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Drug Laws

Further Readings

Drugs: A Simple Definition
The term "drugs" is an extraordinarily broad one, which can encompass such agreat variety of items that the meaning of the word almost becomes lost. EvenWebster's Dictionary offers a variety of definitions which distinguish between (usually legal) medications intended to treat a specific physiological or psychological problem and (usually illegal) substances which are usedrecreationally, and whose use may lead to addiction.
A simple, all-encompassing definition of a drug would be "a substance containing chemicals which result in a specific physical or psychological reaction or reactions." This, at least, is as much true of penicillin, a drug which hassaved millions of lives, as it is of cocaine--a drug which, especially in the latter part of the twentieth century, has claimed a death toll in the hundreds of thousands if not the millions.
Drugs, Culture, and Death
Of course, it is worth noting in this context that the body count created bycocaine is at least partially composed of persons who die as a result of illegally trafficking of the substance. There are the drug lords, the pushers, and the dealers, who enter into ultimately fatal encounters with each other orwith law enforcement officers; and there are the law enforcement personnel themselves who die in shootouts with their counterparts on the other side of the law. Besides these, there are also "mules," persons low on the dealing hierarchy, who die as the result of foolhardy smuggling schemes--for instance, byswallowing a condom filled with cocaine, which bursts in the intestinal tract and results in an instantaneous overdose.
Cocaine makes a particularly useful example of the human cost created by an illegal substance. Not only is it exceedingly harmful and addictive, its use has remained high in the United States since the 1970s, and it crosses class and racial lines. In the 1970s, cocaine use was associated with a hedonistic urban lifestyle, yet as fashions changed in the much more serious-minded 1980s, the character of cocaine use changed without any diminishment in the degreeof prevalence. If anything, its use increased among upwardly mobile "Yuppies," who enjoyed the drug because it seemingly gave them more energy, creativity, and vitality.
These promises, of course, were illusory. Hence a public service commercial of the era depicted a well-dressed Yuppie type--someone who could easily havebeen a Wall Street broker--in a tiny, box-like room, much like a rat in a cage; as he moved around and around the room, from wall to wall, a voice-over stated that "Cocaine helps you work harder, so you can earn more money, so youcan buy more cocaine, so you can work harder...." Perhaps even more disturbing was the spread of the drug's use among the urban underclass, facilitated bythe adaptation of a cheap cocaine derivative called crack in the mid-1980s.Crack was instantly addictive, or very nearly so, and its spread resulted ina massive upsurge in crime.
The War on Drugs
By the time crack appeared on the scene, the federal government had long beenengaged in a massive "War on Drugs." The cause came increasingly to public attention during the 1980s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan took it up, and promoted it with the slogan "Just Say No." The latter injunction was geared mostlytoward children, who were often vulnerable not only to peer pressure, but tothe persuasion of dealers eager to gain more customers. The "Just Say No" campaign did not, however, address another and perhaps equally insidious inducement, the lure of the drug trade itself, which offered instant wealth to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who saw little or no hope of attaining comparable rewards by legal means.
At the law enforcement level, the War on Drugs--which had actually begun in the mid-1960s, when recreational drug use began to increase dramatically--involved enormous efforts on the part of numerous federal and local agencies. Most notable among these was the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), whose energies were primarily directed toward intercepting drug shipments to the United States. Federal officials had identified south Florida as a principal gateway forcocaine and marijuana from the South American nation of Colombia, which was virtually dominated by drug lords such as Pablo Escobar. In the 1980s and 1990s, millions of kilos of illegal drugs were intercepted and destroyed, and thousands of persons involved in the drug trade were captured and incarcerated.These included Escobar himself, reputed to be the richest man in the world; Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, captured in a raid directed by President Bush in 1989; and other prominent figures such as Colombian narcotics kingpinCarlos Lehder.
Despite these successes, critics of U.S. policy pointed out that for every kilo that the DEA captured, many more made it in via plane or boat, or by someother means. Likewise they noted that for every Escobar, there were hundredsof "mules," far less culpable figures drawn into the drug trade by poverty, who paid for their transgressions with life sentences. By the early 1990s, theWar on Drugs more or less came to an end: though the government remained committed to stopping the importation, sale, or use of illegal drugs, the days of fervent crusading were over. After the 1993 inauguration of President BillClinton, who claimed he had smoked marijuana in college but "didn't inhale,"there was little further suggestion that the federal government intended to "win" a war against the drug trade.
Earlier Wars and Racial Questions
This was not the first or only "War on Drugs": "The late 1800s," as James Bovard noted in Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, "saw anational panic over opium, orchestrated in part by U.S. labor unions fearfulof low-wage Chinese competition." In fact a number of these drug wars, in theview of Bovard and other critics of federal policy, have had a racial or xenophobic component. Insight magazine in the 1980s ran a cover story on"The First War on Drugs," a campaign against cocaine use in the 1910s. At that time, the drug had many prominent advocates, including Sigmund Freud, who promoted its potential for medicine. Likewise the original formula of Coca-Cola contained cocaine, and it may be remembered that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional creation, the great detective Sherlock Holmes, enhanced his crime-solving ability with regular doses of the drug. But as Bovard wrote, "A backlash against cocaine arose partly because of the drug's popularity with blacks."Hence in 1910, a report presented by a Presidential commission referred to cocaine as "a potent incentive in driving the humbler negroes all over the country to abnormal crimes."
