Parts of this article are adapted from the book "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America."
Campaigning in New Hampshire during the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked on several occasions whether he supported medical marijuana. He became visibly frustrated.
"I have the same position this week I had last week when you asked the question," he said, before arguing fairly loosely that medical marijuana should be banned because it might lead to broader marijuana legalization, which might in turn lead pot smokers to try hard drugs.
"The entryway into our drug culture for our young people is marijuana," Romney said. "Marijuana is the starter drug. And the idea of medical marijuana is designed to help get marijuana out into the public marketplace and ultimately lead to the legalization of marijuana overall. And in my view, that's the wrong way to go."
Romney suggested his questioner approach Democrats instead and promised to fight legalization. "I know there are some on the Democratic side of the aisle that'd be happy to get in your campaign," he said. "But I'm opposed to it, and if you elect me president, you're not going to see legalized marijuana. I'm going to fight it tooth and nail."
Later in the campaign, during an interview in Colorado with a local CBS reporter, he expressed the same disdain for the question. In that swing state, medical marijuana is legal and popular. Colorado residents will vote Election Day on a constitutional amendment that would legalize it for all adults.
"Aren't there issues of significance you'd like to talk about? The economy? The growth of jobs? The need to put people back to work?" asked Romney, before adding, "I believe it's a gateway drug to other drug violations."
After the interview ended, he added as an aside to the reporter, "I'm not running on marriage and marijuana. Those are state issues."
The gateway theory has long been discredited, although pot smokers, both recreational and medical, do often encounter the drug culture. People who want coffee go to a coffee shop; beer drinkers go to bars and liquor stores. Unless they're seeking medical marijuana in states where it's legal, pot smokers go to drug dealers.
Romney's contempt for the very question might seem to make the decision on Election Day easy for voters who care foremost about pot. But while Romney has vowed to fight weed tooth and nail, President Barack Obama is already doing so, throwing the weight of the Justice Department against medical marijuana shops around the country, even though he had previously promised not to waste federal resources targeting businesses in compliance with state law.
Medical marijuana advocates have reacted with fury. "Obama promised the American people that he would lead his agencies based on science and not political ideology, and promised not to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. He has broken both promises," said Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access, the largest organization representing medical marijuana patients. "It's his administration's policy that marijuana has no medical value and is more dangerous than methamphetamines. In the first three and a half years of President Obama, the [Drug Enforcement Administration] has raided more medical marijuana facilities than in eight years of Bush."
It might seem strange for Obama, a heavy pot smoker himself in high school who has called the drug war a failure, to be prosecuting it with such vigor. But the assault is in line with a progressive American hostility toward drug use that stretches back more than a century. The same impulse -- and in many cases the same people -- that galvanized the movements to end slavery and win women the right to vote also drove the temperance movement, the forerunner of today's anti-drug crusaders.
Cracking down on drinking and drug use fits into the progressive notion that government power should be marshaled to improve society and the people within it. It also neatly aligned with New Deal Democrats' push to expand the size and scope of government during the 1930s.
Understanding the role that liberalism played in launching the drug war is critical for anyone looking to roll it back.
* * * * *
We could start on a Sunday, in December 1873, when around 70 women marched out of a Presbyterian church in Hillsboro, Ohio, led by the daughter of a former governor. "Walking two by two, the smaller ones in the front and the taller coming after, they sang more or less confidently, 'Give to the Winds Thy Fears,' that heartening reassurance of Divine protection now known ... as the Crusade Hymn. Every day they visited the saloons and the drug stores where liquor was sold. They prayed on sawdust floors or, being denied entrance, knelt on snowy pavements before the doorways, until almost all the sellers capitulated," writes Helen E. Tyler in Where Prayer and Purpose Meet: The WCTU Story, 1874–1949. Born out of these marches, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union became one of the most successful lobbying organizations in American history.
Over the next four decades, the group became a media sensation, grew its ranks to more than 345,000, and spearheaded the effort to transform the personal pledge of its members "to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors" into a Constitutional mandate. By 1920, per-capita consumption in the United States was only about an eighth of what it was a century before, and only about a quarter of what it is today.
The WCTU's slogan -- "For God and Home and Native Land" -- perfectly encapsulates the forces that propelled it: religion, family values, and nationalism. In the 19th-century United States, all three were ascendant. The Second Great Awakening fostered the growth of missionary societies, preaching tours, and dayslong revival meetings. New periodicals such as
In other words, if you had a taste for Bible-thumping, homemaking, flag-waving, and teetotaling, it was an exciting time for America. Ditto if you had a taste for cocaine or opiates.
What we think of as today's major drugs almost all entered American culture in the mid-19th century, and all became hugely popular by the end of it. Key to their success was the demonization of beer, wine, and liquor by the WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League, and their various fellow travelers and predecessors, none of which realized something fundamental about America: that it relates to alcohol and drugs much like an addict does -- with spasms of morality and sobriety followed by relapse.
Again and again in American history, use of one substance diminishes while use of another rises, due to a combination of social, political, and economic factors. A movement against a drug might spring up organically, but it's nurtured by whatever interests it serves. The drug goes from socially acceptable to socially condemned. It often becomes illegal. Then something else takes its place.
This process was on full display in the 19th century, as the first significant surge of the temperance movement accidentally created a drug lover's utopia.
* * * * *
The first European settlers of America drank much more alcohol than we do now, despite the reputations of our Puritan ancestors. (Colonists also smoked an enormous amount of tobacco, often a variety that contained around 15 percent nicotine -- enough to cause hallucinations and a high far superior to the buzz that now comes from a Marlboro.) Unlike the WCTU, early American temperance advocates opposed, rather than drinking, drunkenness. In 1619, the Colony of Virginia banned "playing dice, cards, drunkenness, idleness, and excess in apparel." The Massachusetts Bay Colony began requiring a governor's permit in order to sell liquor in 1633, observing that many of its people were "distempering themselves with drinke." One unfortunate lush, a fellow named Robert Cole, was made to wear a red "D" around his neck for a year.
