History of United States drug prohibition

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Around 1860: Efforts to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals began, and laws were introduced on a state-to-state basis that created penalties for mislabeling drugs, adulterating them with undisclosed narcotics, and improper sale of those considered "poisons". Poison laws generally either required labels on the packaging indicating the harmful effects of the drugs or prohibited sale outside of licensed pharmacies and without a doctor's prescription. Prominent pharmaceutical societies at the time supported the listing of cannabis as a poison.

1880: The U.S. and Qing Dynasty China complete an agreement prohibiting the shipment of opium between the two countries; Qing China itself was still reeling from the effects of fighting the Opium War after a failed attempt to stem the British importing of opium into China proper (see Lin Zexu).

1906:The Pure Food and Drug Act requires that certain specified drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis, be accurately labeled with contents and dosage. Previously many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. Cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and other such drugs continued to be legally available without prescription as long as they were labeled. It is estimated that sale of patent medicines containing opiates decreased by 33% after labeling was mandated.

1911: United States first Opium Commissioner argues that of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita.

1914: The first recorded instance of the United States enacting a ban on the domestic distribution of drugs is the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. This act was presented and passed as a method of regulating the production and distribution of opiate-containing substances under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, but a section of the act was later interpreted by law enforcement officials for the purpose of prosecuting doctors who prescribe opiates to addicts.

1919: Alcohol prohibition in the U.S. first appeared under numerous provincial bans and was eventually codified under a federal constitutional amendment in 1919, having been approved by 36 of the 48 U.S. states.

1925: United States supported regulation of cannabis as a drug in the International Opium Convention. and by the mid-1930s all member states had some regulation of cannabis.

1932: Democrat Franklin Roosevelt ran for President of the United States promising repeal of federal laws of Prohibition of alcohol.

1933: Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is repealed. The amendment remains the only major act of prohibition to be repealed, having been repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution.

1935 President Roosevelt hails the International Opium Convention and application of it in US. law and other anti-drug laws in a radio message to the nation.

1937: Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. Presented as a $1 nuisance tax on the distribution of marijuana, this act required anyone distributing the drug to maintain and submit a detailed account of his or her transactions, including inspections, affidavits, and private information regarding the parties involved. This law, however, was something of a "Catch-22", as obtaining a tax stamp required individuals to first present their goods, which was an action tantamount to confession. This act was passed by Congress on the basis of testimony and public perception that marijuana caused insanity, criminality, and death.

1951: The 1951 Boggs Act increased penalties fourfold, including mandatory penalties.

1956: The Daniel Act increased penalties by a factor of eight over those specified in the Boggs Act. Although by this time there was adequate testimony to refute the claim that marijuana caused insanity, criminality, or death, the rationalizations for these laws shifted in focus to the proposition that marijuana use led to the use of heroin, creating the gateway drug theory.

1965: In Laos, the CIA's airline, Air America, began flying Hmong (Meo) opium out of the hills to Long Tieng and Vientiane. This opium was being refined into high grade no. 4 heroin, which is what was being used by U.S. soldiers. During the Laotian Civil War, Long Tieng served as a town and airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

1969: Psychiatrist Dr. Robert DuPont conducts urinalysis of everyone entering the D.C. jail system in August 1969. He finds 44% test positive for heroin and starts the first methadone treatment program in the Department of Corrections in September 1969 for heroin addicts.

1970: The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was enacted into law by Congress. The CSA is the federal U.S. drug policy under which the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances is regulated.

1971: The Vietnam War is linked with concerns over drugs and the Nixon administration coins the term War on Drugs.

  • Starting in 1965, the CIA's Airline, Air America had been flying opium for the Hmong (Meo) hill tribe opium farmers until as late as 1971. "Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region has become a mass producer of high-grade no. 4 heroin for the American market." The heroin refined in Laos was being shipped to Vietnam and this high grade fluffy white no. 4 heroin is what was being used by U.S. soldiers there.
  • May: Congressmen Robert Steele (R-CT) and Morgan Murphy (D-IL) release an explosive report on the growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.
  • June 17: Nixon declares war on drugs.He characterized the abuse of illicit substances as "public enemy number one in the United States". Under Nixon, the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This legislation is the foundation on which the modern drug war exists. Responsibility for enforcement of this new law was given to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and then in 1973 to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Administration. During the Nixon era, for the only time in the history of the war on drugs, the majority of funding goes towards treatment, rather than law enforcement.
  • Later in the month the U.S. military announces they will begin urinalysis of all returning servicemen. The program goes into effect in September and the results are favorable: "only" 4.5% of the soldiers test positive for heroin.

1972, March 22: The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommends legalizing possession and sales of small amounts of marijuana. Nixon and the Congress ignore the suggestion

1974: A Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. James O. Eastland on The Marihuana-hashish epidemic and its impact on United States security invited 21 scientists of the first rank from seven different countries to testify, including Gabriel G. Nahas and Nils Bejerot. The testimony of these experts showed that the evidence accumulated by scientific researchers on marijuana had turned dramatically against this drug.

1979: Illegal drug use in the U.S. peaks when 25 million of Americans used an illegal drug within the 30 days prior to the annual survey.

1988: Near the end of the Reagan administration, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was created for central coordination of drug-related legislative, security, diplomatic, research and health policy throughout the government. In recognition of his central role, the director of ONDCP is commonly known as the Drug Czar. The position was raised to cabinet-level status by Bill Clinton in 1993.

1992 Illegal drug use in the U.S. fell to 12 million people.

1993, December 7: Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General, said that the legalization of drugs "should be studied", causing a stir among opponents.

1998: The government commissions the first-ever full study of drug policy, to be carried out by the National Research Council (NRC); the Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs is headed by Econometrician Charles Manski.

2001: The National Research Council Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs is published. The study reveals that the government has not sufficiently studied its own drug policy, which it calls "unconscionable". (see more under Efficacy of the War on Drugs)

2001: 16 million in the U.S. were drug users.

2008 Several reports state the benefits of drug courts compared with traditional courts. Using retrospective data, researchers in several studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable probationers between 12% to 40%. Re-arrests were lower five years or more later. The total cost per participant was also much lower. Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that the Actual youth drug use, as measured as the percent reporting past month use has declined from 19,4% to 14,8% among middle and high school students between 2001 and 2007.

2009 Gil Kerlikowske, the current Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that the Obama Administration would not use the term "War on Drugs," as he claims it is counter-productive and is contrary to the policy favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce drug use. "Being smart about drugs means working to treat people who go to jail with a drug problem so when they get out and return to the communities you protect, you will be less likely to re-arrest them".

2010 California Proposition 19 (also known as the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act) was defeated, with 53.5% of California voters voting "No" and 46.5% voting "Yes."

2010 The Fiscal Year 2011 National Drug Control Budget proposed by the Obama Administration devote significant new resources, $340 million, to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse.

2012 Colorado and Washington (state) pass laws to legalize the consumption, possession, and sale of marijuana.

2014 Alaska and Oregon pass laws to legalize the consumption, possession, and sale of marijuana.