Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time: 4 Blunders Of 'The War On Drugs': The War On Drugs
Since the dawn of mankind, there have been drugs. Archaeologists have found poppy seeds in cavemen’s teeth, traces of burnt cannabis in ceremonial pottery, ancient wine decanters, etc. And by the abstract cave paintings that they left behind, we could tell they were getting the good shit.
However, every party has to have a pooper, and as long as drugs have been around there has never been a shortage of joyless narcs trying to harsh everyone’s buzz. In all fairness, they’re not wrong. Drug addiction is and always has been a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But throughout American history, efforts to get rid of illicit substances have been poorly thought out, wishful thinking at best and dishonest fear-mongering at worst.
So on that note, let’s take a look at the War on Drugs … and how drugs always seem to be winning ...
Prohibition of Alcohol Was A S**t Show
The alcohol industry is currently worth nearly $1.5 trillion worldwide, and alcoholic beverage sales in the United States alone are projected to reach around $284 billion this year. Those are some pretty staggering numbers for a product that was banned in this country as recently as 89 years ago. Well, sorta banned.
The passage of both the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919 did impose a nationwide ban on the production, importing, transport, and sale of alcohol … but not the possession or consumption of it. The moral crusaders that pushed for Prohibition were under the delusion that eliminating the supply would somehow kill the demand. It didn’t. If anything, it just drove the industry underground and right into the greedy hands of organized crime syndicates.
Alcoholics had enough problems before Prohibition without having to turn to gangsters to get their fix. Mob territories quickly expanded, along with their reputations. Gangsters like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly (not that one), Lucky Luciano, etc. became folk legends of the Prohibition era. Seizing control of the supply of alcohol allowed them to name their own prices, and a lot of the time, quality control went right out the window.
Industrial use of alcohol was still legally allowed, but the government forced those manufacturers to include additives that would make the alcohol either unpalatable or downright poisonous if consumed. This only caused bootleggers to try to become better chemists. Some managed to filter out the additives, and some didn’t. A lot of people died from drinking this tainted hooch, but it was impossible to determine who was really responsible: The government for adding the poison, the bootleggers for not removing it properly, or the victim for voluntarily drinking it.
The laws became harder and harder to enforce because people kept finding every conceivable loophole. Wine may have been outlawed, but grape juice wasn't. Notably, one brand of grape juice concentrate included a warning label including step-by-step instructions on how not to turn their product into wine (wink, wink). Alcohol was still permitted for religious services, which meant that any alcoholic could merely pretend to find God and turn Sunday services into an ad hoc pub crawl.
Citizens also took a keen interest in homebrewing, and they had no legal consequences unless they tried to sell what they made. Doctors and pharmacists made a ton of money selling prescriptions for “medicinal alcohol,” which is one of the ways Walgreen’s got their start.
Prohibition was officially repealed in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment. There were many reasons for its repeal. For one, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression. State and local governments were missing out on millions of dollars in taxable revenue from beer sales, farmers were taking a huge hit because their crops were no longer being used to brew alcohol, and the cost of enforcing all of these laws were going through the roof.
But the main reason Prohibition came to an end is because the temperance movement behind it was rapidly losing support. Their promises that banning alcohol would fix everything wrong with this country were not panning out at all. The idea that Prohibition would reduce crime definitely turned out to be a huge pile of crap. Closing down saloons didn’t magically solve poverty, domestic abuse, or political corruption. If anything, going to speakeasies instead made those problems worse because they were also a one-stop-shop of prostitution, gambling, loan sharks, and racketeering.
To Be Fair, Some Good Came Out of Prohibition
It can be easy to criticize the Prohibition movement as a bunch of religious zealots trying to force their way of life on the rest of the country, but we gotta give them credit for throwing their growing clout behind one worthwhile cause: Women’s suffrage.
Since the temperance organizations found a huge amount of their support came from women, it only made sense after getting the 18th Amendment passed, they would then champion giving women the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment a year and a half later. This move ensured a new voting block for anti-Prohibition politicians to not want to piss off if they ever hoped to get re-elected. So, they helped score one for women’s rights… but for a really dickish reason.
Then again, they also supported the 16th Amendment that gave us the Federal Income tax, so we have them to blame for that annual pain in the ass. They did this because, before that law, the Federal government was funded by tariffs and excise taxes on goods like fuel, tobacco, and, you guessed it: Alcohol. With alcohol taxes out of the way, no politician would be able to argue about Prohibition being fiscally irresponsible.
There were also some surprising side effects of Prohibition as well. Bootleggers learning to soup up their cars to better evade law enforcement along with stiff competition among drivers laid the groundwork for what would eventually become NASCAR.
Plus, with Prohibition finally repealed, it made a lot of people realize how hard they had hit rock bottom now that they no longer had to do all their drinking in secret. For many, their only hope for detox was to also suffer the indignity of being sent to an asylum. This led to the development of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which took a more sympathetic approach to addiction recovery.
The War On Drugs’ Biggest Weapon: Racism
Before the Food and Drug Administration came along, you could put anything in a bottle and call it medicine. It’s doubtful that these treatments ever actually cured anything, but they could definitely get you high enough to ignore the symptoms. There were heroin-infused cough drops, opium for headaches, morphine for teething children … Grandpa getting senile? Just give him Thorazine! Coca-Cola was initially sold as a “brain tonic” that contained up to 9 milligrams of cocaine per glass, which begs the question: Just how big was that glass? We need perspective because nowadays, we can get fountain soft drinks large enough to double as a baptismal pool.