But the American temperance movement didn't really get going until 1785, when Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and social reformer, wrote the first major anti-liquor treatise in U.S. history. In his "Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, With an Account on the Means of Preventing, and of the Remedies for Curing Them," Rush pioneers the conception of alcoholism as a disease, and he still suggests Christianity, guilt, and shame as great inducements to sobriety. But he also writes of the effectiveness of cures including vegetarianism, ankle blisters, a "violent attack of an acute disease," "an oath, taken before a magistrate, to drink no more spirits," and "suddenly, and entirely" abstaining from liquor -- perhaps with the aid of a touch of laudanum.
Unlike the teetotalers he inspired, Rush restricted his finger-wagging to the consumption of liquor. Drinks such as beer and wine, he writes, are "generally innocent, and often have a friendly influence upon health and life." Indeed, when America's most prominent physician was recommended by Thomas Jefferson to help prepare Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for their journey West, Rush suggested outfitting them with, among other things including 8 ounces of Turkish opium and 600 mercury-laden laxatives of his own concoction, 30 gallons of "medicinal wine" -- although the doctor did admonish, "The less spirit you use the better."
Rush suggests that the overuse of spirits leads to everything from "a puking of bile," "a husky cough," and "frequent and disgusting belchings" to "falsehood ... fraud, theft, uncleanliness, and murder." Liquor tears apart families, ruins fortunes, and corrupts children. "The social and imitative nature of man," he warns, "often disposes him to adopt the most odious and destructive practices from his companions," meaning that a drunkard begets other drunkards, until so many are about that the very nation is at risk. "Should the customs of civilized life preserve our nation from extinction ... they cannot prevent our country being governed by men, chosen by intemperate and corrupted voters. From such legislators, the republic would soon be in danger."
Likeminded men such as Jefferson and John Adams similarly wanted the nation to be built on "virtue" -- a democratic society, they reasoned, requires the selfless and civilized participation of upright citizens. Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton pushed through Congress a tax on liquor that he said was meant "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue." (Though Hamilton also conceded that he "wanted the tax imposed to advance and secure the power of the new federal government.") Americans, it turned out, had as much love for taxes on whiskey as they had for taxes on tea, and the levy was met on the frontier with fierce resistance. Protesters launched the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which had to be beaten back by George Washington.
The movement against insobriety has risen and fallen at different points in the history of this nation founded on high idealism. But whenever the American campaign against drunkenness has gathered strength, whether in the 1830s, the 1870s, or the 1980s, the call for temperance has evolved into a demand for full abstinence -- zero tolerance, in today's terms. Abraham Lincoln told a temperance organization in 1842 that Americans used to assume that problems with alcohol come from "abuse of a very good thing," but then came to realize that the culprit is "use of a bad thing." The WCTU still proudly displays a line from the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon on its Web site: "Temperance may be defined as: moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful."
Members of various waves of the American temperance movement have distributed copies of Rush's "Inquiry," but once total abstinence became the goal, they left his kudos to beer and wine on the editing-room floor. Other positive portrayals of drinking were edited out of American history, too. An 1848 engraving of George Washington making a toast to his officers shows him holding a glass with a bottle of liquor or wine on the table. When the image was reprinted for the centennial, as the temperance movement rose, the glass was removed and the bottle was replaced with a hat.
* * * * *
The temperance movement's drift toward extremism is understandable. In the 19th century, temperance advocacy rose in tandem with pushes for both the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women, movements that tended to favor an uncompromising position. Lincoln supported a moderate stance on slavery and still went to war over it. And women either deserved equal rights or they didn't -- although the suffrage and temperance movements were so closely connected that opponents of the latter often opposed the former so women wouldn't have a chance to vote on alcohol in the way that they'd promised.
By 1812, when Rush published his extremely popular "Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind," he'd concluded that drinkers, not just drinks, could be generally innocent. Their will, he writes, was the "involuntary vehicle of vicious actions." But that didn't stop him from suggesting, after a little hand-wringing over issues of personal liberty, that alcoholics be confined to "sober houses" in order to effect a "complete and radical cure of their disease."
The transition from moderation to the radical cure of abstention was further assisted by the Rev. Lyman Beecher, a brilliant orator and evangelist who had no fewer than six children who would make a mark on literary and political history. (Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame is the most well known today.) Beecher and his children, several of whom were prominent abolitionists, were what we'd now call liberals or progressives. Although Democrats are the ones usually tagged as being "soft on drugs" today, throughout American history, movements against drugs and alcohol have generally come from the left, justified for reasons of common good, public health, and religion. Republican President Warren G. Harding and his attorney general famously played poker and drank bootlegged whiskey during Prohibition, while The Nation magazine, then and now a leader of liberal thought, was a supporter of the 18th Amendment. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1880, was emphatically leftist -- it had as a primary goal the implementation of the income tax. It's only the relatively recent rise of a more secular left that's altered the dynamic.
In 1814, Beecher delivered a series of six sermons on insobriety designed to appeal to the growing sense of American identity. "Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity, is coming in upon us like a flood," he preaches. "[I]f anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire, which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death."
As Beecher's and other Second Great Awakening preachers' words were printed and distributed around the country, the shift to absolutism came rapidly: Within 10 years of its 1836 founding, the American Temperance Society had officially redefined "temperance" to mean "abstinence." The position cost the movement the early support it had enjoyed from the beer lobby, which then joined forces with the liquor industry against the society.
