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Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?

It Pays to be Tough on Drugs

The assertion:  
It pays to be tough on drugs.


The Short Answer:

No, it really doesn't. It causes more problems than it solves.

The Longer Answer:

Finally, let's examine the assertion that "it pays to be tough on drugs."  Just looking at the information compiled above, we can readily see that it did not pay to be tough on alcohol. Quite the contrary, in fact.

But how about the other drugs? Surely, the laws against those make more sense than trying to prohibit alcohol -- don't they? Not really. You could get a quick answer if you just went to the Rand Corporation's analysis of the cost-effectiveness of various strategies to control drugs. They found that interdiction and law enforcement were the least cost-effective of all the available strategies. But that's on a different web site, so let's not even count that one.

One of the best places to start such a discussion is with what I consider to be probably the best single overall review of the subject ever written, the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. It gives a good overview of what happened before and after the drug prohibition laws were passed in the United States.

Prior to 1906, there weren't any national drug laws in the US.

There were some local laws that were motivated by racism rather than any real concern for public health and safety. For example, opium smoking was outlawed in San Francisco in 1875. They didn't outlaw all forms of opium, just smoking opium, because that custom was peculiar to the Chinese. It was an attempt to punish the Chinese immigrants who were competing with whites for jobs. (Chapter 6 - Opium smoking is outlawed, The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs)

 There were no laws on drug quality, no age restrictions on buyers, and no licensing of sellers. There weren't even any laws requiring drug makers to list the contents on the label. Many people were taking concoctions of perhaps fifty percent morphine with no real knowledge of what it was. It was, as one historian noted, "a dope fiend's paradise." However, even under those extreme conditions, it was not considered a major social problem.

Nevertheless, there was very little popular support for a law banning these substances. "Powerful organizations for the suppression ... of alcoholic stimulants exist throughout the land," 25 the 1881 article in the Catholic World noted, but there were no similar anti-opiate organizations.

The reason for this lack of demand for opiate prohibition was quite simple: the drugs were not viewed as a menace to society and, as we shall demonstrate in subsequent chapters, they were not in fact a menace.

Chapter 1 - Nineteenth Century America - "a dope fiends paradise"  from The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

But it obviously wasn't a good idea for these drugs to be sold even without any labeling of the contents or controls on purity so the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906. This was a regulatory law, not a criminal prohibition of drugs. It established the Food and Drug Administration and gave it the power to regulate foods and drugs. In addition:

The 1906 act required that medicines containing opiates and certain other drugs must say so on their labels. 2 Later amendments to the act also required that the quantity of each drug be truly stated on the label, and that the drugs meet official standards of identity and purity. Thus, for a time the act actually served to safeguard addicts.

The efforts leading to the 1906 act, the act itself and subsequent amendments, and educational campaigns urging families not to use patent medicines containing opiates, no doubt helped curb the making of new addicts. Indeed, there is evidence of a modest decline in opiate addiction from the peak in the 1890s until 1914. 3

Chapter 7 - The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs,

The opiates and cocaine were not prohibited on a national level until 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act.  The purpose of the proponents of the bill was to institute a national prohibition on these drugs. But they knew that an outright national prohibition law would be considered unconstitutional, so they didn't prohibit it, they just taxed it and worked the prohibition through the tax system.  ( see Whitebread's History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States )

On its face, moreover, the Harrison bill did not appear to be a prohibition law at all. . . . 4 The law specifically provided that manufacturers, importers, pharmacists, and physicians prescribing narcotics should be licensed to do so, at a moderate fee. . . . Far from appearing to be a prohibition law, the Harrison Narcotic Act on its face was merely a law for the orderly marketing of opium, morphine, heroin, and other drugs. . . it is unlikely that a single legislator realized in 1914 that the law Congress was passing would later be decreed a prohibition law.

. . .

The effects of this policy were almost immediately visible. On May 15, 1915, just six weeks after the effective date of the Harrison Act, an editorial in the New York Medical Journal declared: 

As was expected ... the immediate effects of the Harrison antinarcotic law were seen in the flocking of drug habitues to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usual1y to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs, but occasionally to a delirious state induced by sudden withdrawal....

The really serious results of this legislation, however, will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These 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 into hospitals to the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives. 8

 Six months later an editorial in American Medicine reported: 

Narcotic drug addiction is one of the gravest and most important questions confronting the medical profession today. Instead of improving conditions the laws recently passed have made the problem more complex. Honest medical men have found such handicaps and dangers to themselves and their reputations in these laws . . . that they have simply decided to have as little to do as possible with drug addicts or their needs. . . . The druggists are in the same position and for similar reasons many of them have discontinued entirely the sale of narcotic drugs. [The addict] is denied the medical care he urgently needs, open, above-board sources from which he formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the underworld where lie can get his drug, but of course, surreptitiously and in violation of the law....

