The Short Answer:
No, it really doesn't. It causes more problems than it solves.
The Longer Answer:
Finally, let's examine the assertion that "it pays to be tough on drugs." Just looking at the
information compiled above, we can readily see that it did not pay to be tough
on alcohol. Quite the contrary, in fact.
But how about the other drugs? Surely, the laws against those make more sense
than trying to prohibit alcohol -- don't they? Not really. You could get a quick
answer if you just went to the Rand Corporation's analysis of the
cost-effectiveness of various strategies to control drugs. They found that
interdiction and law enforcement were the least cost-effective of all the
available strategies. But that's on a different web site, so let's not even
count that one.
One of the best places to start such a discussion is with what I consider to
be probably the best single overall review of the subject ever written, the
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. It gives a good overview of
what happened before and after the drug prohibition laws were passed in the
Prior to 1906, there weren't any national drug laws in the US.
There were some local laws that were motivated by racism rather than any real
concern for public health and safety. For example, opium smoking was outlawed in
San Francisco in 1875. They didn't outlaw all forms of opium, just smoking
opium, because that custom was peculiar to the Chinese. It was an attempt to
punish the Chinese immigrants who were competing with whites for jobs. (Chapter
6 - Opium
smoking is outlawed, The
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs)
There were no laws on drug quality, no age restrictions on buyers, and
no licensing of sellers. There weren't even any laws requiring drug makers to
list the contents on the label. Many people were taking concoctions of perhaps
fifty percent morphine with no real knowledge of what it was. It was, as one
historian noted, "a dope fiend's paradise." However, even under those
extreme conditions, it was not considered a major social problem.
Nevertheless, there was very little popular support for a law banning these
substances. "Powerful organizations for the suppression ... of alcoholic
stimulants exist throughout the land," 25
the 1881 article in the Catholic World noted, but there were no similar
The reason for this lack of demand for opiate prohibition was quite simple:
the drugs were not viewed as a menace to society and, as we shall demonstrate
in subsequent chapters, they were not in fact a menace.
Chapter 1 - Nineteenth
Century America - "a dope fiends paradise" from The
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and
the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972
But it obviously wasn't a good idea for these drugs to be sold even without
any labeling of the contents or controls on purity so the Pure Food and Drugs
Act was passed in 1906. This was a regulatory law, not a criminal prohibition of
drugs. It established the Food and Drug Administration and gave it the power to
regulate foods and drugs. In addition:
The 1906 act required that medicines containing opiates and certain other
drugs must say so on their labels. 2
Later amendments to the act also required that the quantity of each drug be
truly stated on the label, and that the drugs meet official standards of
identity and purity. Thus, for a time the act actually served to safeguard
The efforts leading to the 1906 act, the act itself and subsequent
amendments, and educational campaigns urging families not to use patent
medicines containing opiates, no doubt helped curb the making of new addicts.
Indeed, there is evidence of a modest decline in opiate addiction from the
peak in the 1890s until 1914. 3
Chapter 7 - The
Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, The
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs,
The opiates and cocaine were not prohibited on a national level until 1914
with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The purpose of the
proponents of the bill was to institute a national prohibition on these drugs.
But they knew that an outright national prohibition law would be considered
unconstitutional, so they didn't prohibit it, they just taxed it and worked the
prohibition through the tax system. ( see Whitebread's History
of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States )
On its face, moreover, the Harrison bill did not appear to be a prohibition
law at all. . . . 4
The law specifically provided that manufacturers, importers, pharmacists, and
physicians prescribing narcotics should be licensed to do so, at a moderate
fee. . . . Far from appearing to be a prohibition law, the Harrison Narcotic
Act on its face was merely a law for the orderly marketing of opium, morphine,
heroin, and other drugs. . . it is unlikely that a single legislator realized
in 1914 that the law Congress was passing would later be decreed a prohibition
. . .
The effects of this policy were almost immediately visible. On May 15,
1915, just six weeks after the effective date of the Harrison Act, an
editorial in the New York Medical Journal declared:
As was expected ... the immediate effects of the Harrison antinarcotic
law were seen in the flocking of drug habitues to hospitals and sanatoriums.
Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usual1y 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. 8
Six months later an editorial in American Medicine reported:
Narcotic drug addiction is one of the gravest and most important
questions confronting the medical profession today. Instead of improving
conditions the laws recently passed have made the problem more complex.
