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Kasia Malinowska: The Foundation Of The U.S. War on Drugs Is Racism

It has been 50 years since Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. It is well known today that one of its main intentions was to control Black people in the United States. We know this from documents and accounts of his associates – says Kasia Malinowska, director of the Global Drug Policy Program at Open Society Foundations.

Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was charged with killing African-American George Floyd in May 2020. During his arrest, Chauvin pinned Floyd with his knee as Floyd screamed that he could not breathe. After Floyd's death, another wave of protests against police brutality swept across the United States.

Chauvin was fired from the police force the day after he made the fatal arrest; three days later, he was already under arrest himself. In late April this year, he was found guilty of murder. It took the jury just 10 hours of deliberation to reach its final decision.

During Chauvin's trial, his defense attorneys argued that Floyd did not die from choking, but because he was under the influence of drugs. This argument was quickly refuted.

We talk to Kasia Malinowska, director of the Global Drug Policy Program at Open Society Foundations, about why the defense tried to use the stereotype of the "Black drug addict" and what racial prejudice has to do with the American war on drugs.


Dawid Krawczyk, Mateusz Kowalik: In the video of George Floyd's arrest, we see police officer Derek Chauvin strangling the man with his knee. Floyd died shortly after, and Chauvin had just been convicted of murder. What did psychoactive substances have to do with this case?


Kasia Malinowska: Shortly after George Floyd's death, the results of the autopsy were published. They showed that the man was under the influence of psychoactive substances, which for many people became the justification for the brutal reaction of the police. Some even tried to claim that psychoactive substances and not suffocation were the cause of Floyd's death. The whole story was presented in such a way that it fit into the well-known narrative of the war on drugs.


And were you surprised that the defense is trying such an argument in 2021, 50 years after Nixon?


Not a bit. It was known that the police didn't have public opinion on their side, so they tried everything.


So there is still a chance that for a U.S. court the fact of addiction will be something incriminating?


It is incriminating for everyone, regardless of whether it is a white or Black person. But for the latter it is an aggravating circumstance, especially because of the dominant vision of how drugs affect non-white people.


Courtney Ross, George Floyd's white partner, told the court about Floyd's addiction and her own. She said that in both cases it all started with a doctor's prescription of opioid painkillers. Will the fact that a white American woman faced the same problems allow those driven by racial prejudice to look differently at Black people who use drugs?


The opioid crisis in the United States is something very serious. All of last year was the worst in terms of the number of people who died from overdoses [According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 87,000 people died from overdoses between October 2019 and September 2020 – ed. note]. As this crisis began among white people, the reactions to it were and are vastly different than when crack cocaine use among impoverished Black people was an issue. There is less judgement, more sympathy, and more talk about access to treatment. This makes the war on drugs "softer".


Softer for everyone?


Well, no. In the case of George Floyd, there was no discussion of the fact that this man had an addiction problem and no access to treatment, there was basically no sympathy at all.


At the same time, Floyd has posthumously become a very important figure in the protests that have taken to the streets of American cities for years in opposition to police brutality.


Through the Black Lives Matter movement, police cruelty towards Black people has become one of the most prominent topics in U.S. politics. Both President Biden and some other governors seem to be attempting to counter police brutality.


Which is to say, what exactly?


It has been 50 years since Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs. Today we know very well that one of its main intentions was the control of Black people in the United States. We know this, among other things, from documents or accounts of his associates.

The level of use of various psychoactive substances does not vary between citizens of different races, but Black people are the most frequently prosecuted, arrested, and convicted. The average U.S citizen believes that psychoactive substances affect people of different races and classes differently, and that Black people become especially dangerous after using them. Such an American would be strongly surprised if he were told that drugs have the same effect on whites and Black people. To understand why the defense used this argument in the mentioned trial, one must understand how strongly rooted this belief is. George Floyd fit this narrative all too well: here was a stocky, dark-skinned Black guy on drugs, and therefore certainly dangerous, even charged with some sort of superhuman strength.


The jury found the former police officer guilty of murder after only ten hours of deliberations. Is it possible to hope that justice was served and that the evidence of psychoactive substances in the victim's blood did not hinder the jury's judgment?


The fact that Chauvin was rightly tried is not the result of a change in mindset. It is the result of everyone having seen the video of him strangling Floyd for over nine minutes. The police report filed after the incident showed that Floyd was putting himself down, and that he was under the influence of drugs. It was as a result of the police intervention that he developed health problems that resulted in his death. That video shows the kind of manipulation the police are perpetrating. In my mind, there is no doubt that if one courageous teenage girl had not recorded the video of the incident in Minneapolis, Chauvin's case would have turned out very differently. In my opinion, this young girl deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. It is quite possible that she will be the cause of real changes in what the police are allowed to do – changes that activists and NGOs have been demanding for years.

