Origins of the War on Drugs

You used to be able to get cocaine eye-drops off the shelf in a drug-store and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue offered cocaine and a syringe for $1.50. Doctors regularly recommended opium to patients suffering from “female complaints.” Cramps? Get your head up.

Then domestic and international influences came together to launch a “war on drugs.” On the one hand, opium was legal in Asia. Chinese immigrants brought opium-smoking to America and the United States conquered the Philippines, where opium was legal. In 1901, Charles Brent, an American missionary in the Philippines, began to campaign for the international control of addictive drugs. President Theodore Roosevelt helped create an International Opium Commission (1906), then appointed Dr. Hamilton Wright as the first U.S. Opium Commissioner. The International Opium Convention (1912) tried to regulate the trade.

On the other hand, Americans began to associate drugs with both crime and race. African-Americans and Chinese immigrants became centers of concern, as did the white women who supposedly fell prey to non-white men as a result of drug use. A 1914 law limited the sale of narcotics and cocaine to those with a doctor’s prescription. A 1922 law regulated the import of narcotics. A 1924 law outlawed heroin. A 1935 law assigned enforcement responsibility to the states.   A 1937 law banned marijuana. Between 1914 and 1945 the number of addicts in the United States reportedly fell from 1 in 400 people to 1 in 4,000. Things cooked along quietly for the next two decades. Charlie Parker and Robert Mitchum, people like that, used drugs.

Then recreational drug use began to spread as part of the counter-cultural strife of the Sixties and Seventies, along with long hair, peasant dresses, pre-marital sex, draft-dodging, and really great music. The “Up With People” crowd pushed back hard. President Nixon seized on the issue of drugs in 1969. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970) created the current system of classes of drugs. President Nixon announced a “war on drugs” (1971). A National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Policy (1972) reported that marijuana was not addictive and did not pose any serious threat to society or its users, and recommended de-criminalization. “Shut up” President Nixon explained. A presidential order (1973) created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to co-ordinate and lead efforts to halt drug smuggling into the United States and to suppress the illegal black-market for drugs within the United States.

The current “war on drugs” has both international and domestic fronts.

On the international front, the United States seeks to attack the foreign sources and supply lines that feed the American market. The principal growing sites for opium poppies (the source of heroin) are highland Burma (the “Golden Triangle”), Afghanistan, and Mexico. Of these, Afghanistan is by far the most important, with 93 percent of opiates now (well, 2007) coming from Afghanistan.[1] Interdiction of drug traffic can involve support for local police; aerial spraying of defoliants; interception of ground, sea, and air shipments; and discovery of drug factories where the raw materials are turned into a finished product for sale.

On the domestic front, the chief anti-drug measure has become sharply increasing arrest rates. During the 1970s drug arrests scarcely increased, in spite of Nixon’s call for a “war on drugs.” Only during the 1980s did policy change. While arrests for all crimes rose by 28 percent during that decade, arrests for drugs rose by 126 percent. Between 1980 and 2010 the share of Americans imprisoned quadrupled. Half a million people a year go to prison for drugs.

[1] Revenues from sales in Western countries provide Afghan traffickers with over $60 billion of “foreign aid” each year.   In comparison, the United States provided the Afghan government with over $50 billion of aid over ten years. Since much of the trade is controlled by the Taliban, we are paying more money to our enemy than to our ally.

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