A Brief History of Drug Prohibition


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, American druggists sold a variety of patent medicines over-the-counter both with and without a doctor's prescription. Many of these products contained heavy doses of opiates, cocaine, and cannabis. At that time, the medical community did not know the risks in taking these medicines, nor did they have access to less potent painkillers, such as aspirin.

Concerned over the increasing numbers of addicts to morphine, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to combat the patent medicine industry. The new law required labels on all habit-forming medicines. These new "poison laws" listed the ingredients and warned the consumer of the danger of overdose and addiction.

Before 1914, twenty-nine states had passed these non-punitive measures to "regulate" the use of narcotics. The word “narcotic” means sleep inducing.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act became the first "punitive" measure levied by the Federal Government. The new law punished anyone, including physicians, who dealt, sold, and gave away opiates, cocaine, or their derivatives without a written record, a license, and payment of an occupational tax. The new legislation responded to an increased concern that physicians and druggists dispensed addictive drugs too freely, which led to more addiction. The Supreme Court supported the new criminal law and ruled that prevention of withdrawal from an addictive drug was no longer a legitimate reason for medical treatment.

The Harrison Act shut off all addicts from their legal supply and forced them to rely on street dealers. The inflated prices of the illegal market often drove addicts into thievery and prostitution, to acquire enough money to afford the drug. This led to an increase in crime and fostered the belief in the public mind that drug addiction itself caused crime and depravity. The addict was now labeled a criminal and dope fiend.

By 1923, the new punitive laws had forced all drug clinics to shut down. The compassionate medical model of maintenance and gradual reduction shifted to a crusade of zero tolerance against illegal drug users.

Prohibitionists did not attack illegal drug users directly but they could enforce the occupational tax law by arresting anyone for tax evasion who transferred narcotics without a license. By using the tax angle, the Treasury Department became the drug enforcement branch of the Government. By 1920, the Narcotic Division of the Prohibition Unit of the Internal Revenue Service had come into existence.

The narcotic tax laws highlighted the argument between the drug prohibitionists policy of "serve and protect" the public and Jefferson's inalienable right of the individual to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Under constant pressure from prohibitionist groups, Federal lawmakers favored public morality over the pursuit of happiness and banned the manufacture and sale of the demon drug, alcohol, in 1920; however, they arrested but did not send folks to prison for simple possession.

The prohibition of alcohol at the Federal level took away state control of the drug and placed it in the hands of the Federal Prohibition Bureau. The experiment met with success in the first few years because it reduced availability, but private stills and bootleggers soon replaced a legal, regulated and taxed industry.

In 1930, the Narcotics Division separated from the Bureau of Prohibition and became the powerful Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).

By 1933, because of police corruption, mob violence, loss of taxes and deaths from bad liquor, Congress realized alcohol prohibition at the Federal level was a catastrophic failure and decided to returned control to the states. The repeal of alcohol prohibition was a serious blow to the FBN but the narcotic drug trade continued to provide job opportunities for agents.

In 1937, the head of the FBN, Harry Anslinger, successfully applied the same strategy used in the Harrison Narcotics Act to outlaw the cannabis plant and its cousin, the hemp plant. The new prohibition was another tax evasion scheme run by the Treasury Department called the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The bill passed in part because Anslinger replaced the familiar words "hemp" with the Mexican word, "marihuana," which Congress and the public had never heard before.

From 1930 to 1970, the FBN used this word to create hostility against the "killer weed" through sensational newspaper headlines and film propaganda. In a relentless campaign of lies and scare tactics, Anslinger and his agents “educated” the public and forced the cannabis/hemp/marihuana plant into Schedule 1, next to heroin. Schedule1 drugs have no recognized use or value and constitute a felony if found in one’s possession.

 In 1972, President Richard Nixon, who preferred the taste of cigars and alcohol, dismissed the recommendations of his own drug panel of experts (The Schafer Report) to decriminalize cannabis and launched an all out war against cannabis. Nixon, the puritan and prohibitionist, vowed he would wipe out all illegal drugs from American society. This would require a huge amount of tax dollars to create the largest prison complex in the world and to hire enough police to arrest every drug dealer. Anyone who passed a joint was a dealer, in Nixon's view.

 In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan (with prodding from Nancy) boosted the war effort and ordered law enforcement across the country to focus on individual users. The war against privacy became a national campaign and escalated into warrantless home invasions and confiscations of property. It systematically destroyed the lives of millions of Americans and turned the country into a breeding ground of violence and fear. The Reagan's promoted the belief that arresting the individual user would reduce demand and put the dealers out of business.

Today, the new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the prison industry, and an army of law enforcement agencies worldwide, command a yearly budget of sixty nine billion dollars of tax money and intercept 10% of illegal drugs. Over the last seventy years, the drug war industry has imprisoned over 20 million Americans for growing or smoking the cannabis plant. Under Federal Law, the simple possession of cannabis is a felony.

The Supreme Court and Congress have proven time after time they do not support Jeffersonian principles that once protected the private citizen against government intrusion. The Supreme Court and Congress have given the DEA free access to American homes and bodies, and immunity from prosecution in a misguided effort to purge America of outlawed substances.

Ninety-four years after the Harrison Narcotic Act, estimates show the number of hard-core drug addicts in the United States remains the same, (1.3%), and 20 million Americans continue to use marijuana for medical relief and for pleasure.

For more information or to help end change current drug policies, join www.leap.cc (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).

Source: www.druglibrary.org

      James Wiley

48 Woodland Ave

San Anselmo CA 94960


Updated May 2011