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The War on Drugs has led to millions of people dead, displaced and incarcerated. Disproportionately enforced on oppressed races, international drug prohibition has reinforced the colour line across the globe. The story of the War on Drugs is often told as an American story, in this blog Kojo Koram, editor of The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, reveals how the history of the War on Drugs is a global history, encapsulating the legacies of apartheid and land appropriation in settler colonies. 

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A current failing of much of the literature that has sought to focus on drug prohibition and race has been its centring on the drug war in the US.

The historical and empirical research that has identified drug prohibition as being a key driver of a racially discriminatory system of mass incarceration in the US has been an essential contribution to wider discussions on both drugs and race and serves as a key foundation upon which the arguments of this collection stand. Michelle Alexander has offered probably the most famous contribution to the field of study with her 2012 bestseller, The New Jim Crow, where she highlights that in the US ‘Black men have been admitted to prison on drugs charges at rates of 20 to 50 times that of White men’, despite the fact there is in fact no discernible discrepancy between the use, supply, or production of prohibited substances between Black and White American communities. This practice of legal discrimination within the execution of the drug war has resulted in a criminal justice system in the US that sees the ultimate consequence of the drug war as only the production of a ‘bulging prison population … disproportionately comprised of poor people of color, most of whom had not committed violent crimes’. It has become harder and harder to see the drug laws in America as anything other than the latest instantiation of the country’s particular history of legalized, racialized violence.

David A. Sklansky has written on how the stark discrepancy between the mandatory federal sentences for trafficking in powder cocaine and crack cocaine reflect the different racialized associations of the drugs, with powder cocaine being perceived as a White person’s drug while crack cocaine is presumed to be a drug taken only by African Americans and therefore punished far more harshly. For Sklansky, the discrepancy in the sentencing of the two drugs, despite the fact that one is chemically only a derivative of the other, highlights a lie at the foundation of the US’s legal order: the belief that all men are created equal. He argues that ‘it is hard to find contemporary laws that fail this prophylactic requirement [for equality before the law] more blatantly than the federal crack penalties’; with the different penalties for crack and powder cocaine, the legacy persists of a legal system that promised equality before the law but founded itself on slavery and segregation.

That the US has occupied the focus of scholars concerned with the racialized history of the drug war is, to a certain extent, understandable. The War on Drugs has resulted in the US having the world’s largest prison population by some distance and one that is not only marked by a stark over-representation of racial minorities but also connects directly to the US’s previous forms of legalized racial segregation.

Furthermore, due to the US’s position as the hegemonic power in the contemporary global order, its own history of racial oppression can often be taken to function as a stand-in for a global narrative of the history of race. The prominence within the conversation on race of plantation slavery, the civil rights movement, or Barack Obama’s presidency, in comparison to land appropriation in Australia, the Haitian revolution, or Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency, remains a consequence of the US’s own disproportionate power and prominence within world affairs. Yet when analysing the relationship between the War on Drugs and race, despite the important, ground-breaking work undertaken by the scholars above, a failure to push the conversation beyond the American context not only leads to limited understanding of the global picture but also overlooks the inherently transnational nature of race as a global construct, drugs as a global commodity and the laws prohibiting the drugs trade as operating at the global, as well as national, level.

While Michelle Alexander and other scholars provide crucial insight into the connections that persist between America’s drug-war fuelled model of mass incarceration, and the histories of plantation slavery, Jim Crow segregation and legal White supremacy that underwrote the US’s development, it is important to remember when discussing race, drugs and transatlantic slavery, that Alexander is addressing topics that cannot be analysed in full from within the strict confines of any one nation-state.

The racial dynamics that have been identified within the War on Drugs in the US are not only mirrored in other countries across the globe, but in fact have their genesis in global, not only American, histories and discourses of racial formation. The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line offers a picture of the relationship between drug prohibition and race at an international level. As was recognized by the lawyers who first advocated drug prohibition at the start of the twentieth century, since the traffic of drugs is an inherently globalized industry, any attempt to analyse this problem must itself function at the level of the global.

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The problem of race exceeds any one national narrative of racial divisions; it spans the globe encapsulating the legacies of apartheid and land appropriation in settler colonies, the hierarchy of populations produced through scientific racism and the notions of sub-humanity, as well as gendered ideas of stronger (masculine) and weaker (feminine) peoples, that continue to haunt the contemporary, ostensibly post-racial world.