Abuses in the sale of narcotic drugs are increasing. . . . A particular sinister sequence . . . is the character of the places to which [addicts] are forced to go to get their drugs and the type of people with whom they are obliged to mix. The most depraved criminals are often the dispensers of these habit-forming drugs. The moral dangers, as well as the effect on the self-respect of the addict, call for no comment. One has only to think of the stress under which the addict lives, and to recall his lack of funds, to realize the extent to which these . . . afflicted individuals are under the control of the worst elements of society. In respect to female habitues the conditions are worse, if possible. Houses of ill fame are usually their sources of supply, and one has only to think of what repeated visitations to such places mean to countless good women and girls unblemished in most instances except for an unfortunate addiction to some narcotic drug-to appreciate the terrible menace. 9

 In 1918, after three years of the Harrison Act and its devastating effects, the secretary of the treasury appointed a committee to look into the problem. . . . Among its findings 10 were the following: 

  • Opium and other narcotic drugs (including cocaine, which Congress had erroneously labeled as a narcotic in 1914) were being used by about a million people. (This was almost certainly an overestimate; see Chapter 9.)
  • The "underground" traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic.
  • The "dope peddlers" appeared to have established a national organization, smuggling the drugs in through seaports or across the Canadian or Mexican borders-especially the Canadian border.
  • The wrongful use of narcotic drugs had increased since passage of the Harrison Act. Twenty cities, including New York and San Francisco, had reported such increases. (The increase no doubt resulted from the migration of addicts into cities where black markets flourished.)

To stem this apparently rising tide, the 1918 committee, like countless committees since, called for sterner law enforcement. it also recommended more state laws patterned after the Harrison Act. 11

Congress responded by tightening up the Harrison Act. In 1924, for example, a law was enacted prohibiting the importation of heroin altogether, even for medicinal use. . . . In 1925, Dr. Lawrence Kolb reported on a study of both morphine and heroin addiction: "If there is any difference in the deteriorating effects of morphine and heroin on addicts, it is too slight to be determined clinically." 12 President Johnson's Committee on Law Enforcement and Administration of justice came to the same conclusion in 1967: "While it is somewhat more rapid in its action, heroin does not differ in any significant pharmacological effect from morphine." 13 

The 1924 ban on heroin did not deter the conversion of morphine addicts to heroin. On the contrary, heroin ousted morphine almost completely from the black market after the law was passed.

An editorial in the Illinois Medical Journal for June 1926, after eleven years of federal law enforcement, concluded: 

The Harrison Narcotic law should never have been placed upon the Statute books of the United States. It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible for addicts to secure their supply of "dope" and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men.

As is the case with most prohibitive laws, however, this one fell far short of the mark. So far, in fact, that instead of stopping the traffic, those who deal in dope now make double their money from the poor unfortunates upon whom they prey. . . .

The doctor who needs narcotics used in reason to cure and allay human misery finds himself in a pit of trouble. The lawbreaker is in clover. . . . It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.

As to the Harrison Narcotic law, it is as with prohibition [of alcohol] legislation. People are beginning to ask, "Who did that, anyway?" 14 

Chapter 8 - The Harrison Narcotic Act (1914), The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

I could certainly go on with references that show that the drug laws never did make any sense, and it is doubtful if they have ever produced any measurable benefits. Certainly, the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that the prohibition laws do more harm than good. A good place to start reading the evidence is at Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. Start with The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.

What kinds of bad effects does this policy produce? One major bad effect is that it makes it easier for kids to get drugs, and even encourages their use. Historically speaking, the biggest single cause of drug epidemics among US children is anti-drug campaigns. See, for example, the references above on the problems with children drinking during alcohol prohibition. See also:

Chapter 30 - Popularizing the barbiturates as "thrill pills"
Chapter 38 - How speed was popularized
Chapter 44 - How to launch a nationwide drug menace
Chapter 50 - How LSD was popularized, 1962-1969
Chapter 51 - How the hazards of LSD were augmented, 1962-1969
from The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

That is hardly the end of the evidence on the subject, of course. There is a ton of stuff I could reference here in the Schaffer Library already, and there are several cabinets full of additional research at my local university research libraries that I haven't begun to put on the net. But, if you read the books referenced above, they will give you a good summary of what you would learn if you read all the other thousands of documents, and more.

If you want to comment, or if you think you have some online references that tell the story better, please send me an e-mail at cliff_schaffer@yahoo.com.

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