The Drug War: A Short Social History

Historically, the War on Drugs began in the United States with the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.

The opium problems plaguing the Far East encouraged Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to pass the act under the pretenses of fulfilling the 1912 International Opium Convention treaty, the main point of why the bill was created.[1] The act laid out the licensing and taxing of opium and other related products, along with a provision that allowed registered physicians to prescribe these kind of drugs “in the course of his professional practice only”[2] This was interpreted by law enforcement that a doctor could not prescribe opioid related products to an addict to maintain his addiction. As a result, physicians were targeted and imprisoned by police, eventually leading to an underground market and criminal acts.[3]

Six weeks later, the New York Medical Journal noted the following: “The immediate effects of the Harrison anti-narcotic law were seen in the flocking of drug habitués to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usually to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs, but occasionally to a delirious state induced by sudden withdrawal. 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.”[4]

Time and time again, the evidence that drug and narcotics laws don’t work has piled up over the years. In 1926, an Illinois Medical Journal concluded that “the Harrison Narcotic law should never have been placed upon the Statute books of the United States. It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible for addicts to secure their supply of “dope” and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men. […] The doctor who needs narcotics used in reason to cure and allay human misery finds himself in a pit of trouble. The lawbreaker is in clover. It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.”[5]

A decade later, former chief of police, professor of police administration, author, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police August Vollmer wrote the following: “Drug addiction, like prostitution and like liquor, is not a police problem; it never has been and never can be solved by policemen. It is first and last a medical problem, and if there is a solution it will be discovered not by policemen, but by scientific and competently trained medical experts whose sole objective will be the reduction and possible eradication of this devastating appetite. There should be intelligent treatment of the incurables in outpatient clinics, hospitalization of those not too far gone to respond to therapeutic measures, and application of the prophylactic principles which medicine applies to all scourges of mankind.”[6]

Sociologist and Indiana University Professor Alfred Lindesmith wrote in 1940 that “solemn discussions are carried on about lengthening the addict’s already long sentence and as to whether or not he is a good parole risk. The basic question as to why he should be sent to prison at all is scarcely mentioned. Eventually, it is to be hoped that we shall come to see, as most of the civilized countries of the world have seen, that the punishment and imprisonment of addicts is as cruel and pointless as similar treatment for persons infected with syphilis would be.”[7]

Rufus King, Esq., chairman of the American Bar Association’s committee on narcotics, summed up his own views in the 1953 edition of Yale Law Journal. “The true addict, by universally accepted definitions, is totally enslaved to his habit. He will do anything to fend off the illness, marked by physical and emotional agony, that results from abstinence. […] Drugs are a commodity of trifling intrinsic value. All the billions our society has spent enforcing criminal measures against the addict have had the sole practical result of protecting the peddler’s market, artificially inflating his prices, and keeping his profits fantastically high.”[8]

In 1957, Dr. Karl Bowman, one of America’s knowledgeable psychiatrists and authorities on narcotics, said that “for the past 40 years we have been trying the mainly punitive approach; we have increased penalties, we have hounded the drug addict, and we have brought out the idea that any person who takes drugs is a most dangerous criminal and a menace to society. […] Our whole dealing with the problem of drug addiction for the past 40 years has been a sorry mess.”[9]

“Just why the alcoholic is tolerated as a sick man while the opiate addict is persecuted as a criminal is hard to understand”, lamented biochemist Dr. Robert de Ropp in 1957.[10] A year later, a study of the problem of narcotics published by the joint Committee on Narcotic Drugs of the American Bar Association and American Medical Association declared that “stringent law enforcement has its place in any system of controlling narcotic drugs. However, it is by no means the complete answer to American problems of drug addiction. […] The very severity of law enforcement tends to increase the price of drugs on the illicit market and the profits to be made therefrom.”[11]

Not surprisingly, all of this conventional wisdom would be ignored under the War on Drugs created by Nixon.

After 40 years of the War on Drugs, drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread. Even the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, concludes that the War on Drugs hasn’t worked. “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”[12]

And there are even greater unintended some effects to the War on Drugs, such as the militarization of anti-drug policies, which have not only affected the United States, but the rest of the world as well. The inkillings, kidnapping, rape and robbery is reaching levels comparable to the social effects of a civil war in many countries that have narco-mini-states.[15] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that “Reports of disturbed family life related to drugs are frequent in the literature”, but also noted that “while the family group can, under certain circumstances, be the origin of drug problems, it can also be a potent force for treatment.”[16]

Between 1970 and 2010, the American population has increased 51.76%, but despite this, the rate per 100,000 population of unintentional drug overdose deaths has risen 533.33% in a near-similar timeframe (1970-2007).[13] A similar story goes for the federal prison population, with about 200,000 people in federal prisons in 1970 to 1.57 million in 2013[14], nearly half of them (46.3%) convicted because of drug offenses.[17]

Even education programs, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program created in 1983, has drawn criticism concerning its effectiveness. A meta-analysis conducted in 2009 by statisticians Wei Pan Haiyan Bai showed that teens enrolled in the DARE program were just as likely to use drugs as were those who didn’t enroll.[18] But there are successful and unsuccessful ways on educating children about drugs that will have a long-lasting impact on their lives.

Pim Cuijpers of the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction reviewed 30 studies of these successful programs and concluded that the most effective programs involve high interaction between instructors and students, teach them social skills to refuse drugs and practice the skills with other students, taking into account behavioral norms. Epidemiologist Melissa Stigler and her colleagues further noted that programs running for several years (rather than several months as the DARE campaign did) helped reinforce these lessons.[19]

A word of advice penned by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their famous “Cato’s Letters” series could offer a bit of a remedy. “Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient punishment will follow their neglect, without the magistrate’s interposition and penalties. It is plain, that such busy care and officious intrusion into the personal affairs, or private actions, thoughts, and imaginations of men, has in it more craft than kindness; and is only a device to mislead people, and pick their pockets, under the false presence of the public and their private good. To quarrel with any man for his opinions, humors, or the fashion of his clothes, is an offence taken without being given.”[20]





















[19]: Ibid.



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