Basic Facts About the War on Drugs

by Clifford A. Schaffer

Why were the laws against drugs passed in the first place?

The first American anti-drug law was an 1875 San Francisco ordinance which outlawed the smoking of opium in opium dens. It was passed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to their "ruin" in opium dens. "Ruin" was defined as associating with Chinese men. It was followed by other similar laws, including Federal laws in which trafficking in opium was forbidden to anyone of Chinese origin, and restrictions on the importation of smoking opium. The laws did not have anything really to do with the importation of opium as a drug, because the importation and use of opium in other forms -- such as in the common medication laudunum -- were not affected. The laws were directed at smoking opium because it was perceived that the smoking of opium was a peculiarly Chinese custom. In short, it was a way of legally targeting the Chinese.

Cocaine was outlawed because of fears that superhuman "Negro Cocaine Fiends" or "Cocainized Niggers" (actual terms used by newspapers in the early 1900's) take large amounts of cocaine which would make them go on a violent sexual rampage and rape white women. There is little evidence that any black men actually did this, if only because it would have been certain death. The United States set a record in 1905 with 105 recorded lynchings of black men.

At the same time, police nationwide switched from .32 caliber pistols to .38 caliber pistols because it was believed that the superhuman "Negro Cocaine Fiend" could not be killed with the smaller gun.

Dr. Hamilton Wright is sometimes referred to as the "Father of American Drug Laws". Dr. Wright was the Opium Commissioner at the time and had previously become famous because he had "scientifically proved" that beri-beri was a communicable disease. Beri-beri is a vitamin deficiency.

The Harrison Act which "outlawed" these drugs was, on its face, a simple licensing law which simply required sellers to get a license if they were going to handle the opiates and cocaine. As the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs has said, it is doubtful that very many members of Congress would have thought that they were passing what would later be regarded as a general drug prohibition. The law even contained a provision that nothing in the law would prohibit doctors from prescribing these drugs in the legitimate practice of medicine.

In fact, even the people who wrote the Harrison Act and the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 agreed that a general prohibition on what people could put into their own bodies was plainly an unconstitutional infringement on personal liberties. For comparison, see the history of the constitutional amendment which was required to prohibit alcohol. There is no fundamental reason why a constitutional amendment should be required to prohibit one chemical and not another.

The trick was that the bureaucrats who were authorized to issue licenses never did so, and there was a heavy penalty for not having the license. This heavy penalty required that the enforcing bureaucrats needed more staff and, therefore, more power, which, in turn required tougher laws. Over the years, through a series of court rulings, they gradually got the courts to change what had been well-established constitutional law. Specifically, they got the courts to accept the notion that it really was a tax violation when people got arrested for drugs, and that the fact that the government would not issue any licenses was not a defense. They also got the courts to bypass the old issue of whether the Federal Government had the right to control what an individual puts into their own bodies by creating the fiction that whatever the person puts into their bodies must have come as a result of some form of interstate commerce, which is regulated by the Federal Government in the form of taxes and licenses and, therefore, since the Federal Government is allowed to levy a tax it is -- by rather indirect logic -- allowed to regulate what anyone may put into their own bodies.

Marijuana was outlawed in 1937 as a repressive measure against Mexican workers who crossed the border seeking jobs during the Depression. The specific reason given for the outlawing of the hemp plant was its supposed violent "effect on the degenerate races." (Testimony of Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, in testimony before Congress in hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937). The American Medical Association specifically testified that they were opposed to the law. When the supporters of the law were asked about the AMA's view on the law on the floor of Congress, they lied and said that the AMA was in favor of the law because they knew the law would never pass without the AMA's endorsement. The law passed, and the AMA later protested, but the law was never repealed.

In both cases, newspapers across the country carried lurid stories of the awful things that these drugs did to racial minorities, and of the horrors that people of racial minorities inflicted on innocent white people while they were under the influence of these drugs. The made the case that people needed help for substance abuse problems. Later research has shown that not a single one of the stories used to promote these laws could be substantiated.

There never was any scholarly evidence that the laws were necessary, or even beneficial, to public health and safety and none was presented when the laws were passed.

Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports, 1972

The American Disease, The Origins of Narcotics Control, by Dr. David F. Musto, 1973 The Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1973 Guinness Book of World Records (information on lynching) "Cocaine Fiends: New Southern Menace," New York Times, February 18, 1914

How many people are actually killed by drugs?

The number of drug deaths in the US in a typical year is as follows:

* Tobacco kills about 390,000.
* Alcohol kills about 80,000.
* Sidestream smoke from tobacco kills about 50,000.
* Cocaine kills about 2,200.
* Heroin kills about 2,000.
* Aspirin kills about 2,000.
* Marijuana kills 0. There has never been a recorded death due to marijuana at any time in US history.
* All illegal drugs combined kill about 4,500 people per year, or about one percent of the number killed by alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco kills more people each year than all of the people killed by all of the illegal drugs in the last century.

Source: NIDA Research Monographs

Do illegal drugs cause violent crime?