Beecher's river-of-fire rhetoric wasn't necessarily disproportionate to the problem. Despite the hopes of the nation's founders, drinking had risen steadily in the United States after the revolution, according to drug and alcohol historian David F. Musto. Anti-British sentiment led to a decline in the importation of British beer and an increase in domestic whiskey consumption, which in turn strengthened the temperance movement -- the effects of the more potent beverage, it was assumed, being that much more deleterious to society. By the 1800s, the movement had gained enough momentum to force schools to teach D.A.R.E.-style fear-mongering. It demanded that anti-alcohol messages be a part of every child's education. "The majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy," children were taught. "When alcohol passes down the throat it burns off the skin leaving it bare and burning. Alcohol clogs the brain and turns the liver quickly from yellow to green to black. Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison."
Referring to "alcohol" as a "poison" was the culmination of the shift in attitude. Once beer and whiskey and gin had become "alcohol," they became easier to vilify. Once alcohol had become "poison," the fight was mostly over. These days, poisonous alcohol is mostly confined to chemistry labs and cleaning agents; the respectable label for the drinkable stuff in educational settings is "drug," which associates it with something already prohibited. "There were days when we called it Bourbon whiskey and Tom gin, and when the very name of it breathed romance. That time is past. The poor stuff is now called alcohol," wrote Stephen Leacock in 1918. "I wish somehow we could prohibit the use of alcohol and merely drink beer and whiskey and gin as we used to."
* * * * *
Jill Lepore sums up the conventional understanding of why American drinking collapsed beginning in the 1830s in a 2007 New Yorker article. "If you were to look at a map, and chart these changes, you'd see that they follow the course of the nation's growing network of canals and railroads. The canal or railroad arrives, and the people join churches; the people join churches, and they drink less. How do historians account for these correlations? The answer, at first, seems obvious: preachers spread the Gospel; the same boats and trains that carried cash crops from farms to towns brought revivalist ministers from towns to farms," she writes, before asking, "But, once they got there, why did anyone listen to them?"
The most widely accepted answer to that question was proposed by Charles Sellers, author of The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846, which argues that capitalism drove people from the taverns because the industrializing marketplace needed sober workers. It's one thing for a field hand to be wasted, the thinking goes. It's another for a brakeman to be hammered.
An insurgent historical camp, led by Daniel Walker Howe, insists that there was no market revolution in the 1830s. The nation's development, he holds, began earlier and gradually expanded -- much more an evolution than a revolution. It certainly didn't take place within a decade. Howe suggests that people listened to the preachers simply because they were authority figures who represented an even greater authority figure, God. A problem with using his theory to explain the decline of boozing is that drinking didn't plummet in the early 1700s, during the First Great Awakening.
Clearly, there was more to the downturn than just the Almighty or the almighty dollar. Human behavior is very difficult to change. So if Americans all of a sudden stopped getting drunk, what did they do instead? They tended to their families. They prayed. And yes, they labored.
But they also got high.
Although whiskey has long been used to self-medicate depression, nothing takes the edge off quite like a good narcotic. And in the 1830s, when the temperance movement began its first great push, which helped reduce per-capita U.S. alcohol consumption from four gallons per year to just one gallon in the span of a decade, Americans had quite the edge on. The Panic of 1837 was set off when banks in New York City essentially shut down. Across the country, paper notes became worthless. For five years, the United States was ravaged by its most severe economic downturn to date. Economist Milton Friedman called it "the only depression on record comparable in severity and scope to the Great Depression of the 1930's." America had hit bottom. The religious revival was one response -- the Second Great Awakening culminated in the 1830s -- but Americans also turned to opium to ease the pain.
By the 1870s, when the temperance movement began another great push, the one that eventually led to Prohibition, America's long-standing affection for opium products such as laudanum combined with other cultural forces such as war, economic development, and immigration patterns to move opium from the medicine cabinet to those infamous urban dens. And surveys from the time show that the drug was even more popular in rural areas.
* * * * *
Twenty-four-year-old Warren Delano made his first overseas journey in pursuit of opium in 1823 on behalf of Boston-based importer Russell & Co. Within seven years, he was a senior partner in the company and heavily involved in the lucrative opium trade. His grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would later celebrate a constitutional amendment undoing Prohibition. In the intervening century, America went through a relationship with drugs that makes our current one appear almost functional.
In 1827, the first year the federal government began tabulating opium imports, almost none was brought into the United States. Five years later, the number has climbed to around 50,000 pounds. In several years during the 1830s and early 1840s, importation peaked at more than 70,000 pounds. If a dose is less than half a gram -- and it can often be much less -- then 70,000 pounds would be enough for more than 30 million opium highs in a nation with an 1840 population of roughly 17 million. Importation statistics suggest that use continued to rise throughout the 1840s and '50s.
Opiate use rose just as drinking declined, increasing in the very midst of the temperance surge. As America's first real introduction to a drug other than alcohol, the opium boom enjoyed a long honeymoon. For decades, the benefits of the drug were cherished as its downsides remained unknown or ignored. Although Chinese immigrants, who came to work on the rapidly expanding railroad network, are often credited for bringing opium and addiction to it with them to the United States, immigration statistics suggest that the American taste for opiates might be in-born. By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Asian-born immigrants living in the United States, and their entry into American culture certainly aided the growth of the opium trade. But the U.S. Census Bureau says that there were just over 1,000 people born in Asia living in the United States in 1850, by which time the rise of opium was already well underway.
It has long been assumed that Civil War doctors gave out morphine injections to wounded troops like candy, and that the men then brought their opiate addictions home after hostilities ceased. But the government's own Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, published just after the conflict, debunks that theory: "The hypodermic syringe had not yet found its way into the hands of our officers," it states.
The report's conclusion jibes with the history of medical technology. It was in the 1850s that the first syringe injected morphine into a patient, in Britain, and the practice didn't spread to Civil War battlefields until late in the war. Morphine was more commonly dusted into wounds, and as in civilian life, opiates were also administered as tinctures, pills, or salts. Historians have long debated how many addicts that might have produced, but there's strong evidence that the so-called Soldier's Disease is to some extent an invention or supposition.
