In the 1800s, products made from cocaine and opium (morphine) were widely available to virtually anyone. The patent medicine industry of the day was reasonable for this. Unsurprisingly, people had addiction problems back then with theses compounds like they do now. The differences today are that the activity has not just become illegal, but criminal. But why?
Back before the dawn of modern pharmacology and medicine, cure alls and vague tonics were the common remedies for illness. We had very little understanding of the precise behavioral and chemical effects of these compounds. All that was known then was that one would take X to get rid of feeling Y without more or less hurting one’s self (or dying). There was little thought regarding addiction and toxicity in the long run. Naturally, this era was the birth of the “snake oil salesman”. Nevertheless, when addiction arose, it was treated as a medical problem and not a criminal one.
So who’s idea was it to take the chemically dependent and turn them into criminals on par with thieves, murders, and rapists? To investigate, one needs to search back to when and how these drugs evolved from patent medicines to illegal substances. Taking a look at alcohol, in the 1800s it had a segment of the population locked in chains of its dependency. In order to relive this problem, some doctors at the time had the idea to substitute their addiction with another one (a process we still do today but with much more “sophisticated” drugs). Hence one went from having an alcohol addiction to having one of cocaine or morphine. By the turn of the last century, most of the opiate or cocaine addicts were lonely housewives or men in opium dens, a population trend similar to today’s addicts. Therefore, for most of the white population in the US at that time, the problem of cocaine or opium dependency was no more significant then it is now, with alcohol being the dominate social drug problem, like it is today. But what about other parts of the population?
Although alcohol is widely used in most societies, each culture has its own unique array of recreational and medicinal (most of the time these two categories are the same) drugs. Some of the immigrant and black populations had their own kinds of recreational drugs. The common examples were Mexicans with cannabis and the Chinese with opium. Unfortunately, systematic racism at the time was high, and as the immigrant populations grew, laws were enacted to restrict the freedoms of these groups with the likely intent of driving them back to their respective countries, and/or to marginalize them as second-class citizens. Many individual states started to pass laws against exotic cultural practices, such as like Chinese men having long hair and the drugs which these minorities used. After spreading through the states with significant immigrant populations, the drive to make these exotic substances illegal joined the awareness of these substances holding on a small part of the white population in dependency; this latter awareness came about because of the 1906 pure food and drug act which made it mandatory to list the ingredients of all products made for human consumption. Consequently the conjunction of drug awareness with the xenophobia of the time resulted in the passing of the national Harrison narcotics tax act, making it illegal to deal or use cocaine or opium products without a prescription.
It becomes plain to see how when the issue of drug use was within the context of the mainstream white population of the time, it was either treated medically or not at all. But when the issue involved minority populations, the reaction was to pass laws making it criminal. However, the federal ban and criminality came from a combination of the ramped xenophobia of the time and a newly acquired awareness of drug ingredients. This is why personal drug use (for the most part) is seen as a criminal activity: not because of any harm, offense, or corruption, but because of ignorance and historical circumstance. Is this what we want to base out public policies on?
Today we inherit these drug policies from the past based on a lack of knowledge available today. Is there any good reason to go on treating the chemically dependent as criminals on par with violent and malicious offenders? What else would make one a criminal then doing harm or offense to directly others? This kind of behavior is missing in the addict. One may argue that suppliers and producers should only be considered criminal. But this idea ignores the fact that what creates the black market suppliers/producers is the illegality itself. Its time for us to learn from our past, consider it as pretext, and start to reevaluate and change our drug policy, grounding it in science, compassion, health and human rights.