So why did the government seem to get their tighty-whiteys in such a twist over heroin, cocaine, cannabis, etc. when the stuff had been readily available for years? It wasn’t because they did research into their effectiveness, conducted studies on addiction risks, or find a shocking number of toddlers strung out on teething medicine. No, it was because they believed white women were under attack.
Part of the public hysteria that led to a crackdown on opioids was the result of tabloids' fear-mongering over the “yellow peril.” It wasn’t enough for them to claim that Chinese immigrants were stealing jobs from white men, but they took that racism a step further by saying that Chinese men were seducing white women in their opium dens. This fervor not only led to a ban on Chinese immigration for 20 years with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Geary Act of 1892 but also inspired the Harrison Tax Act of 1914, which outlawed opium in the U.S.
The Harrison Act also outlawed cocaine in part due to an equally racist, albeit way dumber misinformation campaign. Hope you have your fainting couches ready because here was the problem: Black people were drinking Coca-Cola!
Like we said, Coca-Cola at the time contained cocaine, and that was perfectly acceptable when it was only available in whites-only drug stores. But when Coca-Cola started bottling their product and selling it in grocery stores in black neighborhoods, rumors started flying that the coke in Coke was making black men more violent, resistant to authority, freakishly strong, and of course, causing them to assault upper-class white women.
Cannabis managed to avoid the ire of the Harrison Act, but by the 1930s, xenophobia towards immigrants brought with it many stories of Mexican laborers smoking marijuana recreationally and teaching black people and “criminal-class whites” how to smoke it as well. This menace was causing them to all go crazy, committing crimes, turning violent, and it was only a matter of time before this posed a serious threat towards, you guessed it: White women. Something needed to be done about this! There’s no time to demand any evidence of these claims; let’s criminalize weed! Enter the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.
Ironically enough, many of these American officials’ claims of madness and violence associated with cannabis to push for the Marijuana Tax Act were the same kind of propaganda the Mexican government had used in their push to ban marijuana in 1920. Yeah, that’s right: Mexico banned it first! If anything, the weed was most likely being acquired here in America and then smuggled into Mexico.
The Drug Enforcement Administration was established in 1973 by an Executive Order signed by President Richard Nixon because, of course, any story of the American government disparaging minorities had to involve Nixon somehow. The stated goal of the DEA was to consolidate all enforcement of drug laws under one agency and enable prosecutors to crack down hard on drug offenders. But Nixon’s agenda was to use drug laws as a means to take down two communities he hated the most: Anti-war protestors … and Black people.
So, Nixon did everything he could to convince the public that the hippies were all a bunch of pot-smoking dope fiends and lower-class black communities as being full of junkies. His administration wasn’t much interested in raiding any of the upper-class discothèques where rich, white people were known to get bombed out of their gourds every night, but there were plenty of undercover agents working in Harlem.
Racial bias and profiling in drug arrests and convictions continue to this day. Despite studies that show usage rates are just about equal, African Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. And that’s just the national average. In states like Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa, they could be over seven times (and in some counties, up to 50 times) more likely to be arrested.
Plus, as we’ve seen over and over again any time a new drug hits the streets (crack, GHB meth, ecstasy, Oxycontin, etc.), these drugs get good TV ratings when they’re destroying the inner cities, but they only become a serious problem for law enforcement when they find their way into the suburbs.
Legalization, Regulation, and Decriminalization Efforts
Currently, 38 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, and 19 have taken it a step further to legalize recreational use. It is still banned under Federal law, which means dispensaries and growers operate within a nightmare of legal red tape and a very shaky truce between State and Federal law enforcement agencies.
But legalization is not the same as decriminalization. There is a world of difference between being able to purchase and use a controlled substance within the law and not having it not be a crime in the first place. Decriminalization doesn’t mean all drugs would be a free-for-all. It simply means that if you have a small amount for personal use, it’s not worth sending you to jail and/or ruining your life over it. If you do something you’re not supposed to be doing while on drugs, maybe rehab is a better option than prison. If you’re dealing drugs, that’s a completely different matter.
Portugal decriminalized all drugs back in 2001, and critics are quick to point out that this move sparked an increase in drug use. Yes, of course that was gonna happen. If a new Popeye's opens up in your neighborhood, you’re gonna see a sharp uptick in chicken consumption that first month or two. What really counts is how many regular customers they develop over time.
Portugal coupled decriminalization with a greater push for drug education and addiction treatment, so while the number of new drug users went up, the number of addicts and overdoses went way down. In recent years, those numbers have ticked up a bit, but overall the plan has been a net positive.
Legalization also brings with it tighter regulations, which means greater quality control over the product. Marijuana is now way stronger than it used to be, but that’s because dispensaries are now required by law to disclose exactly what they’re selling to their customers. If (and this is a huge if) cocaine and opioids were regulated the same way as legal weed, users would know exactly how pure the product was, there would be less risk of it being cut or laced with something much more dangerous like fentanyl or xylazine, and users would be better able to avoid overdoses. There’s only so much we can do to keep drug addicts from self-medicating. At least we could help them get the dosage right.
The truth is we’ll never know the full impact of drug legalization in America if it’s not fully enacted. And legalization will never fully work without at least some decriminalization efforts being made as well. For decades, we have seen drug policies fail over and over again because these laws were written by people who probably never in their life took anything stronger than an aspirin trying to vilify already marginalized groups and punish drug users instead of doing anything that might actually heal them. Is legalization and decriminalization a 100% perfect plan? No. But it may work out better than repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
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