That doesn't settle the question, of course, of what role the war played in the spread of drug use that came after it. No doubt the many horrors that troops witnessed were traumatic enough to lead some to self-medicate, but men weren't the primary users of opium. Most studies from the time reveal a roughly 60-to-40 percent female-to-male division among opium users. In the 19th century, opium was also a distinctly midlife drug: The average user was about 35 years old, and she most likely got her first taste from her doctor. Nineteenth-century opium users were predominantly middle- and upper-class, too, hardly the proletarians who fought in the war.
As use and addiction rose, the temperance movement finally caught up with opium. The Chinese became scapegoats. The first American narcotics law was passed in San Francisco in 1878, and it targeted not opium but opium dens, which were run by Chinese immigrants and attracting a multicultural crowd. By 1885, opium was less socially acceptable than alcohol, which it had begun to replace only a half-century earlier. A New York Times article about a courtroom scene displays the prevailing attitudes of the decade:
James Bradford ... was nobbily attired in a tight-fitting Prince Albert coat, carried a new-market on his arm, and he held a silver-headed cane and a high hat in his hand. He was an ideal of the creature known as "dude." He denied having smoked the drug.
"Well, Officer Reynolds caught you in the place," said the court. "How do you account for that?"
"Well, Judge, to tell the truth," he replied faintly, "I was a little bit -- a little bit -- well, I must admit that I was full, and I don't know how I came to go into such a disreputable house."
"The officer further claims that you had an opium pipe in your mouth," said the magistrate. "What is your explanation of this charge?"
"That I can't tell," he answered meditatively, "unless some fellow put it in my mouth for a joke. I was full, you know, and they could have done anything they pleased without my knowing it."
Assistant District Attorney Purdy said that the case was a very clear one, and from the evidence he thought the prisoner guilty of the charge of selling opium to be smoked on the premises. He said he thought it was bad enough for a Chinaman to be charged with this offense, but it was a crime of more importance when one of our own race is caught in the act of selling this cursed drug, and he implored the court to show no leniency to the accused.
The opium den's owner was sent away for three months and fined $500, which the Times reports was the highest penalty given to date in New York. Bradford got a $25 fine and 10 days in the city jail. "He was unable to pay his fine and he stepped down stairs a very crestfallen 'dude,'" notes the story's kicker.
As amusing as the story seems, its author is working with some seriously held assumptions: that opium use should be confined to the Chinese, that drinking -- or being "full" -- is more acceptable than getting high, and that opium is a "cursed drug."
* * * * *
Opium and alcohol are rather different experiences that don't mix -- either physically or psychically -- which might account for the dude's memory lapse. Thomas De Quincey, the popular author of the 1822 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, describes it well: "The pleasure given by wine is always rapidly mounting ... after which as rapidly it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight to ten hours: the first, to borrow a technical distinction from medicine, is a case of acute, the second of chronic, pleasure; the one is a flickering flame, the other a steady and equable glow. But the main distinction lies in this -- that whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony."
At the time, there was little research done exploring the relationship between opium use and drinking. But there was at least one noteworthy study: an 1872 look at the opium boom by the Massachusetts State Board of Health. The reason for the dramatic upswing in opiate use, it concluded, wasn't the Chinese or the Civil War -- it was the temperance movement.
This unintended consequence of the call for sobriety wasn't unique to the United States, the board found. "It is a significant fact ... that both in England and in this country, the total abstinence movement was almost immediately followed by an increased consumption of opium," it notes. The study suggests that easy accessibility to the drug through pharmacies was part of the reason for the increase, but that many other sources existed as well: "Opium has been recently made from white poppies, cultivated for the purpose, in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, the annual production being estimated by hundreds of pounds, and this has generally been absorbed in the communities where it is made. It has also been brought here from Florida and Louisiana, while comparatively large quantities are regularly sent east from California and Arizona, where its cultivation is becoming an important branch of industry, 10 acres of poppies being said to yield, in Arizona, twelve hundred pounds of opium," one official, referred to as a State Assayer, reported to the board.
Although this description of a thriving domestic opium crop might sound surprising today, the board's characterization of that crop's consumers certainly doesn't: "[T]he opium habit is especially common among the manufacturing classes," it asserts, "who are too apt to live regardless of all hygienic laws." It puts some of the blame for such lower-class use on doctors, who are "in no small measure responsible for the moral, as well as physical, welfare of their patients," and shouldn't be allowed to get away with the "injudicious and often unnecessary prescription of opium." America's better half made up "so large a proportion of opium takers," the study suggests, because women were "doomed, often, to a life of disappointment ... of physical and mental inaction, and in the smaller and more remote towns, not unfrequently, to utter seclusion."
The "most important cause" of opium taking, however, is "the simple desire for stimulation," an urge hitherto satisfied by alcohol consumption. Opium, the report notes, was both more available and more socially acceptable than alcohol. The narcotic "can be procured and taken without endangering the reputation for sobriety. In one town mentioned, it was thought 'more genteel' than alcohol." The report goes on to say that it was "between 1840 and 1850, soon after teetotalism had become a fixed fact, that our own importations of opium swelled" -- citing a rise of 350 percent. In England, "one doctor noted," "opium chewing has become very prevalent, especially since the use of alcoholic drinks has been to so great an extent abandoned, under the influence of the fashion introduced by total abstinence societies." The board also found it "curious and interesting" that as wine drinking advanced in Turkey, opium eating retreated.
As always in America, the limits of what exactly is moral behavior depend on what the meaning of "is" is. By following their version of God's code to the letter, teetotaling Americans of the 19th century freely violated its spirit.
* * * * *
Opium's boost was not only due to its acceptability as a booze replacement, but also because it was a good fit for the times in other ways. As the Massachusetts board of health and De Quincey both noted, opium made for a good remedy for the negative side effects of the century's rapid industrialization and urbanization -- boredom, back pain, anxiety, and, because of poor sanitation, all sorts of stomach problems.
