The Drug Crisis

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by Harry Browne by Harry Browne

Few people are aware that before World War I, a 9-year-old girl could walk into a drug store and buy heroin.

That’s right – heroin. She didn’t need a doctor’s prescription or a note from her parents. She could buy it right off the shelf. Bayer and other large drug companies sold heroin as a pain-reliever and sedative in measured doses – just the way aspirin is sold today. Cocaine, opium, and marijuana were readily available as well. No Drug Enforcement Agency, no undercover cops, no “Parents – the Anti-Drug” commercials. Just people going about their own business is whatever way they chose.

Seeing today’s never-ending crisis of teenagers using drugs, you can imagine how bad it must have been when there were no laws to stop children – or adults – from using drugs. But, in fact, there was no drug crisis at all. A few people were addicted to heroin or cocaine, just as a few people today are addicted to sleeping pills or Big Macs, but there was no national uproar about it. Such people, if they wanted to break their habits, could freely consult doctors without fear of being sent to prison.

There were no black-market drug dealers preying on school children. There were no gang wars over drug profits, because there were no drug gangs. After all, who would buy dangerous drugs from a gangster at outrageous prices when he could buy safe drugs made by a reputable drug company at modest prices?

Americans got a taste of what a Drug War might be like when they endorsed the 18th Amendment invoking alcohol Prohibition in 1919. The result was gang warfare, people dying from drinking bathtub gin, corruption in police departments, and non-violent citizens sent to prison for indulging in a vice that was strictly personal. Most Americans rejoiced when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The chances of them supporting another such Constitutional amendment within the next 50 years were slim to none.

So the federal government didn’t dare try amending the Constitution when politicians and bureaucrats decided to reinstate all the trappings of Prohibition in a new Drug War. This War That Will Never End was begun in stages – probably starting with the rarely-enforced Harrison Act of 1914. In my recollection, the Drug War as we know it today began during the 1960s, moved into second and third gears during the Nixon administration of 1969–1974, and shifted into overdrive during the Reagan administration of 1981–1989.

The Drug War has been easily the greatest cause of violent crime in American history: Gangs fighting over monopoly territories, children killed in drive-by shootings, families in the inner city living with the constant sound of gunfire outside their doors, police killing innocent people in misguided drug raids, crooked cops helping to spread poisonous drugs, non-violent citizens sent to prison to be terrorized by violent prisoners – none of which would exist in the absence of the federal drug laws.

There is nothing that could make our cities safer than repealing the drug laws – all of them.

Does the idea of heroin, cocaine, and opium being sold over the counter sound too ludicrous to be true? You can check it out for yourself. A marvelous website, maintained by the University of Buffalo’s Addiction Research Unit, shows the actual labels and ads from patent medicines of the 19th and early-20th centuries. You can see the claims made, the ingredients used, and the acceptance of what so many Americans fear today.

That era of innocence didn’t end because America was threatened by a drug crisis. It was ended in the traditional way – by politicians looking for new worlds to conquer, politicians who have no interest in examining dispassionately the chaos they cause, and who will never face a single personal consequence for the lives they have ruined.

Harry Browne [send him mail], the author of Why Government Doesn’t Work and many other books, was the Libertarian presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. See his website.

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