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Basic Facts About the War on Drugs

When and why were the opiates and cocaine outlawed?

The use of opiates became widespread in the US in the latter part of the 19th Century. Morphine became widely available with its use during the Civil War and heroin became available in 1894. Opiates were sold widely in the form of patent medicines, and were freely available to anyone who wanted to buy them, children included. Many patent medicines were fifty percent morphine, and morphine, cocaine, and heroin were even included in things such as baby colic remedies and toothache drops.  

In terms of medicine, they were regarded as miracles. Morphine was often prescribed by doctors with the initials "G.O.M." It stands for "God's Own Medicine". The reason was that there were medical miracles, in terms of the times. There was little medical understanding of the causes of diseases and few cures. In the absence of any means of curing a disease, relieving the pain through the use of morphine was quite valuable.

The dangers of the opiates and cocaine were poorly understood and there were no restrictions on advertising. Makers of patent medicines often claimed that their product would cure anything in man or beast. The claims were frankly ridiculous.

The first opium law was an 1875 law in San Francisco was an 1875 ordinance that outlawed opium smoking in opium dens. Among other things, it was alleged that Chinese men were seducing white women in opium dens. The measure was primarily directed at the Chinese, by punishing the Chinese custom of smoking opium in dens. Opium was still freely available in other forms. It came during the same period of time that other anti-Chinese laws were passed, such as laws against wearing hair in pigtails, as Chinese men did at the time.

The widespread and plainly fraudulent sale of patent medicines, and other consumer product safety issues, resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Food and Drug Administration and gave it the power to regulate foods and drugs. Subsequent acts defined rules on advertising and product content that essentially eliminated the patent medicine industry.

This act did not prohibit opiates and cocaine generally, and these drugs were still easily available by prescription through a doctor. It should be noted that while the dangers of the drugs and the completely unrelated marketing of the drugs were becoming widely recognized, there was no large social movement to have these drugs outlawed, as there was with alcohol. 

The rate of addiction to opiates is hard to determine with any exact measure for many reasons, including the fact that the term "addiction" has no exact meaning and may be defined differently between one person who is counting, versus another. In addition, there is quite a bit of use of these drugs for completely appropriate pain relief, so not all regular users are "addicts". 

But, with those qualifiers and others, the rate of addiction to opiates then was not substantially different than it is today. This is all the more remarkable because they were so freely available, and even heavily promoted with false claims. However, addiction during that period of time tended to be more prevalent among people like middle-aged women living on farms while today it tends to be more prevalent among groups like minority males. 

There was no real "drug-related" crime during this period of time. That is, the opiates and cocaine were not associated with crimes like robberies, murders, violent crime, burglaries, or any of the crime commonly associated with them today. There were addicts, but the addicts weren't criminals and there wasn't any great clamor to have these drugs outlawed, as there was with alcohol. They were recognized as a problem, but not a criminal problem.

These drugs became illegal nationally with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 which, on its face appears to be only a law to place a tax on these drugs. The intent, however, was to make the taxes and terms prohibitive to all non-medical use. That is, anyone who wasn't getting them through a doctor had to pay a tax and get a license. Then the US Government just made the terms of the taxes and licenses impossible to meet. Therefore, when they arrested someone for possession of opiates or cocaine, they didn't arrest them for possession of drugs. They arrested them for possession of drugs without having paid the tax and/or acquired the license. That is, they were arrested for a "tax" violation.

The prohibition of drugs by the Federal Government was not of appeal to some political interests but were persuaded by lurid reporting such as the following:

Most members of Congress probably did not realize that they were passing what would be later regarded as a general prohibition law. The prohibition became progressively tighter through the present day with a long series of acts and bureaucratic acts by the Federal Bureau that have increased the criminal penalties steadily since 1914. 

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