World War D
The Case against prohibitionism,
roadmap to controlled re-legalization

The build-up to the War on Drugs

This is a preview to the chapter The build-up to the War on Drugs from the book World War D by Jeffrey Dhywood.
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Moral panics and the build-up to the Harrison Tax Act of 1914


No single chain of events led to drug prohibition in the US and, from there, to the rest of the world. Global prohibition was rather the outcome of a confluence of disparate factors and a web of mismatched interests. Let’s run through the major trends and events that led to these doomed policies.

Opium smoking was introduced to China in the 18th century and soon opium addiction started spreading, fueled by British smuggling of Indian opium. From 1839 to 1842 and from 1856 to 1860, the British Empire fought and won two opium wars against China to impose opium trade in that country and protect the interest of the East India Company and its opium monopoly. This was a humiliation that China hasn’t forgotten to this day. Up to 27% of the adult Chinese male population may have been addicted at the turn of the century. Although these events might seem unrelated to drug prohibition in the US, we will see that they were critical to the inception of the first international drug control laws.

The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847. The American Pharmaceutical Association (APhA) soon followed in 1852 “to as much as possible restrict the dispensing and sale of medicines to regularly educated druggests (sic) and apothecaries.” Both associations aimed to control the medical marketplace, taking away the practice of medicine and the distribution of medicinal preparations from healers and herbalists.

The first drug prohibition law, the Opium Den Ordinance, enacted in San Francisco in 1875, banned public smoking of opium. They specifically targeted “filthy, idolatrous” Chinese immigrants, setting the tone for future laws to come, claiming that “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” This first law failed, dens went underground, and the added zest of illegality boosted their popularity, which didn’t prevent more cities and states from jumping on the bandwagon. By 1900, opium den bans had been enacted in 22 states and territories. As the issue grew further, immensely magnified by the hyperbolic embellishment of the Hearst-dominated sensationalistic press, the federal government stepped in, outlawing the import of opium for smoking in 1887 and banning Chinese people from the opium trade altogether. These laws concerned only the low potency opium used for smoking. Higher potency edible opium, and of course its numerous preparations and derivatives such as morphine and codeine, remained legal.

This launched a string of moral panics that climaxed with the alcohol prohibition of 1919 and was largely fueled by the hysterical and hate-mongering sensationalist media empire of William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his time. From the Inquisition, to the witch-hunts of the 16th to 18th century, to pogroms and purges, to McCarthyism and the War on Drugs, moral panics have been frequent tools of government to curtail civil liberties and discriminate against minorities. Moral panics are commonly orchestrated as a diversion from real and more pressing problems. Under the pretext of addressing perceived deviance and eradicating activities deemed immoral, they are often a disguise for scapegoating, discrimination, racism and xenophobia. Under the pressure of moral panics, people suspend sound judgment and rationality to be bullied into accepting intrusions into their private lives and encroachments to their liberties that would be deemed intolerable under normal circumstances. Totalitarian regimes are typical experts at moral panicking. Last but not least, moral panics are especially efficient in times of crisis, as we will see throughout this chapter.

A cocaine scare was rapidly gaining momentum in the US, targeting African Americans. It was rumored that some employers were supplying cocaine to their Negro workers. A 1900 editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed: “Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice – that of ‘cocaine sniffing’ or the ‘coke habit’.” Hamilton Wright, one of the architects of American drug policy in the early 1900s who was appointed as the first Opium Commissioner of the United States by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, testified before Congress in 1910: “cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other sections of the country.” Cocaine was rumored to give superhuman powers to Negroes and make them impervious to bullets, which prompted Southern sheriffs to increase the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38. By 1906, nearly half the states restricted the sale of cocaine to medical prescriptions while moral panic kept on picking up speed.

Enacted on May 7, 1906 with the support of the AMA and APhA, the District of Columbia Pharmacy and Poisons Act prohibited the sale of habit-forming drugs such as opium, morphine, or cocaine without a doctor’s prescription. The act applied only to the District, but was devised as a model for other states and was the first in a succession of anti-drug laws that would ultimately culminate in the Harrison Act of 1914.

As a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War, the US acquired the Philippines where opium addiction was a significant problem. Incidentally, the war produced an accidental hero, Captain Hobson, whose addiction to fame proved quite useful to prohibitionists. The first Episcopal bishop of the Philippines, Charles H. Brent, set up a Commission of Inquiry, known as the Brent Commission, that recommended international control of narcotics. To counter British opium imports, China had become by then the world largest opium producer, but was looking for better ways to solve its opium problems. Meanwhile, American missionaries in China were complaining about the damages of British opium in the Chinese population while American traders claimed that an opium-free China could be a sizeable market for American goods. These views were endorsed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who convened the International Opium Commission, held in Shanghai in 1909. Dr. Hamilton Wright and Bishop Brent headed the US delegation. Wright was fired shortly thereafter for alcohol abuse. The US hoped to get access to the huge Chinese market in exchange for US support of China against its British sworn enemies. Although it didn’t accomplish much more than vague recommendations, the Shanghai conference is widely recognized as marking the beginning of the world War on Drugs and was celebrated as such by the UNODC. The Shanghai conference marked the entry of the US onto the world scene at the beginning of the American century. It was shortly followed by World War I, which planted the seeds of Nazism in Germany, and by the Russian revolution, which established communism in that country. Thus, the three major totalitarianisms of the 20th century were launched almost simultaneously.

Unlike most European countries, Turkey, and Iran, the US did not have any commercial interests in the drug trade at that time, which facilitated its adoption of drug prohibition. Furthermore, the push for prohibition served burgeoning US commercial interests on the world scene by striking points against its major commercial competitors.

A second conference was held at The Hague in 1911, leading to the International Opium Convention, which was ratified in The Hague in 1912, amended in 1914, and incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The Convention provided that “The contracting Powers shall use their best endeavours to control, or to cause to be controlled, all persons manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade.” The convention had plenty of loopholes to accommodate the conflicting demands of the British and their still flourishing opium trade, the Germans who were the leading producers of manufactured drugs (cocaine, heroin, morphine), and the opium producers (Turkey and Iran). Despite intense US bullying, Switzerland (another major producer of manufactured drugs), Turkey, Peru, and Bolivia, among others, refused to ratify the convention while Germany dragged its feet, so that enforcement remained half-hearted at best.
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