This Is What Happens When You Ban Heroin

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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 times in recent memory. GHB, a substance not so different in its effects from alcohol, with some additional risks but also some comparative benefits over liquor, is a chemical found naturally in the human brain. It was perfectly legal but then banned by the FDA in 1990. Ephedra, a stimulant with both advantages and disadvantages compared to caffeine, was banned in 2004. In recent years the drug warriors have targeted Salvia divinorum as a threatening party drug — a complete fantasy for anyone who knows anyone who's tried it. They've also been fretting day and night about the great threat of Qat — a relatively harmless thing used by millions worldwide. Even as the establishment happily subsidizes prescription drugs that kill many thousands of Americans a year, they are attempting to stamp out the last substances that can't be patented, no matter how little risk they pose.

Slippery slope arguments don't always convince, and yet history bulges with examples of the logic behind one bad policy leading to another. For many years opponents of the drug war have argued that prohibitionist reasoning would conquer one freedom after another until the many pleasures of mainstream life were under attack.

Of course there is the attack on cigarette smokers — from bans on smoking in bars to the paternalistic prohibition of flavored cigarettes that happened just two years ago. Now the politicians are targeting whatever food they deem unhealthy. This has brought us restrictions on salt and transfats, attacks on commercial freedom in the form of un-American Happy Meal bans, and, perhaps most obscene of all, police-state measures to stamp out raw milk and other nutritious and natural foods. People are being jailed and shut down for growing natural, normal food on their own land. We have slid right to the bottom of the slippery slope.

After 9/11, Americans put up with a massive assault on their civil liberties that would have been impossible without the conditioning and warming up to the police state that transpired during decades of the war on drugs. Now we see that in every area of our lives we are losing liberties faster than we can take account of the loss. The prohibitionist mindset — the principle that the government can outlaw whatever it determines should be verboten — has infested everything: commercial activities, firearms, lightbulbs, foods, and dozens of other pleasures of life enjoyed by average Americans.

Every year tens of thousands of Mexicans die and hundreds of thousands of peaceful Americans are jailed all to sustain a fundamentally evil and totally unwinnable crusade against drugs. This political program of nearly unparalleled destruction has infected every corner of public policy and, just as important, has destroyed the American spirit of freedom inside and out. We are not allowed to buy as much pseudoephedrine as we want — one of the only over-the-counter drugs that we all know works — because of the war on meth. We are restricted from carrying our own cash in and out of the country. We are always at risk of being shot by a paramilitary police force, roaming the streets or conducting one of America’s dozens of unconstitutional daily raids. In a million ways our freedom has been undermined and incrementally we see everything in society we love face the threat of being stripped from us. Everything is in danger of being rationed, prohibited, seized. Where did this all begin?

Bourgeois Americans see the walls caving in, the last bits of pleasure and their favorite, mostly harmless sins being targeted for eradication by the planners lurking in the state capitals and Washington. They see we are losing something important every time plastic bags are banned or driving while chatting on a cell phone is attacked. They find it absurd that alcohol and caffeine are both permitted but the combination is made illegal. I feel for all of them but must plead them to see the real problem here.

This is what happens when you ban heroin: A state that can stamp out one person's liberty, however peripheral he and his activities may seem to mainstream society, can and will continue to trample on all of us until all our freedom is a mangled corpse, a translucent shadow of what it once was. You want to restore civil society? Call for the legalization of all drugs. Only a society that does not seek something as irredeemably stupid and wicked as a drug war has any hope for liberty. Only those who are willing to defend the liberty of the junkie fully deserve to see their own liberty restored.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is research editor at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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