Drug laws originated as race laws

Canada's first drug law was passed to stop white guys from rioting because white women were hanging out with Chinese men:

"King was sent to investigate damages claims resulting from a riot when the Asiatic Exclusion League led a rampage through Chinatown and Japantown. Two of the claimants were opium manufacturers, and after further investigation, King found that white women were reportedly frequenting opium dens as well as Chinese men. A federal law banning the manufacture, sale, and importation of opium for non-medicinal purposes was soon passed based on these revelations."


  1. "...based on these revelations"

    That's an enormous oversimplification of Carstairs thesis, Gene, though the connection to Chinese exclusion is interesting.

    1. John, I don't know who Carstair is, or what his thesis is, so I don't think whatever I wrote was me oversimplifying it.

    2. Gene, you cited Wikipedia, Wikipedia cited a thesis by someone named Carstairs.

    3. That's cool. I don't doubt what you say is true.

      I still don't know who Carstairs was or what his thesis was. So I wasn't really oversimplifying anything.

  2. I wasn't accusing you of the oversimplification, Gene. I was referring to the text I quoted.

    It's dangerous to rely on Wikipedia without verifying its sources.

  3. Anonymous9:05 AM

    The beginning of drug legislation in the US also began with racism. I don't remember all of the details (I looked into this back when I was in college), but I know that marijuana laws were mostly aimed at Mexicans, whose cultural connection to marijuana runs pretty deep. I also remember seeing propaganda posters against cocaine with a drawing of a crazed black man and an innocent white woman, the message stating that cocaine is causing black men to rape white women (I tried finding it on google images with no luck).

    1. That's like saying the Pacific war in WWII "began with racism" because you researched old political cartoons from the era that trafficked in "vile racist stereotypes" (it's very interesting to look at this old stuff, by the way).

      Imagine your tribe comes into contact with another tribe who has a deep relationship with crystal meth and it begins to infect some of your own tribe in all of the negative ways we know crystal meth can. And probably in worse ways because your tribe lacks this "deep cultural connection". Since you look down on the other tribe anyway, some of your in-tribe propaganda plays up this association in the process of throwing as much as they can at the anti-drug efforts.

      Do you see what I'm getting at? Of course the irony is that this "throw anything you can at the opposition" approach is just like trying to associate anything you don't like to the boogeyman of racism in the hopes that something sticks.

      I doubt there are many causes you can't find "racist associations" for if you go back far enough, because people back then didn't have our modern sensitivities toward race and considered such arguments quite normal!

    2. http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/2384624

      I don't think this is really very much in doubt John.

    3. Thanks for the article, Gene.

      I'd be very curious as to how you've come to understand that this thesis is not "very much in doubt". You've linked to one liberal judge making this case on a pro-marijuana site.

      Even some commentators at the (pro Marijuana) HuffPo are making the counter claim that what *really* started it was economics. I'd be very surprised if you had never heard that thesis since I know you've traveled in libertarian circles.

      My understanding is that the story is much more complex, as much as people love simple answers.

    4. "My understanding is that the story is much more complex"

      Of course John, all historical stories are complex. There is never a single cause for anything. The fact that economics was involved doesn't mean that racism wasn't.

    5. Well the discussion was about whether this is what the ensuing legislation was "based on" or whether racism "began" drug prohibition. That's much more bold a claim then "racism was involved".

      Anyway, I would be curious to see a fleshing out of exactly what the "racism theory of drug prohibition" is precisely asserting. That racial hatred motivated us to take away the opium from the Chinese (or marijuana from the Mexican, or cocaine from blacks)? That racial hatred made us perceive threats that weren't there (would it matter if the threats were there?)? Or was it a fear that alien folkways would spill over into the dominant white culture (e.g. whites getting caught up in drug epidemics).

      I know the word racism generally shuts down discussion, but that would be much more interesting and would do much more to clear things up. The excerpt from Bloch is not well written, it just seems like his off the cuff understanding. The first paragraph doesn't at all explain the causal connection to fear of the Chinese seducing white women with opium to the 1909 law against opium use, which he doesn't directly assert exists but definitely implies.

  4. Yeah, I think like John I am calling BS on the wiki writer's conclusion. Early 20th C Canada saw a lot of Prohibitionist activity on all fronts. The first woman MP was a Prohibitionist. We had prohibition before the USA, and it passed way not from outright repeal but by morphing into govt monopoly. To suggest that the impetus to ban other drugs was just because white women were rubbing shoulders with Chinese men is the kind of tendentious stuff I expect from Wikipedia. Overdetermined is the word for restrictionism in canada back then. Canada's relatively liberal attitude on drug matters these days is a recent development. Even in Toronto 30 years there were serious restrictions on Sunday sales etc. it has changed steadily since the late 50s.

  5. Anonymous11:57 AM

    Gene, thanks for the link showing confirmation. Like I said, I haven't looked at this issue since college (14 years ago).

    "Of course John, all historical stories are complex. There is never a single cause for anything. The fact that economics was involved doesn't mean that racism wasn't."

    Exactly. I probably used stronger language than was intended, but there is no doubt that racism was a part of the push for prohibitive legislation, and indeed, current laws in this regard fall far more heavily on particular races (esp. blacks and hispanics). While there are always many considerations regarding the movement of historical events, it would be disingenuous for anybody to state that race had nothing to do with this issue. I don't mean to appeal to an authority, but in this case it is legitimate to mention that a great number of historians and sociologists have also made the association between race and drug prohibition. It isn't mere assertion.

    Also, while I did mention a propaganda poster, this wasn't as a proof, it was merely an example from memory (which I did mention). However, if one takes all of the news reporting and statements from politicians on this issue from that period, they would be hard-pressed to find many examples that don't mention race. The preponderance of data points to race being very much a large consideration at the time, but certainly not the only consideration.

    1. More likely, once the desire is there to restrict the racial tropes are close at hand, ready to deploy. The notion that Canada would have been Dopeland North except for King finding out about white women and Chinese men is, well, unlikely. If the decision to ban drugs had been made the other way the racial referecnes would have been about not putting white cops at risk over yellow users yada yada.


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