Once this more global perspective is taken into consideration, we can better understand why the racialized dynamics of the drug war that have been identified in the US are not limited to that country but instead can be seen to reoccur in a number of other nation-states. For instance, one immediate parallel is the United Kingdom, where empirical studies have also illustrated how crucial the race of the defendant is in terms of the punishments that tend to follow a drug arrest. In the UK, Black people are disproportionately imprisoned when found guilty of drug offences, whereas White counterparts are far more likely to escape with a simple informal caution. The discrepancy in the application of drug laws has helped create a situation in which, in opposition to the common conception that the UK is not burdened by the US’s racial problems, the proportion of Black people imprisoned, in relation to their proportion of total population of the country as a whole, is in fact larger in the UK than in the US.

As Tanzil Chowdhury’s chapter in this collection shows, the racialized undercurrent of drug policing in the UK has resulted in contrasting levels of surveillance and control being imposed on festivals and celebrations associated with the country’s Black community as opposed to the White majority. This trend in the racially discriminatory application of drug laws continues in other countries that we have focused on, for example, in Brazil, where drug prohibition has propelled an expansion in a carceral state which is disproportionately populated by bodies racialized as Black,  as unpacked at length by Evandro Piza Duarte and Felipe da Silva Freitas in their insightful chapter.

In addition to an unequal application of criminal punishments and prison sentences for drug crimes, racial disproportionality in Brazil is also revealed by the piles of Black and Brown bodies that make up many of the fatalities that have resulted from the draconian attempts by police to enforce drug control across the country. The parallels continue across Latin America, including countries such as Colombia, where Oscar Guardiola-Rivera extends the work done by others (such as renowned anthropologist Michael Taussig) to connect the violence of the contemporary cocaine trade to the racialized history of slavery and gold production in Colombia. As the chapter in this collection written by Guardiola-Rivera and myself illustrates, the forced crop eradication and aerial fumigation policies that were extended under the US-backed counter-narcotics strategy known as ‘Plan Colombia’ have particularly affected Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, reinforcing the ‘historic marginalisation’ of these communities.21 This can occur even in countries that pride themselves on overcoming their history of race, such as Canada. In their chapter, Dawn Moore and Elise Wohlbold show how Canadian drug laws are intimately interwoven with that country’s own history of settler colonialism. Similarly, in the ‘rainbow nation’ of today’s South Africa, Shaun Shelly and Simon Howell analyse the way in which apartheid-era security structures and policing tactics have been repurposed in the drug war. Ashley Bohrer and Andrés Fabián Henao Castro’s chapter offers a global analysis of policing tactics and shows that how the drug war was fuelled not only militarized policing in the US, but also how this new form of policing has been exported across the globe to help maintain contemporary settler colonialism, particularly in Israel. This collection of essays also contains Ariadna Estévez’s unpacking of the gendered and racial aspects that underpin the mass of violence released in the War on Drugs in Mexico since the turn of the millennium, and Asmin Fransiska tying drug prohibition in Indonesia to a suppressed colonial past and a contemporary rise in xenophobia within that country. Finally, Katherine Pettus concludes the collection by arguing for understanding the geographic inequalities in access to internationally controlled essential medicines for the treatment of pain and palliative care today as part of the long legacy of European colonialism and the privileging of pain relief for particular populations instead of others.

It is because of the consistent racial asymmetry in the application of drug laws, across a variety of different jurisdictions and social contexts, that the authors who have contributed to this collection are able to draw together theoretical traditions that have extensively considered the problem of race in the modern world, including post-colonial/decolonial studies, critical race theory and whiteness studies, and apply them to the concrete political problem of the War on Drugs. A shared perception that coheres the disparate arguments and approaches of this collection is the understanding that race is not a natural, a priori, objective phenomenon, but is a social relation that must be maintained and reconstituted on a daily basis through institutions such as the law. Following on from this understanding, the essays in this book illustrate how the racial and geographical discrepancies that have been produced in the application of the international laws on drugs across a variety of juris- dictions are not an aberration but, when looked at collectively, offer a telling account of how racial, ethnic and geographical differences continue to be produced in the contemporary, ostensibly post-colonial/post- racial modern world. The War on Drugs serves as a particularly interesting topic for reading manifestations of race in a ‘post-racial’ world, as drug prohibition emerges as a historical contemporary of the victories of civil rights and decolonization in the mid-twentieth century that were supposed to erase the global colour line of the preceding centuries. Therefore, when thinking about which arenas and institutions produce and maintain racial disparities in the contemporary era, the co-currency of the emergence of international drug prohibition legislation and the legislation that, formally at least, dismantled the colonized/racialized global order provides an insight into how the problem of the colour line persists within the ostensibly post-racial/post-colonial world.

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The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line edited by Kojo Koram is available from Pluto Press now.

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Kojo Koram is a lecturer at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London. He undertook a PhD at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, focusing on the international drug treaties as an realisation of the continuing legacy of imperialism in international law.