Honest medical men have found such handicaps and dangers to themselves and
their reputations in these laws . . . that they have simply decided to have
as little to do as possible with drug addicts or their needs. . . . The
druggists are in the same position and for similar reasons many of them have
discontinued entirely the sale of narcotic drugs. [The addict] is denied the
medical care he urgently needs, open, above-board sources from which he
formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the
underworld where lie can get his drug, but of course, surreptitiously and in
violation of the law....
Abuses in the sale of narcotic drugs are increasing. . . . A particular
sinister sequence . . . is the character of the places to which [addicts]
are forced to go to get their drugs and the type of people with whom they
are obliged to mix. The most depraved criminals are often the dispensers of
these habit-forming drugs. The moral dangers, as well as the effect on the
self-respect of the addict, call for no comment. One has only to think of
the stress under which the addict lives, and to recall his lack of funds, to
realize the extent to which these . . . afflicted individuals are under the
control of the worst elements of society. In respect to female habitues the
conditions are worse, if possible. Houses of ill fame are usually their
sources of supply, and one has only to think of what repeated visitations to
such places mean to countless good women and girls unblemished in most
instances except for an unfortunate addiction to some narcotic drug-to
appreciate the terrible menace. 9
In 1918, after three years of the Harrison Act and its devastating
effects, the secretary of the treasury appointed a committee to look into the
problem. . . . Among its findings 10
were the following:
- Opium and other narcotic drugs (including cocaine, which Congress had
erroneously labeled as a narcotic in 1914) were being used by about a
million people. (This was almost certainly an overestimate; see Chapter
- The "underground" traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to
the legitimate medical traffic.
- The "dope peddlers" appeared to have established a national
organization, smuggling the drugs in through seaports or across the
Canadian or Mexican borders-especially the Canadian border.
- The wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased since passage of the
Harrison Act. Twenty cities, including New York and San Francisco, had
reported such increases. (The increase no doubt resulted from the
migration of addicts into cities where black markets flourished.)
To stem this apparently rising tide, the 1918 committee, like countless
committees since, called for sterner law enforcement. it also recommended more
state laws patterned after the Harrison Act. 11
Congress responded by tightening up the Harrison Act. In 1924, for example,
a law was enacted prohibiting the importation of heroin altogether, even for
medicinal use. . . . In 1925, Dr. Lawrence Kolb reported on a study of both
morphine and heroin addiction: "If there is any difference in the
deteriorating effects of morphine and heroin on addicts, it is too slight to
be determined clinically." 12
President Johnson's Committee on Law Enforcement and Administration of justice
came to the same conclusion in 1967: "While it is somewhat more
rapid in its action, heroin does not differ in any significant pharmacological
effect from morphine." 13
The 1924 ban on heroin did not deter the conversion of morphine addicts to
heroin. On the contrary, heroin ousted morphine almost completely from the
black market after the law was passed.
An editorial in the Illinois Medical Journal for June 1926, after
eleven years of federal law enforcement, concluded:
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.
As is the case with most prohibitive laws, however, this one fell far
short of the mark. So far, in fact, that instead of stopping the traffic,
those who deal in dope now make double their money from the poor
unfortunates upon whom they prey. . . .
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.
As to the Harrison Narcotic law, it is as with prohibition [of alcohol]
legislation. People are beginning to ask, "Who did that, anyway?" 14
Chapter 8 - The
Harrison Narcotic Act (1914),
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs
I could certainly go on with references that show that the drug laws never
did make any sense, and it is doubtful if they have ever produced any measurable
benefits. Certainly, the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that the
prohibition laws do more harm than good. A good place to start reading the
evidence is at Major
Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. Start with The
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.
What kinds of bad effects does this policy produce? One major bad effect is
that it makes it easier for kids to get drugs, and even encourages their use.
Historically speaking, the biggest single cause of drug epidemics among US
children is anti-drug campaigns. See, for example, the references above on the
problems with children drinking during alcohol prohibition. See also:
Chapter 30 - Popularizing
the barbiturates as "thrill pills"
Chapter 38 - How
speed was popularized
Chapter 44 - How
to launch a nationwide drug menace
Chapter 50 - How
LSD was popularized, 1962-1969
Chapter 51 - How
the hazards of LSD were augmented, 1962-1969
Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs
That is hardly the end of the evidence on the subject, of course. There is a
ton of stuff I could reference here in the Schaffer Library already, and there
are several cabinets full of additional research at my local university research
libraries that I haven't begun to put on the net. But, if you read the books
referenced above, they will give you a good summary of what you would learn if
you read all the other thousands of documents, and more.
If you want to comment, or if you think you have some online references that
tell the story better, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.