War on Drugs
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The first American anti-drug law was an 1875 San Francisco ordinance which outlawed the smoking of opium in opium dens. It was passed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to their “ruin” in opium dens. “Ruin” was defined as associating with Chinese men. It was followed by other similar laws, including Federal laws in which trafficking in opium was forbidden to anyone of Chinese origin, and restrictions on the importation of smoking opium. The laws did not have anything really to do with the importation of opium as a drug, because the importation and use of opium in other forms — such as in the common medication laudunum — were not affected. The laws were directed at smoking opium because it was perceived that the smoking of opium was a peculiarly Chinese custom. In short, it was a way of legally targeting the Chinese.
Cocaine was outlawed because of fears that superhuman “Negro Cocaine Fiends” or “Cocainized Niggers” (actual terms used by newspapers in the early 1900s) take large amounts of cocaine which would make them go on a violent sexual rampage and rape white women. There is little evidence that any black men actually did this, if only because it would have been certain death. The United States set a record in 1905 with 105 recorded lynchings of black men. At the same time, police nationwide switched from .32 caliber pistols to .38 caliber pistols because it was believed that the superhuman “Negro Cocaine Fiend” could not be killed with the smaller gun.
Dr. Hamilton Wright is sometimes referred to as the “Father of American Drug Laws”. Dr. Wright was the Opium Commissioner at the time and had previously become famous because he had “scientifically proved” that beri-beri was a communicable disease. Beri-beri is a vitamin deficiency.
The Harrison Act which “outlawed” these drugs was, on its face, a simple licensing law which simply required sellers to get a license if they were going to handle the opiates and cocaine. As the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs has said, it is doubtful that very many members of Congress would have thought that they were passing what would later be regarded as a general drug prohibition. The law even contained a provision that nothing in the law would prohibit doctors from prescribing these drugs in the legitimate practice of medicine.
In fact, even the people who wrote the Harrison Act and the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 agreed that a general prohibition on what people could put into their own bodies was plainly an unconstitutional infringement on personal liberties. For comparison, see the history of the constitutional amendment which was required to prohibit alcohol. There is no fundamental reason why a constitutional amendment should be required to prohibit one chemical and not another.
The trick was that the bureaucrats who were authorized to issue licenses never did so, and there was a heavy penalty for not having the license. This heavy penalty required that the enforcing bureaucrats needed more staff and, therefore, more power, which, in turn required tougher laws. Over the years, through a series of court rulings, they gradually got the courts