An autopsy showed that there was 11 ng/ml of fentanyl in George Floyd's blood. Objectively, that's a high dose, but not for an addicted person, whose tolerance to the opiate substance is higher. It was not an amount that would cause death. Besides, this is not how one dies from an overdose. Such a person drains away, overflowing through arms, and Floyd screamed, begging for mercy.


For several months, the U.S. public lived the story of George Floyd. However, not because it was something unusual. Similar situations are not lacking in recent years. When we look into the statistics of drug crimes, there is a huge difference between how often Black Americans are arrested for drugs and how often white Americans are. Both use marijuana in similar amounts, but whites are arrested for possession four times less often. Why is this actually the case?


Let me give you an example: even though New York City has eliminated penalties for possession of certain amounts of marijuana, the police still search people – but only in neighborhoods populated by Black people. In Lower Manhattan, you can smell grass every step of the way and there is no doubt that people smoke there. But it's mostly white people who smoke there, so the police don't go after anyone. In the Bronx, on the other hand, the police don't let up because it's a tool to control Black people.


Also, the rate of opioid addiction is similar among people of all races, while many more non-white people die from overdoses. What explains this?


Again, it all comes down to how the police respond. If a person in need of help calls an emergency number, they run the risk of having police arrive in addition to an ambulance. And the police, as we already know, treat white people differently from Black people. The latter run the risk of being arrested, which rather does not apply to whites. Whites explain that using psychoactive substances is a form of self-medication: to heal from poverty, pain, to heal the soul. It's harder to get that perspective when the overdose involves someone who is dark-skinned.


However, it has been 50 years since Nixon's War on Drugs was declared. After all, we are not at the same point as we were then. How much of that policy still remains today, and what has changed?


The most dramatic example is the difference in penalties for possession of powder cocaine and crack cocaine. It's the same substance, but in two different forms. Powder is purer and used by rich whites, crack is a drug of poor people, usually Black Part of the war on drugs was the introduction of a law in 1986 that punished the possession of one dose of crack as much as one hundred doses of powder. Sad to say, Joe Biden was a big proponent of this law. In 2010, that ratio was relaxed to 18:1. Which is still unfair. I hope that during his presidential term this imbalance will finally be addressed.


When it comes to legalizing the cannabis market, we're seeing some progressive changes, too. California even has racial parity in licenses to sell marijuana – a certain amount for white and non-white residents.


Yes, but if you look deeper, you find that there is systemic racism hidden in these regulations as well. Because you can reserve a certain amount of licenses for ethnic minorities or members of different races, only they still have to have the money to buy them. And this is where the stairs begin for many non-whites. Many supposedly progressive policies create some difficulties for them. The best drug law in my opinion is being enacted by the state of New York – its action will show whether racial justice can be enacted.


What are New York's solutions?


The most important is the automatic expungement from police records of anyone convicted of marijuana possession. In other states, you have to apply for this yourself, and it's not uncommon to pay someone to fill out the application. In New York, it's supposed to work automatically.


And is the legalization of marijuana in even more states likely to permanently change how psychoactive substance users will be perceived?


I think the change is so subtle that it is barely noticeable. Legalizing marijuana creates a new reality in which drugs are divided into good and bad: "of course marijuana is the one good one, and the rest are just as bad as they were, or even worse." Methamphetamine, crack, heroin continue to be seen as bad. The exception is psychedelics (e.g. MDMA, which can be effective in treating depression), because they tend to be used by mostly white and affluent people.


If so, does decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of other psychoactive substances, not just marijuana, have the power to change how the U.S. perceives people who use them?


Yes, I think this is the next step, which so far only the Oregon government has decided to take and Washington state is starting the topic. Criminalizing possession means that governments are shifting the de facto responsibility for regulating psychoactive substances to the drug world. And that should be the responsibility of government. At the same time, in the mentioned example of New York City, we see that the decriminalization of marijuana itself does not prevent the police from constantly going after young guys in the Bronx. In practice, decriminalization is not such a simple remedy that has an immediate effect.


Is there any other way?


Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced even before the pandemic that she would not prosecute anyone in cases involving possession of small amounts of marijuana. During the pandemic, she extended that approach to other drugs as well, as part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. Police officers were up in arms at first, but she showed that things could be different. In a conversation with me, she explained that this was her response to the lack of prospects for decriminalization by the state legislature. Therefore, if you can't change the law, she implemented it at the practice level. She seems to have succeeded.


This interview appeared on Drugopolitics and is reprinted with permission of the editors. 

* Kasia Malinowska is a public health specialist. She leads the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she worked on HIV/AIDS policy with the United Nations Development Programme. In the 1990s she co-founded Poland's first national AIDS program.

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