In the United States, the negative consequences of a particular drug's use are typically dealt with not only by condemnation, but also by searching for a better, less harmful drug -- as optimistic, potentially profitable, and quintessentially American a project as any that can be conceived.
Morphine was isolated from opium around 1805. Big Pharma got into the business of manufacturing and distributing the drug, usually dissolved in alcohol. In the 1830s, just as folks were starting to put down the bottle, pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia became major morphine producers. Medicinal opiate imports doubled per capita between 1870 and 1890. By the 1890s, there were a quarter of a million morphine addicts living in the United States.
Significantly, these new drugs came with no baggage. Opium wasn't an evil poison like alcohol, at least initially. Morphine taken through a needle, it was first assumed, had no chance of causing addiction. When that myth was dispelled, the search was on for a nonaddictive substitute. Bayer, the world's first pharmaceutical giant and the maker of aspirin, claimed to have found it and trademarked the wonder drug Heroin because it made people feel heroic, or, in German, heroisch. "It possesses many advantages over morphine," claims the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900. "It's not hypnotic, and there's no danger of acquiring a habit."
Heroin had been synthesized from morphine in 1874, but its commercial value wasn't recognized until Bayer began selling it, in 1898. It took off in the United States, where manufacturers were soon lacing products ranging from lozenges to pills to salts that dissolved in water with Bayer Heroin.
An ambitious drug connoisseur might have been able to find meth back then, too. German scientists synthesized amphetamine in 1877, and Japanese researchers developed methamphetamine in 1893 (but didn't come up with crystal meth until 1919). In 1933, the first amphetamine derivative met the mass market, in the form of the Benzedrine inhaler sold by Smith Kline & French. It quickly integrated itself into bohemian culture to such a degree that it was regularly referenced by the earliest members of the Beat Generation, but speed wasn't much a part of the Progressive Era pharmacopeia.
That doesn't mean there was no way to get a rush. Cocaine, isolated from the coca plant, added to the libertarian utopia. Merck was the first pharmaceutical company to manufacture it, and the drug was commercially available in the United States by 1884. Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, was a mixture of coca, sugar, and another mild stimulant, the West African kola nut. It was marketed as a temperance beverage, a substitute for alcohol -- an intoxicant without the poison. Even Coca-Cola, though, hasn't always been safe from temperance activists: A movement leader took the drink to court in 1911, charging that its caffeine was dangerously addictive. After drawn-out litigation, Coke cut the caffeine by half.
With the power of industry marketing behind it, cocaine swept across the nation. The new drug could "supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent," promised the Parke-Davis Company, which sold cocaine kits complete with a syringe.
* * * * *
So there we were, at the turn of the last century, with full legalization. Coke, heroin, and morphine -- all readily available. It wasn't just a druggie's paradise; it was the natural experiment that present-day drug-policy experts dream of.
What would happen if drugs were legalized? Well, it happened. And history suggests that if we ever legalize them again, it won't be long before we ban them all over again.
Yet legalized drugs weren't an accidental byproduct of the 19th century's economic and technological advances. They were its foundation. By the late 1800s, levies on alcohol, tobacco, and tea made up almost half of all British government revenue. They financed the country's imperialist aspirations, and along the way cost it the American colonies -- which financed their own war for independence with tobacco proceeds.
The role of opium in furthering British colonial ambitions is well known. Rum propped up the transatlantic slave trade. "With these psychoactive products [colonial powers] paid their bills, bribed and corrupted their native opponents, pacified their workers and soldiers, and stocked their plantations with field hands," writes David Courtwright in Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World.
By 1906, tens of thousands of opium-containing medical preparations had been patented. In America, producing and selling these nostrums was a massive and far-reaching undertaking, one that helped create modern advertising and the mass media -- not to mention the monolithic, multibillion-dollar business that is Big Pharma. With the advent of the 20th century, however, the world's elite began to embrace a much different stance toward drugs, a reversal that Courtwright calls "one of history's great about-faces, however slowly and imperfectly executed."
This about-face was driven by the United States. As the country emerged from World War I a preeminent power, it sought to enact its own tightening drug policies on a global scale, creating a regime of worldwide narcotics control that persists today even as other forms of American dominance falter.
Opium had entered the American bloodstream through laudanum and other opium-laced products available at pharmacies and recommended by doctors. When the backlash against drugs began, the opposition went straight for the pharmacist -- and, to a lesser extent, the physician, who wasn't always seen as a trustworthy professional. In 1911, Hamilton Wright, the government's top drug official, went after both occupations in the pages of the New York Times. "A proportion of our doctors and a much larger ratio of our druggists regard their liberty to prescribe and sell as a license to advise and furnish to its victims the narcotic curse on demand," he laments. "The contrast between European and American professional ethics in this matter is deplorable, and the dark side of the picture is America's."
Such mistrust was a byproduct of the growing movement for women's rights, which was closely allied with the temperance movement. To the members of the era's many women's temperance leagues, druggists were little better than tavern owners -- people, in essence, invested in intoxication. But the movement's actions against pharmacies and saloons was more than an effort to clean up a few drunks. As the Woman's Christian Temperance Union's version of its history makes clear, it was "a protest by women, in part, of their lack of civil rights. Women could not vote. In most states, women could not have control of their property or custody of their children in case of divorce. There were no legal protections for women and children, prosecutions for rape were rare, and the state-regulated 'age of consent' was as low as seven."
