By Ioan Grillo for TIME. Growing up with drug prohibition, it is easy to think of it as an age-old ban, such as the outlawing of robbery or murder. It seems almost like a law of nature: the earth circles the sun; gravity pulls objects down; and narcotics are illegal—facts of life, pure and simple. But scholars have shown that prohibition is a late-blooming policy that has always been tainted by discord, disagreement, and disinformation.

The basic challenge of drug policy is tough: the majority favor certain recreational drugs, such as alcohol, which causes death and addiction. Doctors and soldiers need other narcotics, such as opiates. Meanwhile, people from poor and broken communities are hammered by addiction to any mind-bending substances they can get their hands on.

But debate over drug laws has been clouded by emotive, unscientific forces, including racism. Weird myths become accepted truths. In the early days, American newspapers claimed that the Chinese used opium to systematically rape white women and that cocaine gave Southern Negroes superhuman strength. More recently, we have heard about generations of deranged subhumans called crack babies, or that LSD makes people think they can fly.

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