War on Drugs–A Hundred Years War

This is the first of a three part series on illegal drugs and their impact on our society with a special emphasize on the US-Mexico border region, exploring how we got here, what are the economic and social impacts of our policies, and exploring alternatives to our current policies going forward.

“The farther you can look backward, the farther you can see forward”…Winston Churchill

Seized marijuana bales in Mexico

It’s said that the best definition of insanity is to repeat something over and over and expect a different result.  The war on drugs and our policies and laws regarding illegal drugs is a good example of this adage.  Since the passage of the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act in 1932 more than eight decades ago, through the administrations of thirteen different Presidents, and the enactment of hundreds of new drug laws and regulations,  we appear no closer to resolving the long standing problems of drug abuse, addiction, related illegal criminal activities and staggering economic costs to our society.  Such criminal activities, often violent and leading to thousands of deaths annually not only here but abroad, have only continued to rise. The drug organizations/cartels behind them have grown stronger and more vicious even to the point today of threatening nation states (Columbia and Mexico) and, potentially, the national security of the United States itself.  Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines are readily available and prevalent in our high schools and even elementary and junior high schools. This has occurred despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually, passage of ever more onerous drug laws (e.g., “Three Strikes and You’re Out”), and adding thousands to an ever growing army of law enforcement, border security and drug agents.  In order to understand a path forward to resolving this national and international scourge on our society, we need to look at how we got to where we are and what we might do differently than simply repeating the same thing over and over.

Drugs at the beginning of the 1900’s:  At the turn of the last century narcotics and other “intoxicant” drugs were readily available over the counter with or without a doctor’s prescription.  While some state and local laws existed no national laws governing their use existed. Drugs certainly were not criminalized at that time.  Coca Cola’s original recipe contained small amounts of cocaine until as late as 1929.  Opium, either in powder or liquid form (laudanum and paregoric) was readily available as well as morphine and other opiates derived from the poppy plant.  Indian hemp (the earlier name given to marijuana as to distinguish it from industrial hemp used for rope, clothing and paper; both are derived from the cannabis sativaplant family) had a strong following among physicians for various medical applications, including as an antiseptic, antidepressant, and analgesic.

Cannabis fluid extract medicine bottle from 1906

Industrial hemp was used for centuries, including the colonies and continues as a commercial crop in many countries today, including our neighbor Canada.  Use of cannabis for medical use actually traces back thousands of years to China, Egypt and India.  Newer, more effective medicines became available leading to a decline in the medical use of cannabis by the early 1920’s.  But its popularity as an intoxicant remained.

Starting in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act that required that certain special drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis, be accurately labeled with contents and dosage. Previously many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. Cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and other such drugs continued to be legally available without prescription as long as they were labeled.  This was followed by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates.  At this point in time it was estimated that 1 in 300 (our historic high point) Americans were addicted to narcotics in one form or another. It’s interesting to note that the drafters of the Harrison Act played on fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” and made references to Negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking Indian hemp, and “Chinamen” seducing white women with drugs to push this law to enactment.

The Case Against Marijuana: While marijuana was not specifically included in the federal legislation, subsequent local and state laws banned it even though there was little evidence of public concern for or even understanding of the drug.  El Paso, TX under Mayor Tom Lea as early as June 3, 1915 passed a city ordinance prohibiting the sale or possession of “Marihuana- Indian Hemp” within the city boundaries due to the “dangerous and powerful properties of Marihuana or Indian Hemp” and the “resulting injury to public health and public morals, creating a great public emergency.” Based on evidence published in the media Western states such as California, Utah, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico included marijuana in their anti-narcotic legislation in the 1907-30’s period based in part on 1) the unfounded assumption that it was an addictive drug used as a substitute for narcotics and alcohol and 2) racial prejudice where use was prominently among an increasing number of Mexican Americans immigrating to those states. Lurid press reports spoke of the “killer weed” where defendants charged with violent crimes attempted to blame their actions on the effects of marijuana.  A Denver Post headline on April 7, 1929 is illustrative: “Fiend Slayer Caught in Nebraska; Mexican Confesses to Torture of American Baby–Prisoner Admits to Officer He is Marihuana Addict.”  Quoted from the same news article: “He repeated the story he had told the Sidney Chief of Police regarding his addiction to marihuana saying that his supply of the weed had become exhausted several days before the killing and his nerves were unstrung.”

In 1932 the Uniform State Narcotic Act was passed giving states authority to exercise police powers for seizure of illicit drugs or in regard to punishment of those responsible. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics formed a few years earlier encouraged state governments to adopt the statue.  Subsequently by the mid-thirties all states had some form of regulation of cannabis among other illicit drugs.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (or FBN) was created as an agency of the United States Department of the Treasury to enforce the law under the Harrison Act, the Uniform Narcotic Act and others.  Harry J. Anslinger was appointed its first commissioner by President Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. It’s noteworthy that Anslinger married Mellon’s niece, particularly given the subsequent actions by Anslinger and the Bureau to criminalize all forms of hemp, including industrial hemp heretofore not included as a narcotic or illicit drug.

