History of American Drug Policies Term Paper

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Drug Policies


History of American Drug Policies

This paper is about the history of the non-medical use of drugs. It is interesting to note than in the early 1900s there were far more people addicted to drugs in this country than there are today (Whitebread, 1999). Estimations reveal that between two and five percent of the entire adult population of the United States was addicted to drugs in 1900.

There were two main reasons for this dramatic level of drug addiction (Whitebread, 1999). The first was the use of morphine and its various derivatives in legal medical operations. People received morphine as a painkiller during an operation and after the operation. They often came out of the hospital addicted to morphine. In addition, the use of morphine in battlefield operations during the Civil War was extensive. As a result, many Union veterans were addicted to morphine. The popular press frequently referred to morphinism as the "soldier's disease."

The second cause of the high level of addiction in the early 1900s was the growth and development of what is now known as the "patent medicine" industry (Whitebread, 1999). As late as 1900, in rural areas where medical resources were scarce, it was typical for salesmen to travel the countryside offering cures of all sorts. However, they failed to tell their customers that many of them were up to fifty percent morphine by volume. Therefore, they worked for most people, in the sense that morphine takes away all types of aches and pains.

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For these reason, almost all addiction at the turn of the century was accidental (Whitebread, 1999). People were involved with drugs they did not know that they were taking and did not understand the consequences. Thus, there was more drug addiction than there is now and much of it was accidental.

In an effort to address this problem, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed (Whitebread, 1999). This law has done the most in this country to reduce the level of drug addiction. However, it is not a criminal law. The act did three things:

TOPIC: Term Paper on History of American Drug Policies Assignment

1). It created the Food and Drug Administration in Washington that must approve all foods and drugs meant for human consumption. The very first impact of that was that the patent medicines were not approved for human consumption once they were tested.

2) the Pure Food and Drug Act said that certain drugs could only be sold on prescription.

3) the Pure Food and Drug Act, (and you know, this is still true today, go look in your medicine chest) requires that any drug that can be potentially habit-forming say so on it's label. "Warning -- May be habit forming."

The labeling requirements, the prescription requirements, and the refusal to approve the patent medicines effectively put the patent medicine business out of business and reduced that major source of accidental addiction.

Since then, numerous policies have been put in place to control drugs in the United States. For example, the first criminal law at the Federal level to criminalize the non-medical use of drugs was the Harrison Act (Whitebread, 1999). This paper aims to provide an effective look at the history of drug policies in the United States.


The history of the United States policy towards drugs can best be reviewed by examining supply reduction, the reduction and control of the supply of drugs through legislation, law enforcement, interdiction, sentencing, and incarceration.

There are many different points at which the history of supply reduction in the United States may have begun (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999). The year 1906 marked the Congressional passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited the interstate transportation of adulterated or mislabeled food and drugs. However, this policy did not prohibit or outlaw the use of cocaine and opiate drugs. Rather, it created standards of quality and truth in labeling and did lead to the demise of much of the patent medicine industry since the ingredients of such medicines now had to be revealed (Inciardi, 1992, p. 15).

A key legislative act concerning drugs occurred in 1914 when Congress approved the Harrison Act, which became the standard and the basis of narcotic regulation in the United States for the next 50 years (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999). This act was based upon the constitutional authority of the Federal Government 'to raise revenue and to tax and regulate the distribution and sale of narcotics. The Harrison Act aimed to make illegal the non-medical use of morphine and cocaine. Under the terms of this law, all people who imported, manufactured, produced, compounded, sold, dispensed, or otherwise distributed cocaine and opiate drugs were required to register with the Treasury Department, pay taxes, and record all transactions (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999).

While this act was defined as a revenue act, the Harrison Act served to criminalize the approximately 200,000 users of narcotics in the United States (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999). As a result, many citizens were suddenly labeled addicts. Doctors could no longer write a narcotic prescription for these addict patients for the purpose of maintenance. A later law stated that a narcotic prescription for an addict was illegal even when the intent was part of a 'cure' program. This decision was reversed in 1925 but, by that time, doctors were wary of prescribing narcotics to addicts and an illegal drug distribution chain had become well established.

By 1920, an illegal drug economy was prominent the United States, making money mainly from sales of cocaine and heroin distribution (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999). In 1922, the Jones-Miller Act was passed to address this issue. The act issued fines of up to $5,000 and jail time for any person found guilty of participating in the illegal importation of narcotics. However, the legislation had little effect on the illicit drug marketplace except to increase the price of heroin and cocaine (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999).

The 1920s also marked the culmination of alcohol prohibitionist efforts. During the previous two centuries, support was increasing for prohibition, and by 1900, there was a great deal of noise on the topic (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). The Womens Christian Temperance Union, anti-saloon leagues, and allied anti-alcohol crusaders aimed to convince Americans that the downfall of the country lay in continued use of alcohol.

The Eighteenth or Prohibition Amendment passed both houses of Congress in 1917, and was ratified by three-fourths of the 48 state legislatures a year later (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). From 1920 until 1933, the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol was prohibited in the United States. As with tobacco, the opiates, and cocaine, legislation did not create a general climate of abstention. And where there were many willing consumers, supply was still able to keep pace with demand.

Alcohol was still available during Prohibition (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). People still got drunk, still became alcoholics, and was still popular at parties Drunken drivers were still a frequent menace on the highways, and the courts, jails, hospitals, and mental hospitals were still filled with drunk people. However, instead of drinking alcoholic beverages manufactured under state and federal standards, people now drank rotgut, which was often contaminated. The use of methyl alcohol, a poison, because ethyl alcohol was unavailable or too expensive, led to illness and death.

In addition, even seedier speakeasies replaced disreputable saloons (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). There was a shift from relatively mild light wines and beers to hard liquors -- less bulky and therefore less dangerous to manufacture, transport, and sell on the black market. Young people -- and especially respectable young women, who rarely got drunk in public before 1920 -- were now staggering out of speakeasies and stumbling down the streets.

While the saloons had legal closing hours, the speakeasies stayed open night and day. Organized crime syndicates now controlled alcohol distribution, establishing power bases that still survive. Also, marijuana, a drug previously little used in the United States, was first popularized during the period of alcohol Prohibition.

Despite rigid federal efforts to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, the alcohol prohibition concept was unenforceable (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). Americans and their European forebears had been drinking for centuries and were unwilling to stop. The Twentieth Amendment repealing prohibition passed Congress in February 1933. The requisite number of states ratified it in less than one year's time.

The Twenty-first Amendment gave individual states the power to retain statewide alcohol prohibition, and made it a federal offense to ship alcoholic beverages into a dry state (Recreational Drug Information, 1999). However, by that time, the states, too, had learned how impossible it was to keep people from drinking. One by one, each repealed its local anti-alcohol legislation, with Mississippi the last state to give in -- in 1966.

Until 1920, when Alcohol Prohibition was legislated, there were few accounts of marijuana in the media and those that did exist showed marijuana to be smoked recreationally (Harrison, Backenheimer and Inciardi, 1999). After prohibition was legislated, marijuana markets began… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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