* Of all psychoactive substances, alcohol is the only one whose consumption has been shown to commonly increase aggression. After large doses of amphetamines, cocaine, LSD, and PCP, certain individuals may experience violent outbursts, probably because of preexisting psychosis. Research is needed on the pharmacological effects of crack, which enters the brain more directly than cocaine used in other forms.

* Alcohol drinking and violence are linked through pharmacological effects on behavior, through expectations that heavy drinking and violence go together in certain settings, and through patterns of binge drinking and fighting that sometimes develop in adolescence...

* Illegal drugs and violence are linked primarily through drug marketing: disputes among rival distributors, arguments and robberies involving buyers and sellers, property crimes committed to raise drug money and, more speculatively, social and economic interactions between the illegal markets and the surrounding communities.

Psychoactive Substances and Violence, by Jeffrey A. Roth, Department of Justice Series: Research in Brief, Published: February 1994

All major authorities agree that the vast majority of drug-related violent crime is caused by the prohibition against drugs, rather than the drugs themselves. This was the same situation which was true during alcohol Prohibition. Alcohol Prohibition gave rise to a violent criminal organization. Violent crime dropped 65 percent in the year Prohibition was repealed.

There are about 25,000 homicides in the United States each year. A study of 414 homicides in New York City at the height of the crack epidemic showed that only three murders, less than one percent, could be attributed to the behavioral effects of cocaine or crack. Of these, two were victim-precipitated. For example, one homicide victim tried to rape someone who was high on crack and got killed in the process.

The first question to address is how many drug dealers are there?

Under the law, all drug users are drug dealers because the laws in most states state that any distribution of illegal drugs is considered a sale, regardless of whether there is a profit or monetary interest involved. Therefore, under the law, anyone who ever passed a joint to the next person at a rock concert is a "drug dealer". If we use the strict legal definition of a "dealer" then there are somewhere between 12 and 40 million drug dealers in the United States.

We might use a more restricted definition and assume that we will imprison only the drug dealers who distribute drugs on a regular basis. Research has long established that most drug sales are between friends who have known each other for a long time. Still, under this tighter definition, most drug users would be classed as "drug dealers" and we are left with the same problem of potentially incarcerating tens of millions of Americans.

No. Most of the prisons and jails in the United States are already far in excess of their planned capacity and correctional institutions in 24 states are under Federal court order to release prisoners. Arresting all of the drug dealers would require construction of at least five new prison beds for every one which now exists, assuming that no new drug dealers came along to fill the gap.

In September, 1992 Sheriff Sherman Block announced that he would release 4,000 prisoners, about twenty percent of the total Los Angeles County jail population, because there was no room to keep them and no more tax dollars to build more jails. For every person who goes to jail from now on, another one will be released. Tough drug laws have done all they can do and they have not solved the problem. The "get-tough" policy is over.

How many millions of people will have to go to prison?

There are currently about 1.5 million people in state and Federal prisons and jails throughout the United States. At the current time, at least 24 states are under Federal court orders to relieve prison overcrowding.

The following chart shows the growth of the US prison population since 1960. The US prison population was relatively stable from about 1926, when figures were first compiled, through 1970. After this point, the effects of Nixon's war against drugs, and later the Reagan and Bush war against drugs, produced a dramatic increase in the number of prisoners.

There are an estimated thirty to forty million people who have used illegal drugs in the last year. If we imprisoned all of them, we would have to build a prison large enough to hold the combined populations of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The total cost to imprison them for five years, including the costs of arrest and prosecution would be roughly ten to fifteen trillion dollars, or about ten times the total Federal annual budget. This does not include the related costs to society which would be caused by the imprisonment of millions of gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens.

There doesn't seem to be any clear answer to this question. I have asked public officials of all kinds, including law enforcement officers, elected officials and all three of the US Federal Drug Czars. To date, the only person who has ever replied with an actual numerical estimate is Michael Levine, one of the DEA's former top agents. He estimated that the optimum number of drug offenders to put in prison would be about 2.7 million -- in addition to the people who are currently in prison. His assumption, he said, was that we would put all of the addicts in prison, and he estimated the number of addicts at about 2.7 million, based on other government figures. Mr. Levine's plan would require that, for every prison cell which now exists, we would have to build three more just like it. He did not say what he would do about the fact that even this plan would leave tens of millions of recreational drug users free to continue their drug use with little fear of prosecution.

What does this drug policy do to the black community?

At the present time, one-fourth of all of the young black men in America are either in prison or on parole. Most of them were arrested on non-violent drug charges.

In Washington, DC, the Bush administration's "demonstration" city, half of all of the black men in the city are currently in jail or on parole. More than ninety percent have arrest records. The same is true of inner city black men in Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Two-thirds of all of today's black male high school students will be dead, disabled, or in prison before their thirtieth birthday. The majority will go to prison because of non-violent drug charges. For every black man who goes to college, three will go to prison. By the year 2000, about half of all black men in America will have gone to prison. Most of them will go to prison for non-violent drug charges. Most of those who go to prison will be released into society again. Because they are black men with a prison record, they will be permanently unemployable.

"The Prevalence of Imprisonment," US Department of Justice, 1980, and The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. "Incarceration of Minorities," The Sentencing Project, Washington, DC, 1992 Employment Problems of Released Prisoners, Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, 1992

The following statistics came from

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