Maine Governor's Outrageous Remarks Harken Back to the Racist Origins of the Drug War

January 8, 2016 - By Sharda Sekaran

Maine’s Governor Paul LePage is no stranger to making crazy comments in public that are unbecoming to an elected official, but his latest racist rant about heroin use in his state is rightfully getting people up in arms.

During a town hall meeting on Wednesday night, LePage was asked about how he was tackling substance abuse in Maine. What was his response? Did he bring up practical health interventions based on science and addiction medicine? Did he talk about harm reduction services that are known to save lives like availability of clean syringes, widely distributing the lifesaving overdose reversal drug naloxone, increasing access to drug treatment services or allowing for safe facilities where drug users can consume under medical supervision as have been implemented in Europe and Canada with overwhelming positive results in reducing death and disease?

Nope, not by a long shot.

Instead, LePage responded, “These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home.” And because that wasn’t explicitly racist enough, LePage elaborated, “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

These comments may seem shocking in an age when people across the political spectrum are veering away from the drug war and towards models that deal with drug use from a more humane and informed perspective that includes criminal justice reform, harm reduction and compassion instead of punishment for people who use drugs.

What prehistoric rock did LePage pull his thinking from the bottom of?

LePage is actually taking a page directly out of the drug war history book. He barely edited it. It turns out the drug war was built on the foundation of racist thinking. The first anti-drug law in our country was passed in 1875 in San Francisco. It was directed at Chinese railroad workers and was prompted by the belief that Chinese men were luring white women to have sex in opium dens.

Cocaine regulations were a reaction to racist fears about use among African Americans in the early 1900s. A 1914 New York Times article proclaimed: "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are a New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to 'Sniffing.'" A Literary Digest article from the same year claimed that "most of the attacks upon women in the South are the direct result of the cocaine-crazed Negro brain."

Significantly, Congress passed the Harrison Tax Act outlawing opium and cocaine in… wait for it… 1914.

Marijuana is known by a Spanish name in the U.S. instead of cannabis because it was stereotypically connected to Mexicans on the southwest border towns. An advocate for marijuana prohibition wrote in the New York Times in 1935: “Marijuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration. … Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marijuana cigarets to school children.”

Consequently, racism helped propagate the criminalization of marijuana that resulted in countless wasted tax dollars, lives ruined from marijuana arrests, law enforcement corruption and decades of disastrous policies that the country is just beginning to remedy.

The drug war has traditionally been the best buddy of racism, which LePage’s offensive comments vividly reflect. Racism is why black and brown people make up the overwhelming majority of people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, even though drug use is equally prevalent across all races. It’s why we have a prison crisis in this country.

Meanwhile, none of this has prevented the harms caused by drug misuse or done anything to protect the communities suffering from opiate addiction today in Maine and across the country.

There is no place for bigotry and fear in alleviating the dangers that can come with drug use and the illegal drug trade. What we need are smart, sensible, visionary leaders, not the antiquated racist views that got us in this mess in the first place.

Sharda Sekaran the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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