The tavern, long a symbol of unruly male behavior, was also the place where rules were made. Most political meetings were held in saloons, which women were generally barred from. They didn't much care for that arrangement, or for the public priorities that resulted. "At the end of the 19th century, Americans spent over a billion dollars on alcoholic beverages each year, compared with $900 million on meat, and less than $200 million on public education," notes Helen E. Tyler in Where Prayer and Purpose Meet: The WCTU Story, 1874–1949. By the 1890s, the WCTU was endorsing women's suffrage, more than half of its departments worked on nontemperance issues, and it had one of the first full-time lobbyists in Washington.
Similarly, pharmacies became a target of the movement because regulating their wares was a way to secure some of that elusive legal protection for women and children. In 1892, Ladies' Home Journal editor Edward Bok barred patent-medicine advertising from the publication. Over the next several years, he published numerous pieces revealing the true ingredients of many patent medicines and explicitly called the WCTU to action. In 1904, Bok declared that Doctor Pierce's Favorite Prescription, a favorite patent preparation of pregnant women, contained not only alcohol and opium, but also the potentially deadly plant extract digitalis -- too late, it turned out: Pierce had changed his formula since the magazine secured its sample. After losing a $200,000 lawsuit, the Journal hired lawyer-cum-journalist Mark Sullivan to help continue Bok's crusade in a more law-savvy, less financially dangerous manner.
Sullivan delivered, contributing to exposés on unethical patent-medicine business practices. One Washington journalist made a career of securing testimonials from senators and representatives, charging companies $75 for the former and the relatively cut-rate $40 for the latter. Sullivan also helped Bok uncover the brisk business in supposedly confidential letters from female nostrum users, which, along with the writers' addresses, traded hands by the thousands among patent-medicine companies -- and anyone else who was willing to pay for them. When companies wrote these women back -- after employees had giggled over their missives' "spicy" parts -- they frequently answered with a form letter, and sometimes with the wrong medication. "The medicines are put up by young girls who are constantly making mistakes and sending men's remedies to women, and vice versa," Sullivan writes in a 1906 story. "They can't do otherwise because they have to send out a certain number of treatments in a given time."
As such pieces galvanized women against the industry, Jane Addams, the legendary Chicago suffrage and anti-war activist, campaigned for a ban on common patent-medicine ingredient cocaine, which passed in her hometown in 1904. In 1905, muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams published an 11-part investigative series in Collier's Weekly exposing much of the patent-medicine industry as fraudulent. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle followed soon after, helping convince President Theodore Roosevelt and the American public that a law regulating both drugs and food was needed. Historian James Harvey Young describes the coalition that got the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 through Congress as made up of "agricultural chemists, State food and drug officials, women's club members, the medical profession, sympathetic journalists, [and] the reform wing of business." The Equal Suffrage League, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and the WCTU were all involved.
* * * * *
Women's groups that supported the Pure Food and Drug Act were concerned with protecting consumers from adulterated products. The American Pharmaceutical Association, however, didn't have such untainted motivations.
Public opposition to patent medicines came at a time when American drug use was declining, after a peak in the 1890s. It was the corruption of the industry, as exposed in the Collier's investigation, that was the most troubling drug issue for most Americans. Big Pharma was happy to play along. It was in its clear interest to have its intoxicants marketed through doctors rather than through unregulated pharmacies: It would disassociate its products from patent medicines and help crush competition from smaller firms. In 1903, the American Pharmaceutical Association had already proposed legislation that would make the sale of cocaine, opiates, and chloral hydrate illegal without a prescription. Congress implemented the law in the District of Columbia, and a few state legislatures followed suit.
In 1905, Congress banned opium imports and prohibited the drug's use in the Philippines. Opium smokers quickly switched to morphine, heroin, and cocaine, which were still legal. In opium, politicos had found an issue that they could use to win favor with China in opposition to Europe, which had violently forced opium into Chinese lungs as a method of commercial subjugation. Allying with China against opium was a useful foreign-policy tool, though it wasn't especially interesting to Americans back home.
Although temperance advocates included drugs in their condemnation of insobriety, booze remained a much bigger public-health concern among most progressives. Reliable estimates put the number of drug addicts at only around half a million nationwide, out of a total population of under 100 million. In 1910, President William Howard Taft told Congress that cocaine was "the most dangerous drug in America," but attempts to push comprehensive drug prohibition through went nowhere. So drug opponents took a more modest approach. Hamilton Wright, the U.S. Opium Commissioner, led the effort, with the press as his able assistant. A 5,000-word profile of Wright published in the New York Times in March 1911 begins, "Read this paragraph and gasp."
"Of all the nations of the world," Dr. Hamilton Wright, who knows more of the subject than any other living man, told me the other day, "the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita. Opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any other nation in Europe fences it with. China now guards it with much greater care than we do; Japan preserves her people from it far more intelligently than we do ours, who can buy it, in almost any form, in every tenth one of our drug stores. Our physicians use it recklessly in remedies and thus become responsible for making numberless 'dope fiends,' and in uncounted nostrums offered everywhere for sale it figures, in habit-forming quantities without restriction."
Elsewhere in the piece, the Times, perhaps the first to militarize drug-policy debate, calls Wright's effort a "battle with the evil" and suggests that "it is to be devoutly hoped" that he prevails. As with many of today's drug epidemics, it took the media to alert the citizenry that there was one. "Few people realize how serious the opium habit has become in the United States," the story maintains. "Ask most men where most opium is used and they will answer, 'China,' without the slightest hesitation; but the fact is definitely otherwise. Our per capita consumption equals and probably exceeds that of the dragon empire, and there the habit is being intelligently killed, while here it is increasing with so great a speed that we may well stand startled at the contemplation of its spread."
Wright proposed going after the pharmaceutical industry. "As a result of the illicit traffic in these drugs the pharmaceutical profession in this country has lost much of its dignity," he told the reporter, "and this is fully justified by facts; the medical profession must include within its ranks a multitude of arrant knaves, the greater number of them, possibly, themselves victims of the drug and robbed by it of all sense of their responsibility to their patients and society."
But Big Pharma would make that strategy problematic.
