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Drug Laws

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 a national panic over opium, orchestrated in part by U.S. labor unions fearful of low-wage Chinese competition." In fact a number of these drug wars, in the view 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 influx of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives into hospitals for the mentally disoriented." The Harrison Act, according to Robert Schess in a 1925 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 the Twenty-first Amendment--the only constitutional amendment which directly nullifies a preceding one--in 1933, many people continued to drink alcohol, only they 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 officials such as Elliot Ness.

Less well-known, however, is the impact Prohibition may have had with regard to another drug: marijuana. The latter was still legal in the 1920s, when the federal Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to grow it for its use in making rope; thus Prohibition resulted in an unusual situation whereby it was (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 worked for 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 marijuana use was associated in the popular mind with African Americans; hence a Yale professor later observed that the Marijuana Tax Act "mostly put a lot of jazz bands in jail."

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesDrug Laws - Drugs: A Simple Definition, Drugs, Culture, And Death, The War On Drugs