LePage’s racist remark is typical of the drug war

Gov. Paul LePage’s racist remark last week about out-of-state drug dealers with hip-hop nicknames impregnating “young, white girl[s]” in Maine was neither an innocent “slip-up,” as he later contended, nor was it unprecedented. Authorities have been raising the specter of drug-crazed minorities seducing white women since the dawn of the War on Drugs nearly a century ago.

In “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” journalist Johann Hari described how America’s first drug warriors used the same rhetoric LePage employed last week to scare the public into supporting another Prohibition.

“The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general,” Hari wrote. “We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not.

“They crop up only occasionally, as asides,” Hari continued. “The main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was that the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.”

Then, as now, leaders like LePage played up the sexual aspect of this “menace” to stoke the public’s fears. For Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first “drug czar,” Chinese immigrants, with their “own special Oriental ruthlessness,” were a particular concern.

“Harry believed they were competing for white women,” Hari wrote. “[T]he Chinese had developed ‘a liking for the charms of Caucasian girls … from good families,’ Anslinger wrote in a book published in 1961. They lured these white girls into their ‘opium dens’ … got the girls hooked, and then forced them into acts of ‘unspeakable sexual depravity’ for the rest of their lives.”

Today, it’s the apocryphal black smack dealers using white girls for sex; in the 1930s, it was negro potheads. “The most frightening effect of marijuana, Harry warned, was on blacks,” according to Hari. “It made them forget the appropriate racial barriers — and unleashed their lust for white women.”

Hari is among the hordes of writers and researchers who have decried the fact that racial minorities are arrested, convicted and imprisoned on drug charges in strikingly higher numbers than whites. According to The Sentencing Project, “African-Americans make up 12% of the nation’s drug users, but represent 34% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45% of those in state prison for such offense as of 2005,” MSNBC reported in 2013.

Packets of heroin, craick cocaine, scales, packaging materials and more than $1,500 cash seized by Maine DEA agents in Lewiston in November 2015. Maine DEA photo.

Packets of heroin, crack cocaine, scales, packaging materials and more than $1,500 cash seized by Maine DEA agents in Lewiston in November 2015. Maine DEA photo.

LePage was correct when he asserted, during a press conference last Friday, that his infamous remark is a distraction from the issue journalists should be focused on: addressing Maine’s opiate-abuse epidemic. In particular, the governor complained that the media “did nothing to help us” hire 10 new state drug-enforcement agents. At least as far this member of the media is concerned, LePage is right about that, too.

Maine should not be hiring any additional MDEA agents, because we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. A century of eradication and enforcement efforts, carried out by armies of drug warriors operating around the globe, have barely made a dent in the heroin and cocaine trades. To suggest that 10 more drug cops in Maine will make a difference makes you wonder what LePage has been smoking.

The cops on the street know the drug war is a destructive and futile folly. That’s why police departments in communities all over the country (and, increasingly, in Maine) are refusing to arrest addicts on drug charges and are trying to get them into treatment programs, instead.

As the BDN pointed out in a Dec. 30 editorial, the nearly $5 million proposal currently being bandied about in the Legislature to address Maine’s addiction crisis is missing the most important piece: medication-assisted treatment; specifically, access to programs that provide Suboxone and methadone to curb addicts’ cravings for illicit opiates.

Of those two options, methadone is preferable. It’s more effective, more widely available by prescription, and much less likely to be abused. Most addicts in methadone programs have to take their dose inside a clinic, under direct supervision by staff. As Robin Rage reported in a cover story for The Bollard last May (“Opiatopia”), Suboxone, which patients can pick up at pharmacies, is commonly resold on the streets of Portland by junkies in and out of recovery.

“I get sicker coming off Suboxone than I would if I was coming off heroin,” an addict told Rage. “I’ll come off of heroin in three days. It’ll be hell, but three days. Without Suboxone, I’ll be sick for a month.”

Addicts and the health professionals who treat them have the solution to the drug problem, because they experience it firsthand. Ignorant politicians like LePage and law-enforcement agents who depend on the drug war for their livelihood will only continue to make the problem worse.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.