Wright's plan was to limit narcotic sales to licensed, monitored pharmacies, which could deal only with patients with prescriptions. He refused to compromise with the pharmaceutical industry, which sought to use his legislation only to put smaller vendors of patent medicines out of business. His bill died in House committees in 1911, 1912, and 1913, blocked by Big Pharma.
Wright, a State Department official, had better luck internationally. In 1906, at Wright's urging, Roosevelt called for an international convention on drugs. Underscoring China's interest in the issue, it was held in Shanghai in 1909, with a follow-up conference -- this one with treaty-making authority -- taking place two years later. The Hague Opium Convention, the beginning of the international antidrug effort, was contentious, because many of the 13 participating countries benefited from the opium trade. Nonetheless, Wright succeeded in getting participants to pledge to pass laws regulating opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine -- thus obligating Congress to enact his own legislation.
Despite the international mandate, Wright was still stymied at home. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a fervent prohibitionist, convinced Wright to sit down with the drug lobby. A few compromises later, the legislation was finally moving. Marijuana, then still known as cannabis, was excluded from the plan. So was chloral, a sedative popular at the time but almost unheard of today. (Mary Todd Lincoln took it for insomnia, though it was supplanted in the 20th century by Quaaludes, Benzedrine, and other depressants. Anna Nicole Smith's death, however, was reportedly the result of a chloral-and-Benzedrine cocktail.) Pharmaceutical bookkeeping requirements were standardized and simplified so the reform wouldn't be costly to major firms. The large companies didn't want an overly complicated system of paperwork, but they weren't opposed to regulation per se -- after all, it impacted smaller, undiversified companies the most.
The labeling regulations of the Pure Food and Drug Act had already dented the business of the once-secretive patent-medicine vendors. Now their profits from soon-to-be-regulated drugs would be vulnerable to investigation. Big Pharma was winning.
* * * * *
Probably the biggest concession Wright agreed to, however, was exempting from his proposed legislation products with a small amount of narcotic in them -- then Big Pharma's and the patent-medicine companies' big earner. This leniency was attacked by members of Congress who wanted tighter legislation, but one of the bill's backers explained on the floor that this was as good a situation as they could hope for, given the power of the pharmaceutical lobby. "Unfortunately I am forced to believe that if we should attempt in this way to attack all the proprietary medicines which contain opium, the bill would have a rocky road to travel, and would be consigned to oblivion," said Rep. James Mann of Illinois. "That may not be a very good excuse, but, after all, it is practical."
Bryan and Wright pushed hard for passage. After the narcotic exemption was loosened further in the Senate to allow higher concentrations of heroin and morphine, the bill finally passed in December 1914. The event merited barely a mention in the New York Times, even though the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, as Wright's legislation was known, was the first major federal law to regulate drugs, defined as "opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations." It banned the distribution of narcotics -- including cocaine, which isn't -- for anything but medical purposes.
"Tax" is in the name instead of "Ban" because most early-20th-century legislators, regardless of party affiliation, tended to view federal power as limited by the Constitution. Then, a pharmaceutical company could argue successfully that cocaine refined in New York could be sold in New York without any federal interference. By using the power to tax, however, Congress could, to some extent, legally interfere with activity that didn't cross state lines. It was a foot in the door that the states would repeatedly try to push back.
Congress, exercising its constitutional authority to levy taxes, required all narcotics distributors to register with the forerunner of the IRS and pay a $1-per-year tax. Only doctors and legitimate medical companies were allowed to register, which meant that nonmedical distributors would be committing a tax crime. This legislative maneuver effectively banned the nonmedical use of narcotics -- although there was a major industry-friendly loophole: "The provisions of this Act shall not be construed to apply to the sale, distribution, or giving away, dispensing, or possession of preparations and remedies which do not contain more than two grains of opium, or more than one-fourth of a grain of morphine, or more than one-eighth of grain of heroin, or more than one grain of codeine, or any salt or derivative of them in one fluid ounce, or, if a solid or semi-solid preparation, in one avoirdupois ounce, or to liniments, ointments, and other preparations which contain cocaine or any of its salts or alpha or beta eucaine or any of their salts or any synthetic substitute for them," reads the act. "Provided, that such remedies and preparations are sold, distributed, given away, dispensed, or possessed as medicines and not for the purpose of evading the intentions and provisions of this Act."
The Harrison Act was far from a reactionary, authoritarian crackdown. Rather, it was the essence of progressive reform. Its purpose was to regulate a chaotic market in the name of public health and the common good. It was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president. But the act did come at a time when Americans readily gave up their civil liberties in the name of the war effort. The infamous Espionage Act was passed in 1917, banning "disloyal" speech and leading to the imprisonment of socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
World War I impacted the American drug market in other ways, too. First, the global conflagration disrupted drug trade routes and diminished supply. Second, prohibitionist sentiment merged with nationalist fervor to promote the idea that sobriety was a way to strengthen the nation. Xenophobia played a major role. Anything German was despised: Sauerkraut was renamed Victory Cabbage, and beer fell out of favor. A 1918 New York Times editorial exemplifies the nexus of the period's anti-drug and anti-German attitudes: "Into well-known German brands of toothpaste and patent medicines -- naturally for export only -- habit-forming drugs were to be introduced; at first a little, then more, as the habit grew on the non-German victim and his system craved ever-greater quantities. Already the test had been made on natives in Africa, who responded readily; if the German Staff had not been in such a hurry German scientists would have made their task an easy one, for in a few years Germany would have fallen upon a world which cried for its German toothpaste and soothing syrup -- a world of 'cokeys' and 'hop fiends' which would have been absolutely helpless when a German embargo shut off the supply of its pet poison."
