A Hundred Years’ Failure: The War On Drugs

A user smoking crack. (Getty Images/Universal Images Group)
A user smoking crack. (Getty Images/Universal Images Group)

How did a law to regulate heroin traffic turn into the costly, futile War on Drugs?

Let’s all pause today to wish a happy 100th birthday to the War on Drugs. And what a century it’s been!

Twenty-five years ago, the stated goal of the United States’ anti-narcotic efforts according to the Department of Justice was to “disrupt, destroy and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.” That same year, the U.S. government pumped almost $8 billion into anti-drug efforts, including $600 million in prison construction alone. It was just a typical fiscal year during the height of the drug war. But two and a half decades later, despite this dizzying spending, we don’t need a drug czar to tell us—even though one of them has—the war on drugs, by its own measures, has been a century-long failure.

A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. government signed 700 percent increase in incarceration$450 million worth of military equipment.

It’s worth taking a look at how it all went wrong from the very beginning.

Francis Burton Harrison, the New York Congressman whose name the act bears, intended none of this. His bill, which became the Harrison Act, imposed “a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations.” Interestingly, it did not even include a section on enforcement, other than for tax collection, and while the act regulated the production and sale of “narcotics” (the bill included cocaine, which is not a narcotic), the legislation said nothing about drug users.

At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone’s medicine cabinet contained opium in some form. Patent medicines mixed alcohol and opium, and women used them for menstrual cramps, coughs and other minor symptoms, as well as for infants’ teething pains. Aging Civil War veterans self-injected morphine to soothe old wounds, and physicians dosed patients liberally with opium pills and morphine. Opium smokers, usually Chinese, but also habitués of the urban underworld and the occasional slumming college student, were the most common recreational users.

Yet all of this was changing. The passage of the Federal Food and Drugs Act in 1906 revealed the ingredients in patent medicines to increasingly wary consumers and the development of aspirin by the Bayer Company in 1899 offered a less dangerous alternative for everyday pain relief. Civil War veterans were dying off, Congress had passed a bill banning the importation of smoking (non-medicinal) opium in 1909 and reports in medical journals indicated that heroin, commercialized by Bayer in 1898 as a treatment for coughs and morphine addiction, was actually more addictive than morphine. Per capita opiate use in the United States was indeed declining at the time the bill passed in 1914.

During the Progressive Era, a culture war was raging over sexuality, alcohol and modern life—as seen in efforts to censure pornography and eliminate “red light” districts—and prohibition offered the best hope of legislating moral certainty. While alcohol prohibition had the largest domestic constituency, drug prohibition fit with foreign policy interests. Years of lobbying by religious groups in both the United States and Britain, who were appalled at opium smoking in China and places to which the Chinese emigrated, culminated in the 1912 Hague Convention, where a dozen countries agreed to regulate the international narcotics traffic and signatories promised to limit opiate use in their own countries.

The 1914 Harrison Act left room for interpretation, and the Bureau of Internal Revenue—the precursor to the IRS—promoted a broad construction of its meaning. Physicians, dentists and veterinary surgeons continued to dispense these drugs, and pharmaceutical companies lobbied successfully to exclude over-the-counter medicines containing small amounts of narcotics from regulation. But questions remainedparticularly over one line in the law that stipulated that the tax did not apply to a physician’s “professional practice.” Could a physician prescribe an opiate to maintain a patient-addict? The law also left a broader question unanswered: Was possession of heroin itself a crime?

The Supreme Court decided against the government on both questions in 1915 in Jin Fuey Moy, but reversed course four years later—laying the groundwork for the aggressive enforcement that would come to define the drug war. In U.S. v. Doremus and in U.S. v. Webbboth announced on the same day, a divided Court upheld the constitutionality of the Harrison Act and ruled that providing narcotics addicts with drugs was not part of professional practice. The well-publicized prosecution of medical personnel and the potential loss of a medical license and jail time, combined with the increasing stigma associated with working-class narcotics addicts, kept physicians from challenging the law.

The legal distribution of narcotics continued for a time even beyond the Supreme Court rulings. Municipal, state and federal governments were exempt from the Harrison Act, and over 30 cities established narcotics dispensaries to furnish users with a legal supply of drugs until treatment facilities could be provided. Registered users were required to taper off their doses, and those who did not comply were cut off. By the early 1920s, the clinics had all closed, and only elderly patients who risked death from withdrawal could be supplied with morphine.

The modern war on drugs, though, with its bulked-up law enforcement and harsh sentencing, wouldn’t come until decades later, in response to a series of drug surges that began in the 1940s. After the end of World War II, Italian and Jewish gangsters, who had switched product lines from booze at the end of Prohibitionreconnected to supplies from the Middle East that had been disrupted by the war. Heroin use surged in American cities among veterans addicted to morphine during the war and young men, disproportionately African American and Latino. Mexican Americans smuggled heroin across a porous border, while Italian organized crime families in New York imported heroin stolen from pharmaceutical companies in Italy and redistributed it across the country.

Municipal, state and federal authorities held public hearings to examine the upsurge in heroin addiction. The faces featured in hearings and in public media were those of white teenagers—the ones most likely to promote alarm about heroin—rather than those of more typical users—young African Americans, whose addiction raised awkward questions about poverty, discrimination, and apartheid-like segregation in American cities. And thus the first drug-induced moral panic swept the public and the government: Congress indulged in a frenzy of legislating, with 26 bills introduced in 1951, fourteen in 1955 and sixteen in 1956. Two—the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956—established the contours for the modern war on drugs: mandatory minimum sentences for drug sellers in the Boggs Act, which the Narcotics Control Act extended to drug users.

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SOURCE: Politico Magazine
Eric Schneider

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