Home » Drug Regulation prior to 1937

Drug Regulation prior to 1937

When one thinks of drug legislation, they immediately think of our government watching out for our well-being, and goodwill. Upon examining the history of anti-drug policy by the United States Government, it becomes evident that ulterior motives such as racism, revenue, and political influence lay behind drug laws and regulations. In examining our nation’s history further, one cannot find any real truth to most claims as far as the extent of damage that drugs were causing America. In fact, exploration of the effects of drug restriction reveals that these laws actually made drug related problems worse for America.

Envision life in the mid 1800s. For a farmer, who works hard all day in the field, and his wife who is suffering from her monthly ailment, not to mention their teething child, “Mr. Magoo’s Secret Elixir” provides a nice relief to the daily aches resulting from his hard work and the repetitive pains of being a nineteenth century housewife. This traditional American family looks forward to a peaceful evening spent with Mr. Magoo. Another example; the big city banker’s wife, who also has a teething child, and a monthly visitor, quietly seeks relief with a home-cooked recipe from her downtown pharmacy.

Her husband also enjoys its soothing effect after a stressful day at the bank. A final example, Dr. Whitehead, late in the 1800s uses his handcrafted concoction to mellow himself after a taxing day of founding Johns Hopkins Medical School. In growing numbers of cases like these, our federal government found a threat to our nation’s prosperity, or did it. In the western coast, opium use was prevalent in “opium dens” typically owned by the Chinese. The first laws banning drug use restricted use in only these houses and dens, yet allowed individuals to smoke at home, or in public.

The onset of these laws, which passed throughout Nevada initially, and in other states quickly following, occurred late in the 1870s. If caught smoking opium in a den or smoking house, these laws imposed heavy fines, and in some cases, imprisonment. Following these first prohibitive laws, the cessation of opium smoking was nowhere to be found, in fact, dens moved underground, and even though our government knew this, they had not the resources to take hold of the “problem” of smoking opium in dens. A few years later, 1883 marked a hike in the tariff imposed on opium importation by six to ten dollars per pound on legally imported opium.

No one enjoys paying taxes, much less such a steep one; therefore underground importation channels began to emerge. 1887 marks the next step in racially influenced anti-drug law. Importation of weak opium, and any importation by the Chinese was outlawed. By this time, drug smuggling was exploding. A typical pusher could make up to Two Hundred Thousand dollars tax-free per year. The average profit margin from start to finish of one kilo of Heroin was in the neighborhood of Twenty Thousand Percent. Because of the enormous amounts of money at stake, gangs, and other drug-related violence began to break out.

Seeing no decrease in opium use, our government decided to restrict the manufacture of smoking opium to American citizens in 1890. This year also marked another tariff increase from ten to twelve dollars per pound. During passage of these restrictions, opium use increased steadily. In an attempt to stem the rapidly increasing opium smuggling industry, the United States Government lowered the insatiable tariff back to six dollars per pound. This had little effect on the already established black market, as no tariffs were charged there.

Unfortunately, the end of the nineteenth century marked the inception of actual social problems beginning to arise primarily as a result of the newly established smuggling regime, and the forcing underground of opium distributors and users. The public reaction to these newfound crimes, and underground societies mixed with governmental fright of a new wave of substance use sparked severe legal repercussions. The first anti-opiate wave of the nineteenth century was a 1903 Philippine anti-opiate issue involving an “Opium Investigation Commission” in order to remove opium use from the Philippines.

The Committee claimed that Male smokers over twenty-one years of age should be required to register in order to receive their supply of opium. Congress decided to outlaw recreational opium use to all native philippinos, causing them to make an attempt at quitting “cold turkey,” something impossible to do, while registered non-natives were given a three-year period after which their dosages were reduced. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was instated. This act initially required that opium-containing drugs must state opium as an ingredient on their label.

