Colonization Laid the Groundwork for the Drug War

By Ismail Lourido Ali and Justice Rivera 04/11/18

The War on Drugs is a War on Healing

Amanita muscaria aka Fly Agaric mushroom growing in the forest.
Substances like marijuana, ayahuasca, iboga, and mushrooms also have long histories of use in other parts of the world.

The way you think about and interact with “drugs” — substances like marijuana*, heroin, mushrooms, or cocaine and also caffeine, sugar, and alcohol — is a result of norms, expectations, and propaganda that are grounded in colonialist and imperialist ideologies.

The criminalization and violence inherent in the global drug control scheme is an extension of an ongoing attempt at social control that has been occurring since people began colonizing and oppressing in pursuit of land, capital, and empire. The profit- and empire-oriented values of the early settlers were a precursor to the modern War on Drugs, which continues to devastate marginalized groups and communities of color in the United States and around the world even as some progress is made.

As a society beginning to seriously discuss creative alternatives to the punishment- and abstinence-based status quo, we must acknowledge that maintaining drug prohibition requires both a misappropriation** and control of substances that are indigenous to certain lands and cultures, and a racialized demonization and selective prohibition of imported substances. In order to transition beyond prohibition with integrity, we must also shift away from moralizing and patronizing narratives about the variety of relationships people have with these substances. This shift begins in part with recognizing the role that long-obsolete but still-dominant narratives play in perceptions of drug users, drug prohibition, and substance use itself.

Drug Colonization Over Time

Centuries ago, Puritan British and Catholic Spanish missionaries concocted fear-based propaganda that entheogenic*** substances, from mushrooms to peyote, gave tribal people the ability to communicate with the devil. The propaganda led to criminalization, which provided an excuse for violence and control, and led to the genocide of peoples and cultural practices in the process. Settlers came to America with more alcohol than water; many European immigrants believed that alcohol was God-given and medicinal, and while introducing native people to alcohol, settlers stripped indigenous communities of access to their own healing substances. This White, Anglo-European reliance on alcohol has permeated into modern American culture and continues to this day.

Evidence of this racialized, colonial double-standard is found in the evolution of how people viewed and used marijuana. As early as the 1600s, settlers began growing hemp for use of its fibers. In the 1800s, the medical establishment promoted the medicinal properties of marijuana and in the early 1900s, as alcohol prices steadily began to rise, marijuana was promoted as a recreational substance. However, after the Mexican-American War, proponents of an increasingly militarized border found an ally in people like Harry Anslinger, former Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics (which later became the DEA), who used marijuana as a scapegoat for explicit anti-Mexican sentimentality. By the 1930s, partly in response to racist propaganda from Anslinger and others, both the United States and Mexico began to crack down on marijuana possession, use, and distribution.

Other substances that originate in different regions - like coca and opium - provide further evidence for the hypocrisy of racialized criminal “justice.” Both substances have a history of use by indigenous people in South America and Asia, respectively. By the 18th and 19th Centuries, Americans and Europeans were using them as well, primarily in medicine but also for personal or recreational purposes. However, in response to an influx of Chinese people entering California, San Francisco outlawed the smoking of opium in 1875. In 1909, the Shanghai Opium Commission met, marking the beginning of a transnational attempt to control production, trade, and consumption of certain substances. Ironically, colonial powers of the early 1900s - like the British and the Dutch - maintained a strong interest in maintaining free trade of these substances, but they were quickly overwhelmed by American interests in prohibition, beginning in 1914 when Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products (including cocaine).

This international drug control scheme grew in strength and commitment, and in the early 1970s a cohort led by U.S. President Richard Nixon explicitly re-associated these substances with crime, poverty, and Black communities, essentially militarizing the American anti-drug agenda. This provided justification for Nixon to further implement the already-unbalanced enforcement of drug laws, laying the foundation for the mass incarceration crisis we are in today. It is now common knowledge that while marijuana use has steadily increased among all users for the last fifty years, so have arrests; Latinx and Black people in the United States, however, continue to be arrested at a rate four times higher than white people, despite comparable rates of use in each population. America continues its legacy of slavery by its addiction to imprisonment; where people who are incarcerated clean up after natural disasters and fight fires often for less than $10 per day.

To date, nine states and Washington, DC have legalized and regulated marijuana, and efforts are being made to repair some of the harms of prohibition in cities like Oakland and the state of Massachusetts. Although these developments are promising, many people from low income and minority communities—where the war on drugs was primarily fought—remain burdened by prior marijuana convictions and continue to be excessively targeted by law enforcement. Furthermore, policy reform—apart from full prison abolition and reinvestment in social services, harm reduction, and foreign aid—runs the risk of applying pressure to underground markets, which consequently adapt by shifting supply and affecting demand; switching from marijuana to heroin, for example.

Drug Colonization Today

Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to obstruct common sense harm reduction policies which would stem the opioid epidemic (including decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana) while overdose deaths increase. The “news” of opioid overdoses and despair deaths affecting white people is not news to millions of impoverished and marginalized Americans who have never experienced a time in history without deaths from despair.

