This Is What Happens When You Ban Heroinby Anthony Gregory
Aug. 11, 2011
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How appropriate that California is home to the newest ban on caffeinated beer. This haven of busy-body progressivism has long been a national leader in the war against liberty and property. Talk-radio conservatives are mocking Governor Jerry Brown’s crusade against the dread alcohol-caffeine combo, lamenting the implications for our dwindling personal responsibility, freedom and common sense. This is classic California, they seem to agree.
But they do not appear to realize the origin of these terrible anti-liberty attacks, even when the answer is most obvious. Indeed it was in California that the war on drugs began. The 1875 Opium Dens Ordinance, mostly targeting Chinese immigrants, forever marked San Francisco as a pioneer among prohibitionist municipalities. A state-level law in 1891 mandated warning labels for opium. In 1907 California required prescriptions for opium sales and the drug and paraphernalia were banned statewide in 1909. The same year the U.S. sent Hamilton Wright to the Opium Commission in Shanghai to contemplate a global ban.
On a national level, the United States was a radically free country, as far as drugs were concerned, until the early 20th century. A 1906 federal law involved small interventions into the drug market but it wasn’t until 1914, in the middle of the horrible Wilson administration, that the Harrison Narcotics Act was signed, signifying the beginning of the end for American drug freedom and so many other liberties that have fallen as collateral damage. For almost a century it’s been a nearly uninterrupted avalanche of prohibitionist nonsense and despotism.
The 1914 Act regulated opium and cocaine and banned heroin outright. Before that, even a child could walk into a pharmacy and buy heroin in measured doses, and there was virtually no associated societal problem to speak of. The next drug nationally prohibited was alcohol, which was constitutionally possible thanks to the 18th Amendment, after many decades of agitation by social reformers, progressives, puritans, and others who incredibly believed they could eliminate sin through the state’s salvation. Throughout the 1920s the Noble Experiment only proved that neither human nature nor economic law could be overturned by federal legislation. Violent crime skyrocketed. The prison population doubled. Almost half the law enforcement apparatus became dedicated to stamping out liquor. Police departments became even more corrupt than usual. Hundreds of federal officials were fired over bribery and misconduct. By the end of the decade even some former abolitionists saw that prohibition was destroying the country and worked to end it through the 21st Amendment.
That should have been the end of the prohibitionist impulse forever, but it wasn’t. Some of the same social reformers and bureaucrats stuck around and began a new crusade against marijuana. This time another progressive of Woodrow Wilson’s ilk, Franklin Roosevelt, signed the prohibition into law. The Constitution was left unaltered and from then on the national government recognized no limits on its general power to ban substances.
The propaganda surrounding the ban on marijuana was so unbelievably ludicrous that we should be embarrassed of our forebears for buying into it – almost as embarrassed as we should be of today’s Americans repeating the government’s drug war propaganda as though there’s any significant truth to it. Marijuana was said to make people uncontrollably violent, while somehow also pacifying them and thus rendering them poor candidates for the military. It was said to turn its users into irredeemable crazed rapists and murderers. In truth this is probably the most benign popular drug in human history. Surely alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous.
But reformers who focus on the relative harmlessness of pot and thus argue for legalizing it while keeping other drugs illegal are missing the point. It was the ban on heroin that led to this huge decline in our liberty. Every drug that was outlawed from then on was simply the next domino in line. Psychedelics like LSD were targeted in the mid-1960s (yes, they were actually perfectly legal before that). In 1970 the federal government adopted the tyrannical Controlled Substances Act, a comprehensive scheduling scheme to give the government carte blanche over every substance. A 1984 law banned any drug "substantially similar" to Schedule I or II drugs in either effect or molecular configuration. Ecstasy, or MDMA, one of the most demonized chemicals in recent years, was used legally for over seventy years since it was first synthesized in 1912, then banned by the DEA in the mid-1980s over the protests of many in the medical community who cited its beneficial therapeutic effects. Even though no one else is allowed to buy or use it, the U.S. military began experimenting with it a few years ago as a remedy for post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hysteria akin to the reefer madness of the 1930s has struck again several time