The Development of Drug Criminalization in America

The development of federal statutes and the underlying reasons that led to the criminalization of psycho-active substances in American society began at the turn of the twentieth century. Society reacted to the detriment that resulted from unchecked promotion and use of heroin and cocaine by addicts, paving ethe way for the government to begin drug regulation. The problem had grown during the end of the nineteenth century due to the new methods of ingestion and the isolation of active compounds. In responding to these developments some powerful Americans would learn early on that under the guise of tackling the risks and crippling effects of addiction they could promote corporate monopolies, a single world order, and pacification of liberty. Addiction’s impact on society was a small factor when compared to the actions of a powerful few who saw the masses as only pawns.

Several developments in the latter part of the nineteenth century helped boost the surge of drug use in America. Albert Niemann first isolated the highly addictive active ingredient of the coca plant ‘cocaine’ in 1859 (Cocaine Timeline). The first synthesis of heroin occurred during this period and is credited to C.R. Wright in 1874, who derived heroin from the purified opiate ‘morphine’, first isolated from opium in 1803 by F. W. A. Sertürner (Syndistar), (Musto 183). This coincided with the 1853 development of the hypodermic syringe independently produced by the Scottish physician, Alexander Wood, and French surgeon, Charles Gabriel Pravaz (Heroin Timeline). The hypodermic syringe opened a direct route to the brain for the now pure forms of cocaine and refined opiates. This powerful new combination of purified drugs along with the new method of intravenous injection with the syringe gained a foothold and resulted in a type of drug use and addiction that was previously unseen. While it seemed regulation of these new powerful combinations was going to be needed, the public never imagined citizens would be serving life sentences for distribution of these substances in the near future.

The first federal drug law in the United States was the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The key person behind the act was Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, who worked as chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture (Pure). The act’s main focus was on proper labeling and for products to remain unadulterated. Most infractions of the act called for $500 fines and one year of prison (Wiley).

Racial oppression, a motivating factor in many early anti-drug laws was apparent by the context and wording of anti drug fevered news and campaigns. The Anti Opium Act of 1909 served to “economically depreciate” Chinese who competed for limited jobs (Parker 29). Not unlike today’s disparity between crack versus powder cocaine concerning criminality, the Chinese method of using opium, smoking, was outlawed, but tinctures of opiates, including heroin, more commonly used by whites, were permissible in small, defined amounts (Parker 30).

Drug politicization took an unprecedented leap in February 1909. The new International Opium Commission met in Shanghai with representatives from the thirteen participating nations: The United States of America, Austria-Hungary, China, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia and Siam. The group met in Shanghai (Musto 183). The commission’s purpose was to institute an international system of drug control. The commission unanimously adopted nine resolutions calling for opiate traffic to be regulated (Steinig). The group’s delegates did not have the authority of their nations to make international law; however, these attending members pulled strings at home to help bring about the International Opium Convention which ended in early 1912. The attending nations signed a treaty at this convention calling for each partner nation to agree to enact domestic drug regulation legislation (Musto 183), (Steinig).

Alcohol’s association with violence and as a moral disrupter enabled those who publicly denounced its use to find support. The temperance movement took form in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This group abstained from alcohol use and encouraged others to follow suit. The group advocated for a ban on alcoholic beverages. The group started in 1873, and by 1911 it had ballooned to over 240,000 members (Brinkley). Nineteen states had enacted bans on intoxicating liquors by 1916. The Temperance Union joined forces with the Anti-Saloon League and insiders like Henry Ford in pursuing prohibition legislation. Congress ratified the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 due to the group’s efforts. While the 18th Amendment called for a nationwide ban on alcohol, the act did not provide specification for enforcement powers. This omission was addressed by the Volstead Act of 1919. This provision, authored by Andrew Volstead, called for fines and imprisonment for various infractions of the 18th Amendment and defined alcoholic beverages. The act calls for officers with Internal Revenue and the Attorney General to investigate suspected violators and called for warrants to be issued in such cases. The wording kept homemade wines, medicinal, and spiritual preparations permissible (PBS). America’s ban on intoxicating liquors lasted thirteen years. The era was marked by lawlessness and discontent for the intrusive efforts of the authorities. Corruption was rampant. Organized crime flourished under prohibition. While consumption of alcohol under prohibition did somewhat decline, it was becoming clear that the task of enforcing this ideal to the point that alcohol would become unavailable or unused was not going to happen. The encroachment on civil liberties brought on by law enforcement made prohibition undesirable to many. Alcohol was glorified and speakeasies popped up in every major city. The lawmen stirred public support against them because of their often overzealous efforts to catch imbibers.

Average Americans began to consider alcohol sales as a potential boost to the economy. Many realized the government would better serve the people by taxing alcohol and using the money to help the nation rather than waging war against its citizens with their own tax dollars. The revenue generated from alcohol during prohibition remained in the hands of organized criminals and corrupt government employees receiving bribes. The American people took their new sentiment to the polls. New candidates followed their constituents’ desire for repealing prohibition. For the first time in American history, congress mandated that each state have a convention to vote on the proposed amendment for ratification (Mount). The law was ratified in 288 days as the 21st Amendment. The 21st Amendment effectively nullified the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution (Mount 2nd). While alcohol prohibition was nullified a precedent was created for the far reaching blanket bans on substances that were to come.

