U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Symbolism and Racism in Drug History and Policy

NCJ Number
Drugs and Alcohol Review Volume: 18 Issue: 2 Dated: June 1999 Pages: 179-186
Desmond Manderson
John B. Saunders
Date Published
8 pages
This paper develops the theme that drug laws are about symbolism rather than the pharmacology of the drugs themselves; drug laws have been and still are an expression of racism and fears of difference.
The modern history of drug regulation began some 100 years ago with the enactment of laws that prohibited the smoking of opium. In Australia and elsewhere, these law reflected a fear of Chinese immigration. It was not opium as a substance with particular health-related effects that concerned the community, but rather opium as a symbol of transgression that the Chinese presence had elicited. Opium was prohibited because it represented an amalgam of race, sex, and fear. This symbolic meaning was developed through the use of metaphor and metonymy. Drugs continue to be understood through metonymy. Cannabis, for example, has long been blamed for a host of problems supposedly afflicting youth. The use of drugs has come to symbolize a whole lifestyle that includes everything from long hair to the rejection of materialism. The obsession in the United States with drugs as a pathogen is surely part of the Nation's apparently constant need to find sacrificial victims to allay its fears; in the United States and around the world, the role of drugs as a metonym for all manner of social ills is of continuing significance. Drugs also continue to be used as metaphors of social breakdown and social change, with particular racial resonances. The influence of racism in the development of U.S. drug policy is well documented and is still of central importance in any understanding of enforcement issues. The same is true in Australia and Great Britain; for example, Australians Against Further Immigration has produced campaign literature that suggests that without Asian immigrants, there would not be a "drug problem." 38 references


No download available