Dr. Campbell in the MEDesign Lab

100 Years of Drug Prohibition

James Stewart Campbell ---- December 2014

On the 17th of December 1914, our forbearers brought forth a new national policy, conceived in moralism, racism, fear, and misunderstanding that two herbal substances - Opium and Coca - are created evil and must be prohibited from all non-medical use. This policy did not arise from medical or social science, but from a strict new religious dogma that all intoxicating substances should be banned from the earth for the betterment of mankind. Disguised as a tax bill called the Harrison Narcotics Act, this dogma became the law of the United States.

--- Reverend Lyman Beecher (1775 –1863)---

Originally built on the best of intentions to promote the temperate use of intoxicants as preached by Reverend Lyman Beecher (1775 –1863), the temperance movement was later hijacked by the American Temperance Union and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, both of which pushed for a complete prohibition of all intoxicants in the USA. By working with religious organizations to pressure legislators, the Harrison Narcotics Act became their first national success. Prohibition of alcohol would follow in 1920. The promoters of prohibition thought naively that the public would simply obey the new laws. But alcohol was used by about 50% of Americans at that time, and the drinkers just scoffed and ignored the law, creating a huge market for illegal bootleggers. A huge spike in violence ensued, alarming the nation. Alcohol prohibition was thus dismantled within 13 years.

Opium and Coca, however, were used by only 10% of Americans, a minority that could not bring about policy change. Instead, this harmless minority became a scapegoat group to blame for all the country’s ills, with an entire federal task force assigned to search out and destroy this new, artificially-produced “plague.” Countless American citizens were prosecuted as “drug-fiends.” Thousands of doctors have been jailed for prescribing prohibited substances. But intense punishment for drug use has been for naught. Studies show the rates of drug addiction today remain about the same as before drug prohibition became law. Not only has the “war on drugs” been a failure, it probably was not needed in the first place!

Though Drug Prohibition was based on well-meant religious dogma, the promoters of this policy were not above using racism to promote their cause. The fear of drug-addled yellow, black, or brown people raping white women was exploited shamelessly. Even the first page of the New York Times quoted a southern sheriff saying “Those cocaine niggers sure are hard to kill…” (NYT 2/8/1914). This use of racism to promote drug prohibition has continued for 100 years. That is why black and Hispanic citizens are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offences than white citizens. If white people were stopped and searched for drugs in the same proportion as people of color, between 11 to 22 Million white US citizens would be in prison, almost every white family in the country would be up in arms, and drug prohibition would be on its way out.

But what about the violence attributed to substance use? Is that not a valid reason for drug prohibition? Well, no. Studies have repeatedly shown that the only substance significantly associated with violence is alcohol. Cocaine is only weakly associated with violence, while virtually all other prohibited substances, including cannabis, opium, heroin, PCP, and the psychedelic drugs actually reduce violence. Ironically, it is drug prohibition itself - and the underworld it creates - that is to blame for the vast majority of violence “caused” by drugs.

100 years of Drug Prohibion would have been impossible if not for a massive government-sponsored anti-drug propaganda campaign that continues to this day. This campaign includes suppression of any practical knowlege of temperate drug use - ANY drug use is labeled bad, immoral, illegal, illicit, dangerous and wrong. The propaganda film "Reefer Madness" is a good example. This campaign of mis-information has resulted in the population of the USA becoming quite ignorant of safe and sane temperate drug use, and many thousands of deaths from overdose or unsafe drug use have occured due to this lack of practical knowlege.

Experts have been saying for years now that the only way out of this mess is to dismantle drug prohibition – replacing it with a system of regulated drug sales to adults only (children would be prescribed drugs only under strict medical supervision). Appropriate retail sales venues, taxes, packaging, quantity, instructions, and warnings would be determined by scientific evaluation of each separate substance, just like we do with alcoholic beverages. Practical drug use education will play a big part in re-introducing these substances to the population safely. Progressive states have already begun dismantling prohibition by legalizing recreational marijuana, perhaps the safest psychoactive substance on the planet. Will the federal government be far behind?

As a bonus of drug regulation, job growth and tax revenues would be created. These taxes could be spent in part helping the estimated 1% of people who have opiate or coca addiction problems. With freedom comes the responsibility to help others adversely affected by that freedom.

With regulation, not prohibition, the country (and the world) will be a better place in which to live because it would be free from the trafficking, gangs, massive imprisonment, no-knock raids, property confiscations, broken families, erosion of privacy, unwarranted searches, untreated pain, and innocent deaths caused by the past century of scientifically unsound drug prohibition.


Thanks to the courageous editorial staff at the Winston-Salem Journal for printing an edited version of this article on 17 December 2014 - marking 100 years of drug prohibition. JSC.

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