International evidence of the development of Drug Discrimination


Cultures around the world and throughout history have different drug preferences. A culture's drugs are part of their cultural identity. With increasing immigration cultural values conflict. The most powerful cultures impose their drug preference values on the less powerful cultures - this happens externally, in relation to other nations, but also internally in relation to the subcultures of national minorities. The less powerful become scapegoats for the powerful, being blamed for all drug problems while the powerful deny they are involved with drugs.
The drug preferences of immigrant minorities are then adopted by open-minded young people leading their parents to panic about cultural contamination and worse. Laws are passed to prevent this 'evil from abroad' corrupting the young while the dangers of home-produced drugs are ignored.
Eventually there is little evidence left of the racial link between minorities who prefer drugs with illegal status and the majority who prefer drugs with legal status. Discrimination becomes grounded purely on public opinion and legal status, both aspects of socially institutionalised discrimination.


1. Cultures around the world and throughout history have differing drug preferences that have biased their assessment of drug harmfulness:

1968, UK, Hallucinogens Sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence, The Wootton report:
63. To make a comparative evaluation between cannabis and other drugs is to venture on highly subjective territory. The history of the assessments that have been given to different drugs is a warning against any dogmatic judgment.
64. Tobacco was once the object of extreme judgments. In the 17th century a number of countries attempted to restrict or forbid its use, but without success. In 1606 Philip 111 of Spain issued a decree restricting its cultivation. In 1610 in Japan restrictions were issued against planting and smoking tobacco, and there are records of at least 150 people apprehended in 1614 for buying and selling it contrary to the Emperor’s command, who were in jeopardy of their lives. At the same time, in Persia, violators of the laws which prohibited smoking were tortured and in some cases beheaded. The Mogul Emperor of Hindustan noted "as the smoking of tobacco has taken a very bad effect in health and mind of so many persons I order that no person shall practice the habit". Smokers were to have their lips slit. In 1634 the Czar of Russia forbade smoking, and ordered both smokers and vendors to have their noses slit, and persistent violators to be put to death. Medical reports of the period are full of accounts of its deleterious effects on mental and physical health.
65. Even non-alcoholic beverages that are now in common use have, in their time, been regarded as gravely dangerous. As late as the beginning of this century the Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge along with the most distinguished pharmacologist of the time described in a standard medical textbook the effects of excessive coffee consumption: "the sufferer is tremulous and loses his self-command, he is subject to fits of agitation and depression. He has a haggard appearance.... As with other such agents. a renewed dose of the poison gives temporary relief. but at the cost of future misery". Tea was no better. "Tea has appeared to us to be especially efficient in producing nightmares with ... hallucinations which may be alarming in their intensity.... Another peculiar quality of tea is to produce a strange and extreme degree of physical depression. An hour or two after breakfast at which tea has been taken . . . a grievous sinking ... may seize upon a sufferer, so that to speak is an effort.... The speech may become weak and vague.... By miseries such as these, the best years of life may be spoilt".
66. With such earlier judgments in mind we do not wish to make any formal or absolute statement on a comparison of cannabis and the other drugs in common social use. All we would wish to say is that the gradations of danger between consuming tea and coffee at one end of the scale and injecting heroin intravenously at the other, may not be permanently those which we now ascribe to particular drugs.

2. Immigration results in the introduction of novel cultural values, including different drug preferences, into a society:

1993, World Health Organisation, 28th report of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence [pdf, 2.63Mb]:
3.3.1 The strengthened network of transportation has also facilitated migration. … While in itself migration has not been an important mechanism for drug transportation, it has contributed to the increased contact between cultures with very different norms and understandings of psychoactive drug use.

3. Cultural competition between the indigenous majority and immigrant minorities leads to the latter becoming scapegoats for pre-existing indigenous social problems:

1994, US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies for Understanding and Preventing Substance Abuse and Addiction [pdf, 3.89Mb]
Box 1-3, p.13: Drugs and Discrimination.
In America, tensions between the majority and various minorities often hinge on concerns raised by drug use. The groups change over time and place, but the dividing issues remain remarkably similar. Those in power decide which drugs are legal and how rules should be enforced. Minorities charge that unfair policies result from prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.
1850, Boston: Impoverished Irish Immigrants brought the tradition of drinking whiskey with them. In American cities, people often blamed whiskey for neighborhood quarrels. In the mid-19th century, clashes with Irish Immigrants occurred so often that police vans came to be known by the term “paddy wagons”.
1880, San Francisco: Fear of immigrant Chinese often focused on their recreational use of opium. In 1875, San Francisco outlawed opium smoking which most residents associated exclusively with the Chinese. This citywide ban became nationwide in 1909.
1882, Ohio: German immigrants’ beer drinking often brought Germans into conflict with temperance advocates. Cincinnati’s lively German community gathered at beer gardens on Sundays to sing, dance, drink, and argue politics. In 1882, Ohio’s governor denounced Germans as “Sabbath breakers, criminals, and free thinkers”.
1930s, Colorado, New Mexico: The Southwest welcomed Mexican migrants during labor shortages but during the Depression, anxiety over competition for jobs shifted to wildly exaggerated fears of the effects of marijuana use customary among Mexicans.
To placate fears, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which prohibited recreational use of the drug.