A later amendment required that the quantity of opium contained be listed, and certain quality standards be met. In and of itself, the Pure Food and Drug Act was a great idea. It would help to limit the amount of bad heroin being distributed, and give users a way of regulating their input. The Harrison Narcotic Act, however, was drawn up following the Pure Food and Drug act, regulating practically every method of receiving, and using narcotics. This would only further reinforce the illegal activity of drug trafficking. One section of the Harrison Narcotic Act would instate a registration of all types of opiate use.

This registration was made with Internal Revenue Collectors. It would impose a special tax on producers, distributors, manufacturers, and anyone else even remotely involved with opiates. Nevertheless, another segment of this proposal stated: “Nothing contained in this section shall apply… to the dispensing or distribution of any of the aforesaid drugs to a patient by a physician, dentist, or veterinary surgeon registered under this Act in the course of his professional practice only. ” (Brecher) This statement would virtually disallow all handling and use of opiate-containing drugs, both for recreational, and medicinal use.

Although it would not expressly deny the ability to use and distribute opiates, it would inflict severe penalties for the most miniscule oversight or inaccuracy in filing the masses of paperwork required. Back to the Philippines, in 1909, the Shanghai Opium Commission recommended yet another re-examination of opiate laws. This led to the Hague Opium Conference of 1911, producing the Hague Opium Convention of 1912. All factors combined, the Harrison act was passed in 1914. As the century lapsed, and these new committees and regulations were being instated, our government’s concern continued to grow.

Increases in use across all regions of our nation were noted. It is claimed that about one million people in the United States were using narcotics, and the largely successful and profitable underground operations managed to equal legal distribution as far as amount consumed through each route. Our Government undoubtedly saw their impositions and laws failing to reduce the problems caused by the drug “crisis” in America.

Although past attempts at increasing penalties, and adding legislation were known to be failing, our government for some reason decided to further increase penalties for drug-related violations. 20 brought prohibition through the 18th Amendment, and in 1922, Congress doubled the Harrison penalty from five to ten years, and revised its criminal procedures. In 1924, the importation of heroin was altogether prohibited. Because opiates were getting harder to legally obtain, and prices were escalating, marijuana use began to catch on for casual use as an attempted substitute for the unlawful opiates, and as a form of anarchistic rebellion. Marijuana use had been prevalent since the mid-nineteenth century, however primarily for medicinal purposes.

Marijuana grew fervently throughout the United States, and was therefore, readily available. By this time, our government was stuck in the habit of prohibiting practically anything that provided pleasure to its citizens. Although the effects of marijuana use were widely known not to be of an extreme nature, the United States Government launched into a massive campaign of anti-marijuana propaganda, and policy. 1930 marked the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an agency designed to influence public awareness and support against drug use.

Not surprisingly, this agency is responsible for deceptively spreading misinformation about the “horrors” of marijuana use, and even the classification of marijuana as a narcotic. This categorization of all drugs being regarded as narcotics led to regulatory attacks by Harry Anslinger, a government official determined to inflict more and more anti-drug legislation. By the 1930s, the media was buzzing with fabricated horror stories and exaggerations of actual happenings. One movie, “Reefer Madness,” is laughable as it attempts to demonstrate the corruption of several upstanding young citizens when given marijuana.

This movie displays a severe, disoriented craze caused by marijuana use, and a total lack of judgment, and inhibition. One scene in the movie portrays a young student getting stoned in his car, and then speeding crazily around a busy downtown street without regard, documented occurrences of which do not exist. He then runs over a pedestrian, and conceals his crime. This movie contains many scenes, obviously exaggerated, proving to be one of the period’s largest pieces of anti-drug propaganda. Another news story from the 1930s was deliberately spread across our nation like wildfire.

An entire family was murdered by a youthful [marihuana] addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now be was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles,” a childish name for marijuana. (FBN)

The truth about this story has been clearly distorted. It was obviously designed to inflict terror in the citizens of America, as anyone ever having used marijuana would immediately see this as being exceedingly exaggerated. “Marijuana gives its users the feeling of Superman and Superwoman powers,” once stated an Oklahoma US Marshall. These prime examples of our government trying to misinform its people were all rooted in the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger’s hobbyhorse. In 1937, The Anslinger Campaign managed to win approval of the Marijuana Tax Act. This act was designed with several things in mind.

