Make no mistake - America’s war on drugs has always been essentially a race war. Whether Native American, Mexican, or African American, drugs have helped civilized folk justify their desire to discriminate. Even the very first drug laws passed in San Francisco in 1875, which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens, were specifically aimed at the “tens of thousands of Chinese men and boys who had been imported into the U.S. during the 1850s and 1880s to build the great western railroads.”[i] Those who passed such laws justified them by saying too "many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable families, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise."[ii] As it was in the beginning, is now, and perhaps ever will be, the lowest forms of racism are always practiced in the name of the highest moral imperatives.
Ironically enough, America’s growing number of opium users were simply the price of capitalism, war, and globalization. With regards to globalization, America can thank the British. By waging and winning two Opium Wars - fought from 1839 to 1842 and again from 1856 to 1860 – the British force fed China with opium from India. In turn, enterprising Americans introduced more opium from Turkey, "which was of lower quality but cheaper." This "competition drove down the price of opium and increased sales.”[iii] The addicts that soon followed, then as now, were both the source of cheap labor and the victims of legalized racism.
With regards to war, it turned out that most of America’s opium addicts were not migrant workers but home grown patriots. During the Civil War, hospitals in the North inadvertently hooked their wounded soldiers on morphine and opium. While the Confederate army was so poor it had to treat its wounded with whiskey, the North, in fighting against slavery on the battlefield, was unwittingly sowing the seeds for a new slavery in its hospital beds. In essence, Union soldiers who fought to end the ignorance of slavery were subsequently turned into addicts out of the ignorance of their doctors, and turned into convicts thereafter out of the ignorance of their legislators. As a result, many who fought to free slaves ended up being imprisoned because of it.
Lastly, with regards to capitalism, patent medicines and “snake oils” both relied on cocaine or morphine to “cure whatever ails you,” which had the effect of turning “a large number of agrarian housewives” into the same kind of addicts now being incarcerated in droves. From Coca-Cola using cocaine in its soft drink from 1886 to 1900, to Bayer Pharmaceutical Products selling heroin over the counter in 1889,[iv] drug addiction in America has proved to be a profitable business, one way or another.
Thanks in part to people like Upton Sinclair and his book The Jungle, which told of abysmal conditions in a Chicago meat packing plant, the Federal Government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. This act ended the patent medicine industry but not by prohibiting the use of the drugs such medicines contained, but by simply “requiring that all medications contain accurate labeling of their contents.”[v]
Legislators, who have an uncanny ability to turn early success into long turn failure, followed this up with the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. If the PFDA forced companies to provide their patients with “the full Monty,” the HNA amounted to a full colonoscopy. Inflated taxes, required registrations, and intentionally cumbersome forms were but part of the proctology exam foisted upon businesses by politicians whose sole purpose in life is to attract votes by turning good ideas into bureaucratic nightmares. In fact, in 1953, the chairman of the American Bar Association’s committee on narcotics described the effects of the Harrison Act on U.S. drug policy in this way:
So long as society will not traffic with [the true addict] on any terms, he must remain the abject servitor of his vicious nemesis, the peddler. The addict will commit cries – mostly petty offenses like shoplifting and prostitution – to get the price the peddler asks. He will peddle dope and make new addicts if those are his master’s terms. Drugs are a commodity of trifling intrinsic value. All the billions our society has spent enforcing criminal measure against the addict have had the sole practical result of protecting the peddlers’ market, artificially inflating his prices, and keeping his profits fantastically high. No other nation hounds its addicts as we do, and no other nation faces anything remotely resembling our problem.”[vi]
As if it knew the legislative branch had not bungled America’s drug issues nearly enough, the U.S. Supreme Court did all it could to make matters even worse. In 1919, in Webb v. United States,[vii] SCOTUS declared it "illegal for doctors to dispense prescription drugs to alleviate the symptoms of narcotics withdrawal.”
In retrospect, it’s hard not to see how each action taken to prevent the use of drugs in America only worked to ensure the spread of drugs in America. Each law was an electrical shock, in effect, prodding the monster of black market narcotics to life from the broken bodies of so many Civil War soldiers. In the 1920’s, that monster rose from the many legal tables where it had been stitched together from different laws, and went out to do its worst. And of course, the country has been living in the shadow of that monster, and the many minions it has spawned, ever since.
[i] Brecher, Edward M.; the editors of Consumer Reports Magazine (1972). Licit and illicit drugs : the Consumers Union report on narcotics, stimulants, depressants, inhalants, hallucinogens, and marijuana -including caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol (16th print. ed.). Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
[iii] China: The First Opium War". John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Quoting British Parliamentary Papers, 1840, XXXVI (223), p. 374
[iv] Gray, James, P. Judge, 2001. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. Temple University Press, Philadelphia. p. 21.
[vi] Rufus King, “The Narcotics Bureau and the Harrison Act.” Yale Law Journal 62 (1953) 748-49.
[vii] 249 U.S. 96 (1919)