Following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, a renewed push to remove monuments to the Confederacy has gripped the country. But the racist monument that Americans should be most concerned with tearing down isn't a statue of Robert E. Lee; it's the Controlled Substances Act that banned marijuana back in the 70s.
One of the great ironies involved in the push to tear down Confederate monuments is the composition of the communities which have taken sides on the issue. The largest population calling for the removal of these "icons of hate" are primarily urban, ethnically diverse, young, and Democratic-leaning communities.
Of course, what many overlook is that many of those icons of the Confederacy (like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest) were all Democrats. These glorified participation trophies for a lost rebellion are, oddly enough, most feverishly defended by rural, older, white, Republicans. It seems that these Republicans want to venerate the traitors that their party defeated in the Civil War.
What is all the more shocking about these mismatched communities is that it was radical Republicans that controlled Congress when the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were passed to end slavery and systematic racism in the country. It was radical Republicans who passed the original Civil Rights Act of 1866. And it was radical Republicans who did everything they possibly could to destroy the racist legacy and ideology of the men in those monuments their fellow party members now feverishly defend.
It was defeated and dejected Democrats who built those statues in the late 19th and early 20th century as symbols of their restored control following the end of reconstruction. These same eras also saw the same politicians who built those statues to the Confederacy build a criminal justice system based around exploiting free labor, effectively continuing the practice of slavery with the convict-lease system.
Perhaps these mismatched communities are yet another relic of the political realignment that occurred between Republicans and Democrats following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Oddly enough, this mismatched alignment of parties and people is also mirrored in another racist monument of the past. However, unlike statues of racists, the War on Drugs continues to be waged based on statutes rooted in racist ideology.
America's Racist Statutes
While the War on Drugs was officially declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the war on marijuana had started long before, beginning under Republican President Herbert Hoover, and truly blossoming under Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The architect was Harry Jacob Anslinger, America's first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (later combined into the Drug Enforcement Agency). Anslinger was responsible for the incredibly racist mass media campaign which eventually culminated with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Anslinger’s campaign focused on the dangers of “drug crazed Negroes” and “Hispanics” to stoke fears and public resentment. These racist media campaigns tied marijuana use to minority populations based on nothing more than myths. Unfortunately, the American public bought the propaganda hook line and sinker.
The passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 essentially made marijuana illegal across the country from its passage until it was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. One year later, President Nixon declared the War on Drugs, ostensibly as a response to the slowly increasing rates of violence which would have its horrific crescendo in Republican President Ronald Reagan’s tenure.
However, as history has revealed, President Nixon’s real reason for declaring the War on Drugs had much more in common with the racist ideology of Anslinger. President Nixon’s own words reveal from his White House tapes, that his primary reason for outlawing marijuana was to hurt his political enemies. President Nixon even ignored the Shafer Commission’s report, which detailed the relative safety of marijuana as a drug and the profoundly negative effects that criminalizing marijuana would have on certain communities.
President Nixon believed that Jews, hippies, blacks, and homosexuals were the only people using marijuana, and that communists were using marijuana as a tool to destroy American culture. Nixon’s own aids would later confesses that President Nixon knew exactly what he was doing when he made marijuana illegal and it was specifically meant to be a racist and political weapon.
Unfortunately, laws prohibiting marijuana passed based on racist propaganda, and propagated and enforced for racist reasons, continue to stand today. Even President Reagan’s renewal of the War on Drugs was not free of those racist ideological underpinnings. While most of the racist undercurrents of the War on Drugs were centered around the treatment of crack cocaine in the Reagan era, marijuana still loomed large in the math of the Drug War.
Today, the racist policy that is the War on Drug’s continues, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeating some of the same rhetoric from Anslinger’s original propaganda campaign.
Today, like the arguments centered around removing monuments to the Confederacy, the same mismatch of political ideologies and communities exist. Primarily young, diverse, urban, Democrats are the largest single population pushing for an end to the War on Drugs and the legalization of marijuana. On the other side primarily older, white, rural, Republicans are the largest base pushing for “Law and Order”, continuation of the War on Drugs, and the continued prohibition of marijuana.
Remove Racist Policy, or Racist Monuments?
While the debate about removing racist monuments continues to rage, it occurs to me that perhaps there is a better target of this indignation. Statues honoring dead men who fought for the abhorrent racist system of slavery are detestable to some. However I believe the War on Drugs statutes based on racist beliefs, passed by racist propaganda, for racist purposes, and with racist effects are far more offensive to people’s sensibilities.
If there is any monument to racism that should be torn down, if only for its manifestly negative impact on people, it should be the Controlled Substance Act. Unfortunately, dismantling racist statutes is much more difficult than removing racist statues. Even though over three-quarters of US states have legalized access to some kind of medical marijuana, and over 90% of Americans supporting the legalization of medical marijuana, cannabis remains illegal federally.
Multiple attempts to dismantle the racist legacy of the Controlled Substances Act have been proposed by both Republicans and Democrats, and yet nothing has been done. Even with Republicans controlling the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, Republican proposals to repeal or amendment the Controlled Substances Act from Representative Tom Garrett, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and Senator Rand Paul have all gone nowhere.
Rekindling the Radical Republicans
If Republicans really want to show the American people they are committed to dismantling systemic racism in American culture that many see embodied in those monuments, they must rekindle the same passion their forebears had when they enshrined our rights to equality, liberty, due process, and citizenship.
Republicans should seize the moment, and advance real reform to tear down the racist monument that is the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.
Hunter J. White is the Communications Director of the national Republican political organization, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, a Non-Profit 501-c3 organization dedicated to the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition in all its forms. In this series of articles, Hunter shares the challenges, experiences, and insights that he has gained from years of working to bring marijuana policy reform to the Republican Party.
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