2005, King County Bar Association, Effective Drug Control: Toward A New Legal Framework [pdf, 866Kb], p.19 of pdf, Prohibitions of the Past:
As prohibitionist sentiments have historically been in response to the clash of social and cultural traditions, the use of particular drugs has been associated with alternative subcultures, hated minority groups and foreign enemies. An 'us versus them' mentality frames the public debate, eventually singling out certain psychoactive substances more for their perceived relationship to unpopular social groups than for any deleterious effects of the drugs themselves. Thus, drug prohibition has been a means through which dominant cultural or social groups act to preserve their own prestige and lifestyle against threats to the established social order.

4. In the 1950s the spread of novel cultural values about drugs from immigrant minorities to indigeneous minorities, especially young people, induced intense fear of cultural contamination, fears that also contaminated drug risk assessments, though not for traditional drugs:

1968, UK, Hallucinogens Sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence, The Wootton report:
35 In the early part of the period [the late 1940s] most seizures were of green plant tops, found in ships from Indian and African ports and thought to be destined for petty traffickers in touch with coloured seamen and entertainers in London docks and clubs. By 1950 illicit traffic in cannabis had been observed in other parts of the country where there was a coloured population. In 1950, however, police raids on certain London jazz clubs produced clear evidence that cannabis was being used by the indigenous population; by 1954 the tendency for the proportion of white to coloured offenders to increase was well marked, and in 1964 white persons constituted the majority of cannabis offenders for the first time.

1955 The World Health Organisation’s The Physical and Mental Effects of Cannabis:
Under the influence of cannabis, the danger of committing unpremeditated murder is very great; it can happen in cold blood, without any reason or motive, unexpectedly, without any preceding quarrel; often the murderer does not even know the victim, and simply kills for pleasure.

1952 The cancer advisory committee of the UK’s Department of Health told Richard Doll, the scientist who showed nicotine was carcinogenic:
You shouldn't frighten people into thinking that smoking might be dangerous.

5. Such biased cultural norms were reflected in both public opinion and law leading to the under-regulation of drugs viewed as known, acceptable and classified as legal and the attempted over-regulation of drugs viewed as unknown, unacceptable and classified as illegal:

1993, World Health Organisation, 28th report of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence [pdf, 2.63Mb]
5.6 The structure of public opinion about drugs often undermines the effectiveness of rational drug control policies. For example, the widespread acceptability of cigarette smoking in almost all societies has made tobacco smoking a familiar and companionable behaviour, and one that can be fitted into almost all routine daily activities. In many societies, drinking has also become established as a socially acceptable behaviour, often associated with other activities, and so familiar that it may not even be noticed. … Conversely, a lack of knowledge about illicit drugs can contribute to excessive public concern and lead to ill-considered policy-making.
8. Government policies may also be inconsistent – the promotion of alcohol and tobacco may be unrestricted while the use of drugs that have less serious consequences may be illegal.
A rational drug control policy is an essential tool for fostering health promotion, irrespective of the legal status of individual drugs, and the absence of such a policy will result in considerable public health costs.
9.1.1. …[WHO has an] integrated approach to the problems presented by the use of tobacco and the harmful use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs, and [the Committee] recommended that prevention and treatment services should, wherever possible, be concerned with the harm produced by all these drugs.
9.1.3. Attention must be paid not only to illicit drugs, but also to alcohol and tobacco, medicinal psychoactive drugs and volatile solvents to ensure a reduction in health problems due to illicit drug use will not be offset by an increase in problems due to the use of other drugs.

6. By 1994 both WHO and the UN could see that the discrimination between those who consume and trade equally harmful drugs is unjustifiable:

1994, United Nations, statements at the opening of the Thirty-seventh Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs:

(a) Director of the WHO Programme on Substance Abuse, Hans Emblad, stated:

Current drug strategies are, to some extent, driven by a few industrialized countries. On the one hand, they are making strenuous efforts to exclude from their shores every conceivable kind of illegal substance. But on the other hand, these countries are also vigorously pushing their own substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals onto the very same countries from which they are doing their best to exclude illegal drugs.

(b) Executive Director of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, G. Giacomelli, stated that it is...:

...increasingly difficult to justify the continued distinction among substances solely according to their legal status and social acceptability. Insofar as nicotine-addiction, alcoholism, and the abuse of solvents and inhalants may represent greater threats to health than the abuse of some substances presently under international control, pragmatism would lead to the conclusion that pursuing disparate strategies to minimise their impact is ultimately artificial, irrational and un-economical.

7. By 1997 the UN seemed to have accepted that such cultural discrimination was unsustainable in the long-term:

1997, United Nations' World Drug Report, The Regulation - Legalization debate, p.198 [pdf, 154Kb]:
The discussion of regulation has inevitably brought alcohol and tobacco into the heart of the debate and highlighted an apparent inconsistency whereby use of some dependence creating drugs is legal and of others is illegal. The cultural and historical justifications offered for this separation may not be credible to the principal targets of today’s anti-drug messages – the young. If it is accepted that education and prevention are the most effective, long-term strategies against drug abuse, then planning a drug control regime for the next century should tackle this problem and its implications for both the developing and the developed world.

8. In 2004 the World Health Organization called for equal rights in Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and dependence, p.33:

One of the main barriers to treatment and care of people with substance dependence and related problems is the stigma and discrimination against them. Regardless of the level of substance use and which substance an individual takes, they have the same rights to health, education, work opportunities and reintegration into society, as does any other individual.