Desis and the Drug Wars: Why South Asians for Justice Are Needed To Dismantle the Drug War, Free People and Plants, and Foster Health and Development for Millions – Part 2Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit. – Henry J. Finger, leader of California Board of Pharmacy, in a letter to Hamilton Wright, leader of US delegation to International Opium Conferences, July 2, 1911 “Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” –The 2005 annual report for the Corrections Corporation of America, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission
First, a needed preamble for Part 1. At the first SAFJ-NYC meeting, I expressed an interest in doing a type of ‘teach-in’ on the relationship between South Asian for justice issues and the drug war. The group collectively expressed some interest in my doing this, as did some people individually. Given the way of our schedules and the difficulty of arranging meetings, I figured starting off virtually would be the most appropriate. This also is a way for me to convey rather complicated trains of thought that link the concrete radical and queer-politic approaches mentioned in the SAFJ Vision statement with the cause that has become one of my major foci of activism and public education – the dismantling of the American-led war on drugs institutionalized machine of violence, oppression, and ongoing mass incarceration and its replacement with a decriminalized model of real public health regulation for all psychoactive substances which recognizes people’s rights to cultivate natural plants.
Why this matters for South Asians for Justice is that 1) the history and foundation of the modern drug war has its roots in colonialism and racism, significant threads of which can be traced back to animosity and discrimination directed at South Asian people, South Asian migrant diasporas, and long-standing South Asian cultural practices (e.g., see Links 1 and 2 below) and 2) the dismantling of the present wave of racially disproportionate mass incarceration does intersect, as the vision statement points out, with the wave of undocumented immigrant holding centers that target South Asians and other immigrant groups and 3) liberating people to make use of the plants that are suppressed by the drug war could do a great deal for health and development the world over, given the extreme shortages of opium-derived pain medicines around the world (esp. in places like India where so much is produced and exported) and given the thousands of uses of the cannabis hemp plant for food, shelter, medicine, paper and other valuable products, to name a few examples.
Now, comrades, let me recap some of what I discussed in Part 1. In a US-led colonial effort, India and other South Asian countries were ordered by the United Nations (UN), despite their official protest, to give up their long-standing cultural practice of cannabis consumption in 1961, and were given a 25-year grace period to do so, which India has only partially done. In 2010, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Health, a South Asian man appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, finally called for global respect for the enduring cultural legacy of cannabis use in India. This begs the question: would such a treaty agreement dictating mandatory ‘stamping out’ of culturally accepted close contact with a plant even be politically possible in today’s UN?
South Asians seeking justice, concerned as we are about the ongoing problem of mass incarceration in the United States, ought to be questioning the principles of the prisoner-taking drug war, which is THE major force behind the gargantuan rise in the US prison population. And if indeed we want to be radical, we must get to the heart of the drug wars, and when you do that, you find that 3 key plants, depending on where you are in the world, are at the heart of it: cannabis, opium, and coca. And in the United States, it’s all about cannabis.
Allow me to take three extended quotations from a book that really succinctly explains the symbolic politics of drugs in the US and the key role that cannabis criminalization plays in the drug war.
Drug use was popularized and romanticized as a portion of the general rebellion against the rules and norms of the pre-1960s explicitly racist, sexist, militarist, puritanic nation. Drugs became a symbolic and substantive act by which much of the population thought and declared itself free from old constraints. Though the counter-culture achieved a great deal of attention, as well as some of its agenda, the larger population despised them for changing the old rules which were comfortable for many persons. As the dominant culture reasserted itself, initially under Nixon but much more vigorously under Reagan, the body politic did a very traditional thing and criminalized the opposition culture. Marijuana growers and users totaling in the millions were made to suffer the majority’s backlash.” (p. 160-1)
“The absence of physical harm from smoking pot has required that all the punitive force be government created. Punishment for marijuana is thus the great frontier of authoritarianism. A widespread popular behavior detested by the ruling class has justified war propaganda, police engagement and mass punishment.” (p.141)
“Marijuana is at the heart of the War on Drugs precisely because the criminalization of 600,000 Americans each year is nearly all about ideology and culture and emphatically not about health. Marijuana is the only drug specifically mentioned by Ronald Reagan in his drug war kickoff address. It is the drug that has remained the exception from any claim of government victory. There is no national drug crisis or reason for focus on drugs if marijuana is undemonized. All other drugs together have fewer than 2 million users, as opposed to 70 million people who have tried marijuana. Police budgets could no longer be justified and prison construction would end if marijuana ceased to be a crime. The acceptance of legitimate medical use inevitably raises the question of how criminalizing of others for their use is conscionable. Medical sanction politically contradicts decades of propaganda that already stands contradicted by each person’s personal experience. It certainly says that drug use and drug abuse are not synonymous. It also says that if the people lead against the war effort they actually can frustrate the great federal war machine. It creates the potential for dialogue rather than a “Just Say No” chant.”
Source: Baggins DS. 1998. Drug Hate and the Corruption of American Justice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Marijuana arrests now comprise more than one-half (52 percent) of all drug arrests in the United States. In 2010, police made 853,838 arrests for marijuana offenses, which is 1 arrest every 37 seconds. There have been 23 million arrests made since 1937 and 7.9 million since the year 2000. June 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of when Nixon declared the War on Drugs formally. Since that time, over a trillion dollars have been spent on this endeavor.
So, the wave of immigrant detention centers is linked to the despicable situation of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is intricately tied to the war on drugs. The heart of the war on drugs is all about the suppression of cannabis. And the suppression of cannabis use is tied to racism and colonialism, a significant proportion of which was directed against South Asians.
This has to be challenged at its roots.