Despite centuries of biased propaganda and policy associating currently-illicit, plant-based substances with chaos, violence, and malice, the use of these substances among indigenous communities continues to be traditionally medicinal, spiritual, or initiatory, often in culturally-sanctioned contexts. Peyote and psilocybin-containing mushrooms are used in the Americas in ceremonial contexts to pray, to heal, and to deepen self-understanding. Substances like marijuana, ayahuasca, iboga, and mushrooms also have long histories of use in other parts of the world. It is not an accident that numerous extracted or synthetic substances, with similar entheogenic properties, are treated the same way by law enforcement as the plants first demonized by early settlers. For many people, substances like LSD, MDMA, DMT, and ketamine provide the medicinal, spiritual, and therapeutic experiences that humans have been experiencing with plants for thousands of years.

The cost of this misalignment, and of failing to recognize that healing exists beyond the pharmaceutical paradigm, is high; in fact, the limitations of current pharmaceutical treatments may be a direct outcome of the aforementioned attempts to control individual molecules in the first place. Millions of people are dissatisfied and underserved by the present healthcare framework, even when they can afford treatment. After years of research being frozen and use being pushed underground, psychedelic-assisted therapy with MDMA, ketamine, or psilocybin now shows promise for treating conditions like PTSD, depression, suicidality, and anxiety. Multiple substances, including ayahuasca and ibogaine, may aid in the healing of trauma and in recovery from substance use disorder. As studies show, these therapies may be comparable to (and in some cases, significantly more effective than) generally accepted forms of treatment such as SSRIs and 12-step programs. However, people seeking these treatments are at risk of breaking the law; until that changes, we will all continue to suffer the consequences of the same mistakes that the early settlers made.

Decolonize Drug Use

The prohibition of drugs and the criminalization of drug users are both tools of violent, dominance-based political frameworks, and prohibition has caused a subjugation of authentic, sincere substance-assisted psycho-spiritual and therapeutic practice that has roots in indigenous cultures throughout history and around the world. 

Decolonizing drug use on a personal level means returning to intentional relationships with these substances that are grounded in respect, reciprocity, and reverence. It means contextualizing one’s relationship to drug use within the paradigms of colonialism, patriarchy, and violence and becoming aware of the spectrum of intentions behind self-dosing, from healing, to worship, to personal growth.

Decolonizing drug use on an institutional level means that we legitimize and provide access to plant-based, entheogenic practices, and that we bring more awareness to indigenous healing practices and frameworks that go beyond the present healthcare system’s reliance on specific treatments for single indications. It means awareness of why institutions like the DEA, FDA, and others use the standards they use, and why it is imperative to critique them.

Decolonizing drug use on a community level means that we recognize the intercontinental colonization, genocide, and enslavement of indigenous peoples, and the various ways that this unfolds including drug dependence, domestic violence, and suicide. It means that we research, discuss, and create policies that reduce the harms of colonization on these peoples. Most of all, it means that we support and elevate members of our communities who have been impacted by prohibition, that we promote their leadership, and that we seek to actively repair centuries of harm caused by colonization, oppression, and exploitation.

* The word “cannabis” is being increasingly used by media and industry, especially as states continue to decriminalize the plant, and it is the scientifically correct term. However, the word “marijuana” has a long history of use, including a time of racist weaponization, which complicates its history. We, like advocate Sonia Espinosa, are choosing to use it out of respect and acknowledgment for the name and its true roots.

** Appropriation draws attention to the use of another culture’s norms or practices. Misappropriation recognizes that appropriation often corrupts the intent and/or ritual surrounding cultural practices. More simply, it's the use of something that is not yours without knowing how or why it was originally used.

*** The word “entheogen” means “divine-within” and is sometimes used synonymously with “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting.” However, the two words have different implications, and the word entheogen is used here to draw attention to the aspect of the experience that many people associate with a relationship to spirit, mysticism, or divinity.

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Justice Rivera is Partner with Reframe Health and Justice where she works with businesses and organizations to advance public health and human rights-based approach to drug use, sex work, violence, and labor. In this role, Justice combines her personal and community organizing experiences with formal education to provide high quality customized support to health and justice systems. Justice received her BA in Self Determination and Social Change from the Metropolitan University of Denver. Previously, she provided direct and in-direct services to people in the sex trade as Director of Outreach and Organizing at Prax(us) and people who use drugs as Development Director at the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, Colorado. Then, she supported governmental drug user health infrastructure development as the Drug User Health Fellow with the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors. Justice now serves on the board of the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA and volunteers with VOCAL WA.

Ismail is Policy & Advocacy Counsel for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), where he advocates to eliminate barriers to psychedelic therapy and research, develops and implements legal and policy strategy, and coordinates support for clinical research in Latin America. He also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for Students for Sensible Drug Policy and sits on the Steering Committee of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund. Ismail has also worked for Muslim Advocates, the ACLU of Northern California’s Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Project, and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law. Ismail earned his J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2016, after receiving his Bachelor’s in Philosophy from California State University, Fresno, in 2012. Ismail believes that legal access to psychedelics is an essential part of a progressive drug policy paradigm.