The early history of drug sentences in California provides a quintessential example of structural racism in law. The demands of white voters to escalate penalties for drug crimes followed a pattern of collective myth making and value signaling that insisted opiates, cocaine, and cannabis were extremely dangerous, led to other crime, and prevalently were used and sold by immigrants and other despised groups. Public pressure for more severe punishment seemed to peak twice, in the 1920s and 1950s, in response to exaggerated threats such as “dope peddlers” targeting children and profitable “dope rings” controlled by subversive foreigners. Amplified by a self-seeking, robust news media and a multitude of fraternal, civic, and religious organizations, the frightful construction of illicit drugs seemed to demand a simple and uncompromising response: to punish drug users harder by increasing terms of incarceration. But white voters always understood that drug laws targeted immigrants and communities of color, and law enforcers used extreme penalties as leverage to pursue corrupt and racist prerogatives unrelated to reducing drug use. Drug penalties in California were developed over many decades with almost extreme levels of participation by antidrug activists and law enforcers. Appearing somehow scientific, the resulting arrays of penalties implied that the cruelest sentences were reserved for the truly blameworthy, when in fact they were reserved for the marginalized. Moreover, several legal conventions born of these penalty structures—mandatory minimums, the distinction between user and seller, punishment of addiction itself, and presumptions arising from drug quantities—still exacerbate the oppressive nature of drug statutes.

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