriously the idea of ending it. Of taking away this tool of fascist and racist oppression. Of ending this massive waste of tax dollars and resources. Of aligning policy, for once in a fuck, with evidence, sense, and reality. Indeed, some conservatives have escaped Plato’s cave and even agree with this now. Liberals and moderates have no excuse not to join them.
From a liberal perspective, this is an example of a social injustice creating a new white privilege—and indeed a class privilege, as persons in (or perceived to be in) the middle and upper classes are also prosecuted far less and far less harshly in enforcing drug policy; just as whites are. You didn’t ask for that privilege. It’s not your fault that you can more safely use pot than your black peers or the poor folk downtown. You might not even have any use for that privilege. I don’t use pot myself. So the fact that I can get away with it far more easily than if I were black or “lower class,” could easily be invisible to me; I might not have noticed the privilege my society is giving me that I didn’t ask for. For the same reason, maybe you haven’t noticed either (and “It doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?” is the death of liberal thought). But alas that privilege exists, and it exists not because of explicit injustice—no law says “black people can’t use pot but white people can”—but because of social injustice.
It’s just a pervasive unspoken understanding in the whole social and legal system that the pot laws will be used to cudgel certain classes of people far more than others, to punish people we don’t like, rather than people we sympathize with and don’t see as a threat because they look like us and act like us and agree with us. To think using marijuana is bad, and makes a person lazy or dangerous and thus a drag on society, is a social injustice. And eliminating the law would begin to eliminate that social injustice. Of course, so would simply enforcing drug laws equitably, which has to be a persuaded change in behavior; it can’t be legislated. But since there is no rational basis for outlawing marijuana, any more than there is for alcohol or tobacco, really, we should just decriminalize it, and treat it exactly the same way we do alcohol and tobacco.
Just as any sane society would do.