Home > All Posts, All things MAT, Family and Friends, NIMBYism > Hartford Conservative Examiner: The great mistake. How illicit drugs became illegal in the first place

Hartford Conservative Examiner: The great mistake. How illicit drugs became illegal in the first place

Hartford Conservative Examiner: The great mistake. How illicit drugs became illegal in the first place.

The prohibition of alcohol has a clean and easy narrative where once upon a time drinking was thought to be a problem which resulted in an organized temperance movement.  Public debates and political leaders brought about a constitutional convention and change of laws,  then came Al Capone, moonshine, recognition of unintended consequences then repeal.  In many ways it is a success story for democracy in that a law was passed, the consequences created bad results and it was reversed.   Hey we tried.  Just have to correct our mistakes and move on and we did.   The same cannot be said when it comes to the prohibition of illicit drugs.

Part of the reason for this is that the history of drug laws lends itself to confusion, fuzzy logic and false reasoning.  From the start there was little to no social pathologies with drugs, not to the extent of alcohol, therefore no organized temperance movement to ban the marketing and sale of illicit drugs and to top it off the first drug law (Harrison Act of 1914)  actually allowed for the marketing, tax and use of cocaine,morphine and heroine, it read:

“to provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax upon all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes.”

Exempt from this law were the medical professions who were required to keep records of their dispensation through prescriptions.  Ironically and unintentionally it was this provision that launched the opening salvo in the battle on drugs where the right side, by starting it, succeeded in creating the wrong side of drug pushers and the specter of abject addiction that is with us today.

How this happened was purely by accident.  For one thing law enforcement did not view drug addiction as a medical condition.  This became important because the law specifically allowed for the  medical profession to prescribe drugs and keep records of their use “in the course of his professional practice.”   Since enforcement did not view addiction as a medical condition, the doctor therefore was not dispensing drug through his “medical practice”.  No condition, no patient, not a doctor.  Because of this physicians were put in prison or lost their practice.  This led to a whole industry ban on drugs through a chain of events that starting with doctors to pharmacists then manufacturing.

Thus the prohibition of illicit drugs was born and the consequences were immediate.  An editorial in the New York Medical Journal (May 15 1915), six weeks after passage of the law stated:

“As was expected … the immediate effects of the Harrison anti narcotic law were seen in the flocking of drug habitues to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usually to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs…” later on the editorial states prophetically:

“The really serious results of this legislation, however, will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These will be the failures of promising careers, the disrupting of happy families, the commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause, and the influx into hospitals to the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives.”

And to this day it’s still not recognized.

Then six months later an editorial in American Medicine stated:

“Instead of improving conditions the laws recently passed have made the problem more complex. Honest medical men have found such handicaps and dangers to themselves and their reputations in these laws…”  The addict  ” is denied the medical care he urgently needs, open, above-board sources from which he formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the underworld where he can get his drug, but of course, surreptitiously and in violation of the law…. The most depraved criminals are often the dispensers of these habit-forming drugs…afflicted individuals are under the control of the worst elements of society.”

Its not likely that American Medicine or the New York Medical Journal were widely read publications.  An objective observer looking at the problem of drugs could simply conclude that the Harrison Act, which allowed for the use of opiates, was the starting point of the drug problem.  It was the source but for the wrong reason because instead of allowing for a regulated market of the product it drove it underground.   In 1918 a committee was formed by the Treasury Department to look into the problem.  In two of its findings they saw:

“The ‘dope peddlers’ appeared to have established a national organization, smuggling the drugs in through seaports or across the Canadian or Mexican borders-especially the Canadian border.”


“The wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased since passage of the Harrison Act. Twenty cities, including New York and San Francisco, had reported such increases. (The increase no doubt resulted from the migration of addicts into cities where black markets flourished.).”

Instead of concluding that the Harrison Act created the problem through back door prohibition, it was looked upon, wrongfully, as the impetus of the problem through its seemingly controlled use.
By 1924 the Harrison Act was modified to prohibit the importation of heroine outright and forbade its use even medically.  It did not ban morphine in the same way.  As a result heroine became the product of choice for the drug peddler and morphine disappeared altogether from the illegal drug trade.

In 1937 marijuana was next on the list for prohibition, but again not with a law prohibiting it but allowing its marketing with a high tax and stringent regulations.  Any violations of the regulation resulted in penalties of $2000 in fines and 5 years in prison.  Because of  the complexities through regulation the law not only made marijuana a de-facto illegal substance but destroyed the use of hemp products for non-drug use.  Subsequently a total ban was put in place and it exist today.

If drugs were not a problem before the first Harrison Act then why the law in the first place and under what grounds were they enacted if domestic considerations were not relevant?  The answer lies with international trade.  The opium wars of England and China along with cheaper opium traded from India and even the US complicated relations between nations. In 1912 at the International Opium Convention at the Hague a treaty was signed by thirteen nations (China, Germany, United States, France, England, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia and Siam).  The treaty said ” “The contracting Powers shall use their best endeavors to control, or to cause to be controlled, all persons manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade.”  The reasoning of the Harrison Act was to place the US in congruent with its treaty obligation.

What started as a reasonable attempt among countries to control drugs turned out to be a out of control destructive scourge of nearly all nations.  Some more harmful then others.  The prohibition of drugs have, as the same such law with alcohol had done, turned the drugs into far dangerous and potent products peddled by a wealthy and organized criminal class to a consumer that has no problem in purchasing the substances.  In the process scores of people all over the world have destroyed their lives as a result.

Perhaps it is time to revisit these laws and once and for all identify the nature and consequences of prohibition.  Drugs and alcohol have not followed the same path when it comes to the implementation or interpretation of there respective regulations or banishment’s but the results are the same.  If there is a solution to illicit drugs why not the tried and tested answer of the past and   let the people decide in each individual state?

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