Number one; it prohibited use of marijuana for anything of a non-medicinal nature. Number two; it grouped marijuana with narcotics as far as punishment and severity were concerned. Finally, the Marijuana Tax Act produced revenues. JAMA, a liberal publication of the time immediately sided against the Marijuana Tax Act. Despite millions of dollars and man-hours spent by our government, drug use was still rampant throughout our nation. All of the efficiency and power of our government had done little to curb the number of users, or slow down the rapidly increasing numbers trying these drugs for the first time.

Throughout the years of governmental failure, most of our government’s resources were devoted to useless attempts at stopping drug use, while little effort was expended in trying to cure those addicted to drugs. Because of this, no cure or prevention for drug addiction had been found. Although at a glance, the reasoning behind the further and further devotion to a non-working policy seems nonexistent, upon closer examination, an understanding of our government’s motives become clearer. In looking into the first restrictions on drug use, the banning of smoking opium in designated “dens” and “houses,” one fact becomes immediately apparent.

The Chinese, targets of past governmental discrimination and social scorn, were the typical owners of these opium Dens. The reason that the smoking of opium be banned in a private, secluded place, and left permissible in public streets had to be based almost purely on social discrimination. Nearly twenty years later, Chinese importation of opium was banned altogether. This is a prime example of our government acting socially irresponsible with a drug law. The next restriction fell in the form of a tariff increase on legally imported opium.

This action of raising a tax would directly increase our government’s revenues. As reductions in use were nowhere to be found, our government decided to raise taxes a little more, one hundred percent to be exact. Perhaps this was a valid attempt to curb the usage, but consider this situation. If a business sells out of a product at a given price, they will raise that price to meet the demand in order to increase profits. If the price gets too high, and a competitor enters the market offering an equivalent product at a lower price, the initial seller will lower their prices once again in order to regain their sales.

Back to the issue at hand, after a few years, and the development of underground markets, the United States Government lowered the greedy tariff back to six dollars per pound. By this time our government had already devoted significant time, effort, and resources to the developing drug war. It is human understanding to want to avoid the nullification of a failing plan after devoting many resources as had our government. Another effect of human nature is to lead oneself to believe that increased effort and direction will always enhance a situation in which previous effort was not sufficient.

Finally, our government unquestionably experienced some political groupthink. Surely all of our government’s officials had our people’s “good intentions” in mind as they increased and increased legislation. What would have been the personal repercussions had one official suggested that his government’s entire logic was faulted, and that years of spending and devotion of resources be undone. Surely the thought crossed someone’s mind. As the century turned, and social problems began to arise as a seemingly unrelated result of our government’s actions, public devotion to and reliance on the campaign grew.

Just into the new century, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. This motion was probably the best act of regulation this far, had it been left alone. However, likely because of the aforementioned reasoning, and the fact that this act didn’t directly discourage the use of opiate containing drugs, our government felt the need to apply further restriction in the years following with the Harrison Narcotic Act. The Harrison Act was as blatant attempt as any at increasing revenues, as one had to register with Internal Revenue Collectors in order to legally use opiate based products.

In the case of the Philippine issue of drug legislation, race and nationality were quite obviously a significant factor, as the policy was different for Philippino citizens compared to non-citizens of the Philippines. By this time, our government was practically waging a war against drugs. This is how extreme the situation quickly escalated to be. Realizing that their increased retaliation to America’s widespread drug addiction, our leaders decided in a very retaliatory, military inspired way to symbolically “double our attack efforts” by doubling the penalties under the Harrison Act.

Officials were so dumbfounded by the fact that these deterrences failed to resolve our nation’s addiction to drugs that no one stopped to consider the possibility that people could not quit. While our nation’s people managed to find a less damaging vice for their pleasure in social marijuana use, our government likely experienced fears of the drug “outbreak” spreading. Stuck in the habit of simply imposing restrictions, and taxes on drug use, our government was eager to regulate marijuana use. Enter Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was in and of himself a junkie.