Under Anslinger, the bureau lobbied for harsh penalties for drug usage, including marijuana/hemp.  Anslinger claimed cannabis caused people to commit violent crimes and act irrationally and overly sexual.  The FBN produced propaganda films over several decades promoting Anslinger’s views and Anslinger often commented to the press regarding his views of marijuana.  The movie, “Reefer Madness,” lampooned by later generations in the 60’s  comes to mind.

Reefer Madness propaganda film from 193o’s

The Marijuana Tax Act (1937): Anslinger campaigned heavily for passage of the Act which made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the United States, excluding medical or industrial uses. In these instances an expensive excise tax and burdensome sales reporting requirements were required.  Conveniently, special tax stamps required for marijuana producers and sellers of cannabis were either non-existent or extremely difficult to obtain, effectively criminalizing even medical or industrial uses of cannabis.  The American Medical Association opposed the Act because it imposed a tax on its members for use of the drug for purely medical and research purposes. Unfortunately, the AMA was late in opposing the Act due to the realization that marijuana, the subject of the bill before Congress was in fact hemp.  They and many others saw hemp as a passive plant valuable for medical and industrial use, not the “narcotic” drug being reported in the lurid press accounts.

Concurrent with Anslinger’s efforts to push the Marijuana Tax Act, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s empire of newspapers began publishing “yellow journalism” articles demonizing the cannabis plant and putting emphasis on connections between cannabis and violent crime. Several scholars have argued that the goal was to destroy the hemp industry, largely as an effort of Hearst, Andrew Mellon and the Du Pont family.

Industrial hemp showing fibers used for paper, rope and cloth

They argue that hemp was a much cheaper substitute for the paper wood pulp from trees processed using Du Pont technology in producing paper stock for the newspaper industry. They also believe that Hearst felt that this was a threat to his extensive timber holdings used as a source for the wood pulp. Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America and had invested heavily in nylon, DuPont’s new synthetic fiber, and considered its success to depend on its replacement of the traditional resource, hemp. In the end cannabis was criminalized and subsequent laws in the 1940’s, 50’s and later further strengthened criminal penalties for use of marijuana and other illegal drugs.  These included harsh mandatory sentences of 2 to 10 years and $20,000 for first time cannabis possession.

1970’s Onward–Nixon’s War on Drugs: Reorganization efforts of various drug agencies by Richard Nixon led to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.  This followed Nixon’s declared “War on Drugs” and continuation of drug prohibition policies begun decades earlier as already described.  Interestingly, the special Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, established in 1971 under Nixon and made up of members with traditional (conservative) views on drugs and drug control came out with a report, “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” proposing it’s decriminalization for use by individuals (not sale or distribution). Their reasoning was to relieve enforcement agencies of the nuisance of arresting individuals and focus more resources on large-scale crime and more dangerous drugs. President Nixon refused to receive the report in public or to comment on it except to affirm that marijuana was not going to be legalized if he had anything to say about it. Presidential administrations since Nixon have all continued strong, anti-drug policies in line with their predecessors. These included:

  • As early as 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush and his aides pushing for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts.
  • The National Narcotics Leadership Act of 1988, mandating a national anti-drug media campaign for youth (“Just Say No”)
  • Passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstating mandatory prison sentences, including a “three-strikes and you are out” law for serious crimes repeaters–drug offenses were considered on the “serious crimes” list
  • Creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) whose director was commonly known as the “Drug Czar” in 1989
  •  Raising the Director of ONDCP to cabinet-level status by Bill Clinton in 1993.
  •  Creating Plan Colombia beginning in 1998 where the US provided hundreds of millions of dollars per year of military aid, training, and equipment to Colombia,  to fight left-wing guerrillas and interdict drug trafficking.
  • Introducing the Mérida Initiatives (I & II) in 2008 (Bush) and 2011 (Obama) in Mexico and other countries of Central America, providing billions of dollars to combat drug trafficking and transnational crime.

    Seized drugs and arms from drug cartels in Mexico


In summary we have seen drugs such as heroin, opium, and marijuana, readily and legally available for medical and recreational use up to early in the 20th century fall under greater and greater government control and strictures.  What was primarily a social problem of substance abuse similar to alcohol or tobacco was recast as a criminal problem, often using misperceptions, misinformation and lurid press accounts to enact ever more stringent and onerous penalties. This criminalization of drugs and drug use and subsequent policy enacted over more than three-quarters of a century was brought about in large part, by racist and potentially questionable commercial interests.  Our nation’s experiment during this same time period criminalizing the use of alcohol through the 18th Amendment in 1920 (and subsequently repealed in 1933) not only failed to stem alcohol’s use and abuse but created an entirely new organized criminal infrastructure whose remnants continue to haunt our society today.  Unfortunately, the lessons we learned regarding alcohol in the 20’s & 30’s were not learned with regard to drugs.  We continue to try to force resolution of this social problem through the singular prism of criminal pursuit, enforcement and incarceration with little or no success.  If the only tool in your tool chest is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.–Paul Maxwell


3 thoughts on “War on Drugs–A Hundred Years War

  1. A sad history any person given to reflection is sadly aware of. This conceded, what can be done to structure an alternative to the current madness, who could do it and when could such an effort get under way?

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