These fears led to the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, the first significant anti-drug measure by the federal government. The act also spawned the first arguments against the criminalization of drugs on the grounds that it created new crimes: thus a commentary in a 1915 medical journal listed among "the really serious results of this legislation" the fact that "There 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 influxof many who would otherwise live socially competent lives into hospitals forthe mentally disoriented." The Harrison Act, according to Robert Schess in a1925 American Mercury article, "made the drug peddler, and the drug peddler makes drug addicts."
Meanwhile, the federal government had entered into yet another war on drugs,perhaps larger in relative proportions than the one in the late twentieth century. It was called Prohibition, and it began with the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, forbidding the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol,in 1919. During the 14 years that followed, ending with the adoption of theTwenty-first Amendment--the only constitutional amendment which directly nullifies a preceding one--in 1933, many people continued to drink alcohol, onlythey did so now illegally. As many people know, this led to a large crime wave made particularly memorable by colorful figures on both sides of the law: bootleggers and crime bosses such as Al Capone, and law-enforcement officialssuch as Elliot Ness.
Less well-known, however, is the impact Prohibition may have had with regardto another drug: marijuana. The latter was still legal in the 1920s, when thefederal Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to grow it for its usein making rope; thus Prohibition resulted in an unusual situation whereby itwas (by default, at least) legal to smoke marijuana, but illegal to consume alcohol. Yet again, however, racial fears played a part in anti-drug legislation. The Great Depression brought an influx of Mexican immigrants, and according to Bovard and others, "Hostility toward the immigrants"--who often workedfor much lower wages than American citizens--led to the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Many of these immigrants smoked marijuana, and in any case their homeland was and is a major producer of the drug. Likewise marijuanause was associated in the popular mind with African Americans; hence a Yaleprofessor later observed that the Marijuana Tax Act "mostly put a lot of jazzbands in jail."
Continuing Legal Questions
A more recent chapter in the saga of drugs and race came in the mid-1990s, with proposals to make penalties for crack sales and usage much higher than those for cocaine. Civil Rights leaders decried this initiative as racist, citing the fact that whereas most cocaine users are white and middle class, the majority of crack users are poor and African American. Advocates of the sentencing laws, by contrast, held that race had nothing to do with it: crack is even more dangerous than cocaine, and therefore its manufacture, sale, and use should be treated with even greater seriousness. Whereas opponents demanded that crack penalties be reduced to the same level as those for cocaine, few suggested a third alternative: raising the cocaine penalties to be equalwith those for crack.
Clearly not all drugs are the same, and this principle is embodied in the Controlled Substance Act, passed in 1970 in response to the growth of recreational drug use. The act separates drugs into five "schedules" based on a numberof criteria that include the drug's potential for abuse, its pharmacologicaleffects, current scientific knowledge regarding it, and other factors. LSD, heroin, and marijuana belong to Schedule I, drugs which have a high potentialfor abuse, a "lack of accepted safety," and no currently accepted medical use. By contrast, PCP, cocaine, morphine, and methamphetamine belong to ScheduleII, because they do have currently accepted medical uses. By the late 1990s,a number of states had passed initiatives allowing medical use of marijuana,which is useful in treatment of glaucoma and other diseases, but the drug was not moved to Schedule II. The remaining three schedules consist of legal drugs, and are based on increasingly diminishing abuse potential, with the lowest level, Schedule V, consisting of such items as over-the-counter cough medicine containing codeine.
Among the constitutional issues relating to drug use that remained in the forefront during the 1980s and 1990s were Fourth and Fifth Amendment questions regarding drug testing and search and seizure. Particularly potent topics included mandatory urinalysis and drug testing, and "knock and announce" rules requiring police to knock and announce their authority and purpose before entering a home with the intent to seize drugs, as in Richards v. Wisconsin(1997), for instance. Government power to seize the assets of persons convicted of drug sale or manufacture was on the rise, a fact evidenced by the Supreme Court's rulings in the 1996 cases of United States v. Ursery and Bennis v. Michigan. These rulings have in turn raised an outcry from civil libertarians, who hold that anti-drug policy is abused as a means of increasing government control over the citizenry.
The debate over legalization continues. Advocates come from the left, including a number of civil liberties groups, and from the right: conservative pundit William F. Buckley, whose magazine, the National Review, devoted itsFebruary 12, 1996, issue to the topic, is among the most outspoken proponents of legalization. U.S. Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, in a Spring 1994Police News article, presented logic that echoed that of Schess nearly70 years before: criminalization, he wrote, did nothing to address the desire for drugs on the part of its users, and the difficulty of obtaining illegalsubstances greatly increased the economic inducements to engage in the drugtrade. According to Gray, if drugs were legalized, "Without a doubt, some people will continue to buy and abuse drugs.... However, since there would be noincentive to `push' these drugs... the usage should not be above the presentrate, and probably, after a possible initial surge, would be materially reduced."
But just as there are compelling arguments for legalization, likewise there are persuasive ones against it, particularly where "hard drugs" such as heroin, cocaine, and crack are concerned. Under the present situation, a recoveringdrug addict would undoubtedly find it relatively easy to remove him or herself from an environment in which drugs are readily available, whereas if he orshe could obtain cocaine at the local drug store, the temptation to relapsemight be much higher. In any case, all sides generally agree on two points: recreational drug use is not going away, and most of the government's initiatives to stop it have failed to produce a substantial and lasting decrease in the drug trade.

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