With the ending of prohibition, the alcohol enforcement community turned its talents to a new substance. Fiber from the stalks of cannabis plant is called hemp. Hemp fiber was the primary material used in paper manufacture in the late nineteenth century. The plants were left to weather in the field after harvest in a process called dew retting required to separate the fiber from the stalks (Herer 20-22). George W. Schlichten invented a machine that revolutionized the process of preparing marijuana’s fiber for paper. The machine, called a decorticator, was patented July 1, 1919 (Herer 148). Although the invention may have seemed innocuous at a glance, the device was a huge advance in the separation of fiber from cannabis stalks. The device produced fiber of a much higher quality because fiber could be processed from fresh stalks instead of weathered, dew retted stalks. Schlichten spent eighteen years and a great deal of money perfecting his invention, motivated by his belief the process made much better sense than using trees and consequently, forests. The USDA Bulletin 404 of 1916 urged commercial hemp production for paper. The report indicated that over a twenty year period, an acre of hemp would produce as much paper making material as over 4 acres of timber would without requiring the sulfur and dioxin pollution released manufacturing paper from trees (Herer 24-26). DuPont held a recent patent on chemical mulching, necessary for making paper out of trees (Well Why). DuPont’s recent development of nylon gave them the ability to corner the twine and paper industries if hemp became outlawed (Bellis). The DuPont Corporation realized billions of dollars in potential revenue could be secured by preventing the hemp industry from developing.

Many factors brought about the vilification of marijuana in the 1930’s. The repeal of alcohol prohibition, continued oppression of undesirable members of society, and industrial conglomerates’ attempts to control the free market, all led to what was to become one of the largest deceptions perpetrated against the American people and consequently the world.

When the government seized control of drugs and marijuana, the government in effect, granted itself a monopoly on these substances (Steinig). This monopoly carried over to the big money rulers of the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries. Marijuana was a direct economic threat to vested interests of DuPont and several other politically entwined industries. The ruling elite used their combined wealth to pull the strings in American policy (Parker 27-29). Andrew Mellon was the financial backer behind DuPont. Mellon, also serving as Secretary of Treasury under president Hoover, handed the head position of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to his future son-in-law, Henry J. Anslinger (Cannabis). Anslinger served his mentors well using assistance from partner William Randolph Hearst’s ‘yellow press’. Hearst stood to gain exclusive access to cheap paper from DuPont’s growing monopoly. Anslinger, Mellon and Hearst knew the American public would not be complacent with an outright ban on such a useful plant, widely considered safer than alcohol, with its wide industrial potential, and profound medical benefits. Federally sponsored campaigns promoted hysteria concerning marijuana use. Federally sponsored films including “Reefer Madness” (1936) and “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth” (1935) purported that marijuana consumption would lead to insanity, loss of all morals, and even ax murdering tendencies (The Marijuana Conspiracy). Failing to mention the economic benefits and the many uses beneficial to small businesses in America, these campaigns ignored science, and hyped exaggerations and lies (An Online Reefer).

Critical hearings on marijuana policy were held behind closed door without the public or qualified experts from the American Medical Association attending. Herman Oliphant prepared the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 serving as general counsel for U.S. Department of Treasury. The proposal brought about government control by requiring pre-registration and taxes paid for all transfers of the respected items. The bill was submitted a couple of weeks after the Supreme Court upheld a similar federal ban by requiring unattainable transfer stamps for machine-guns (Herer 7). The new law’s purported intent was to regulate marijuana commerce. The act called for transfer stamps to accompany marijuana transfers in America. The act’s real initiatives became apparent when it was reviewed in its entirety, namely the sentencing provisions-up to five years in prison, and Regulation No. 1-an attached provision which created enough red tape to effectively curtail attempts for compliable cannabis possession, cultivation, or traffic (Solomon). The government required tax stamps to accompany marijuana, and then by not issuing these stamps, it subjected anyone in possession to lengthy federal sentences. The act has been replaced. The sentences for violating the federal ban on marijuana in America steadily increased so that twenty five year prison terms were not uncommon. Federal penalties stiffened with mandatory and consecutive sentencing requirements. Although long gone, the original act’s wording lingers in the layout of many state and federal statutes. The tenacious legislation survives in current laws including North Carolina’s General Statute Article 2D of Chapter 105 (Article 2D). The definitions of what parts of the plant are to be considered illegal read word for word with The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

The roots of American drug legislation took shape during the first three decades of the twentieth century. A war had been started under a flag of morality. Much of this legislation had questionable motives. The coaster ride of statutes and sentiments continued into modern society. The vast powers the government had been able to secure, through manipulation of popular thought and selective control of the media, include a medical community that would come to denounce marijuana and enact ever harsher and encroaching laws on the American people. While few have been ‘saved’ from the ravages of addiction as a result of America’s federal ban on psycho-active substances, countless Americans spend years in overcrowded prisons while a select few have profited greatly from their enacted monopoly at the expense of millions of users of now considered ‘illicit substances’.

Works Cited

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Article 2D Unauthorized Substances Taxes. North Carolina General Assembly.

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26 Sept. 2005 Inventor.About.com Bonnie, Richard J., and Charles H. Whitebread II.

The Marihuana Conviction.

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Brinkley, Alan. “Chapter 21.” 1993. The Unfinished Nation.

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25 Sept. 2005 Vaults or Erowid

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The Marijuana Conspiracy – The Real reason Hemp is Illegal. 100777

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1 Oct. 2005 The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

Steinig, Leon. The International System of Narcotics Control.

1 Jan. 1968. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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Well Why Aren’t We Using Hemp, Then?

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© 2005 David Oppenheimer David Oppenheimer – Performance Impressions


The Development of Drug Criminalization in America
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