There have been many reports claiming that he, among others, was addicted to escalating this war on drugs. He is the one responsible for the exaggerated terror tales and misinformation that spanned our nation. Clearly, these actions are ones of an irrational nature, as are those of an addict burglarizing a home in order to afford his fix to feel “normal” again. One wonders where the “point of no return” was passed, and how the United States Government could be so unsuccessful at their campaign against these “Evil Drugs. ”

As a policy analyst for “Stop the Insanity,” a Washington, DC lobbying group, after reviewing out government’s past actions in fighting the drug war, I do agree, that the state of drug use became an unsightly one, and a pressing problem for our government to deal with. I do feel, however, that the United States has acted erroneously throughout its history of drug legislation, both in actions causing the problem, and in their efforts to contain it. Because of their faulty reasoning, our nation’s past drug restrictions were destined for failure from their start.

The first mistake made by America in its drug policy was basing it initially on ulterior motives. There is no doubt that the first step in drug restriction targeted the Chinese. There is an old adage, “If it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it. ” Our government stepped into a situation that caused little to no harm to American Society, and acted based on a social contempt, something completely unrelated to what was being infringed upon. This, of course, led to other problems, and after that, incompetent reasoning stepped in, thus furthering the problems caused by narcotics addiction.

The second fault in America’s past drug policy is the fact that narcotics addiction was treated as a war. The truth in the matter is that once addicted to a narcotic, one must literally maintain a constant input of these drugs in order to survive. This is the reason that drug prices escalated to such high figures. By depriving our citizens of a regulated supply of their narcotic, our government forced them to ingest dirty products with uncertain ingredients, thus causing overdoses. By making the act of using drugs illegal, users had to resort to seedy locations and use unclean methods of administering their fixes.

This one act is responsible for the violence, and disease resulting from drug addiction. Had our government looked at this problem as an illness, rather than a war, the outcome of our nations drug affliction would surely have been different. Had this train of thought been present, perhaps a program to manufacture narcotics in order to sustain addicts in their daily lives would have been instated rather than a system of punishment. Throughout the past, our government has focused on punishing addicts based on often-regretted actions taken at one point in their lives.

This downward spiral is the reason that our government’s attempts of curing America’s drug addiction were predestined to failure from the beginning. I agree fully that the social and personal problems of drug addiction became a major problem after first government intervention; however fighting these problems directly was not a wise decision on our government’s behalf. In looking at the nineteenth century, drug addiction did exist, however, because none of the restrictions were present, none of the social problems connected to drug addiction were present.

Since an addict requires the drug to live, they will do most anything to get their hands on it. Outlawing their “daily essentials” is what caused all of the problems. After these first few attempts at recovery of past mistakes had proven ineffective, if not adversely effective, the United States Government did not stop to evaluate their failures. The officials simply chose to throw more resources at prohibiting not only true narcotics, but also any possible substitutes such as alcohol and marijuana. This marked the third fatal mistake.

The problem had become too widespread to contain through overpower, however it could have likely been resolved by undermining the smuggling industry through a programmed, untaxed distribution of narcotics to those addicted. This action of prohibition caused two problems directly. Number one; prohibiting things requires amendments. Amendments leave loopholes that cause other amendments, thus creating a never-ending loop of confusing legalities. Number two; the government failed to consider the social state of its nation.

Lawlessness was prevalent, which if evaluated would have signaled further development of underground activities. The Eighteenth Amendment evidenced these mistakes. Finally, not stopping Anslinger, through his irrational campaign of misinformation and propaganda, lead America to a daft misconception partially supporting the drug war, and undoubtedly excusing the government’s contributory involvement. If only America had seen the problem as it was from the beginning, our government would have surely saved unmeasurable funding, as well as retained the well being of our country rather than creating an ill-fated war on drugs.

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