The 1916 congressional elections brought a wave of temperance candidates to Washington. The 18th Amendment, the first addition to the U.S. Constitution to restrict rights rather than expand them, was passed the next year and ratified in 1919. Just a few years after its passage, the Harrison Act was being used to prosecute doctors and pharmacists who supplied narcotics to addicts. Several medical professionals were locked up in high-profile cases that sent the message that the feds were serious.
Pharmaceutical companies cooperated by opening their books to investigators, though a 1918 committee appointed by the secretary of the treasury determined that an extensive, well organized illicit drug trade had arisen in response to tightening restrictions. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics' first major crackdown came in the early '20s, when opiate use had started to rise. They invested more in policing efforts, and federal arrests jumped from fewer than 3,000 in 1921 to more than 7,000 in 1925.
The feds claimed success: The bureau did several nationwide surveys purporting to show a significant drop in narcotic use, with the number of American addicts down to as few as 20,000 by the end of the '20s. Drug historian David Courtwright, however, filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got his hands on the surveys and related memos.
The stats turned out to be made up.
Given the controversial nature of the expansion of federal powers needed to regulate drugs, the government had strong incentive to show that its new drug laws were working. Not coincidentally, the fabricated numbers show a big drop. Courtwright also found a private memo in which Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger himself confessed that the figures were all bogus. A top Treasury Department official, Stephen B. Gibbons, called them "absolutely worthless." Courtwright and others have taken a look at arrest data, hospitalizations, treatment-center records, and other sources and concluded that opiate use was generally steady in the United States until around 1940.
* * * * *
While federal authorities were focusing on opiates, the next "most dangerous drug in America" was slowly making its way north. When the West Indies banned slavery, in the 1800s, plantations there began hiring workers from India. They brought cannabis with them, and smoking it recreationally soon became a part of everyday life on Jamaica and other nearby islands. In the early 19th century, thousands of Jamaicans traveled to Panama, Cuba, and Costa Rica looking for work and bringing pot with them. As early as 1916, American workers building the Panama Canal were smoking it.
A military commission looked into the situation in 1932 -- which suggests that the trend must have started a good decade or more earlier -- and found that Panamanian farmers were growing marijuana and selling the excess to American soldiers. During the period, around a million Mexicans migrated to the United States following the 1910 revolution in their homeland. They, too, smoked marijuana, and they, too, brought the practice with them.
In the United States in 1885, about 5 prescriptions out of every 10,000 involved cannabis as a fluid extract; in 1895, 11.6; in 1907, 8. By 1926, however, the number was down to 2.3 prescriptions in 10,000, and by 1933, 0.4. But as the use of ingested cannabis faded along with the patent-medicine industry, the use of smoked cannabis increased. In 1936, the New York Police Department destroyed 40,000 pounds of marijuana found growing in town. The next year, a bill was introduced in Congress to ban the plant.
The American Medical Association, which had two decades earlier opposed the Harrison Act, strongly contested this federal incursion into the doctor's office, as well. This time, though, the AMA was up against the pharmaceutical industry, which had little ability to profit from a freely growing plant with the potential to cut into revenue from laboratory-made products. Dupont and other synthetic fabric makers lobbied hard, too, hoping to take down hemp, which they saw as competition. Temperance advocates, licking their wounds from the overthrow of Prohibition in 1933, were happy to take on pot. The federal government, undergoing a massive expansion under the New Deal, was happy to gobble up any extra power it could. The AMA at the time was a fierce opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, so the administration and the Democratic Congress were happy to get the chance to kick some dust on it.
It started by rolling over Dr. William Woodward, the AMA's top lobbyist, when he came to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee about marijuana taxation in May 1937. "That there is a certain amount of narcotic addiction of an objectionable character no one will deny. The newspapers have called attention to it so prominently that there must be some grounds for these statements. It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marihuana addiction. We are told that the use of marihuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marihuana habit," Woodward said. "An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point. You have been told that school children are great users of marihuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children's Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit, among children. Inquiry of the Children's Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it."
"The trouble is that we are looking on narcotic addiction solely as a vice," he went on. "It is a vice, but like all vices, it is based on human nature. The use of narcotics, as is trite at the present time in the medical profession, represents an effort on the part of the individual to adjust himself to some difficult situation in his life. He will take one thing to stimulate him and another to quiet him. His will is weakened in proportion as he relies on drugs of that sort. And until we develop young men and young women who are able to suffer a little and exercise a certain amount of control, even though it may be inconvenient and unpleasant to do so, we are going to have a considerable amount of addiction to narcotics and addiction to other drugs."
Importantly, from the AMA's perspective, Woodward opposed congressional action because of marijuana's medical potential. "I say the medicinal use of Cannabis has nothing to do with Cannabis or marihuana addiction," he testified. "In all that you have heard here thus far, no mention has been made of any excessive use of the drug by any doctor or its excessive distribution by any pharmacist. And yet the burden of this bill is placed heavily on the doctors and pharmacists of the country; and I may say very heavily, most heavily, possibly of all, on the farmers of the country. To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis."
Asked specifically about its medical benefits, Woodward mentioned two that are often referred to by today's medical-marijuana advocates. "Indian hemp is employed in various preparations for internal use as a sedative and antispasmodic," he said, using a term that was common at the time because of marijuana's origins in India. (Today, marijuana is used to treat spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and other diseases.) Asked whether the AMA "favored the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act," Woodward replied, "I will not say we favored it. We felt it was an experiment."
When the bill came to the floor for a vote, someone asked if Congress had consulted the AMA. Democrat Carl Vinson, who served more than 50 years in the House and would be awarded the Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson, had questioned Woodward at length as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He rose to answer. "Yes, we have. A Dr. Wharton" -- presumably Woodward; he was the only AMA representative to testify -- "and [the AMA] are in complete agreement," he said.
The Marihuana Tax Act quickly became law.
This story is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics. Check out the Shadow Conventions big news page here, and join the conversation at HuffPost Live.
Related on HuffPost:
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more