All Drugs Were Legal
by J. H. Huebert: Why
Libertarians Oppose War
is excerpted from Libertarianism
Today, by Jacob H. Huebert.
propose an immediate end to the drug war. This would be a dramatic
course change for the United States but, as we’ll see, it’s really
not so radical – it would just return us to the successful libertarian
drug policy America had for most of its history.
For most of
U.S. history, all drugs were legal. How legal? As libertarian
writer Harry Browne put
it, "Few people are aware that before World War I, a 9-year-old
girl could walk into a drug store and buy heroin." In fact,
before Bayer sold aspirin, it sold Heroin as a "sedative
for coughs." (As a German company, Bayer was forced to give
up the trademark after World War I under the Treaty of Versailles.)
One heroin-laced cough syrup promised in its mail-order catalog:
"It will suit the palate of the most exacting adult or the
most capricious child." Cocaine, first manufactured by Merck,
was popular, too. Parke-Davis (which is now a subsidiary of Pfizer)
advertised a "cocaine kit" that it promised could "supply
the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and
. . . render the sufferer insensitive to pain." Late-nineteenth
century advertisements for "Cocaine Toothache Drops" promised
users (including children such as those depicted in the ads) an
"instantaneous cure." Another popular product, "Mrs.
Winslow’s Soothing Syrup," contained one grain (65 mg) of morphine
per ounce, and was marketed to mothers to quiet restless infants
and children. McCormick (the spice company) and others sold "paregoric,"
a mixture of highly concentrated alcohol with opium, as a treatment
for diarrhea, coughs, and pain, with instructions on the bottle
for infants, children, and adults. Another medication called laudanum
was similar, but with 25 times the opium. Heroin and opium
were both marketed as asthma treatments, too. And, of course, cocaine
was an ingredient in Coca-Cola from 1886 until 1900.
All these products
were available "over the counter." A doctor, pharmacist,
or anyone else could advertise them and sell them with no prescription
or other special permission. Drugs were like any other good
on the market.
to children? Putting coke in Coke? Many people would take all this
as evidence that of course the government needed to step in and
do something. But the widespread availability of these products
did not cause the disaster one might expect. In hindsight, it may
not seem right that people casually took narcotics or routinely
gave them to their children. On the other hand, in the years before
acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or even aspirin (which was not introduced
until 1898), people had few alternatives to treat pain. So as easy
as it might be for us to criticize nineteenth-century Americans
for using them, these drugs often really did help people and may
have been their best alternative. And they were not just used by
ignorant people taken in by snake-oil salesman; for example, Benjamin
Franklin took laudanum to control pain from kidney stones late in
legalization wasn’t perfect, of course. There were addicts. But
most opium addicts became addicted because someone in the medical
profession got them started on it, just as doctors today inadvertently
hook people on legal drugs. Some people became addicted through
patent medicines they took on their own – but addicts were just
a small portion of the market for these products. Many people became
opium addicts essentially because of government. During the Civil
War, the United States fed opium addiction as it issued some 10,000,000
opium pills and 2,841,000 ounces of opium powder to the army. As
a result, drug addiction became known as the "soldier’s disease."
Other factors that drove people to addiction were state and local
alcohol prohibition and increasing social disapproval of alcohol,
which prompted people to substitute opium for liquor. In states
where alcohol was prohibited, opiate use rose by 150 percent. An
1872 study by the Massachusetts State Board of Health found that
the temperance movement had caused an upswing in opiate use and
noted that opium could be "procured and taken without endangering
the reputation for sobriety," and was seen as "more genteel"
rose in the decades after the Civil War, but soon so did education
and understanding about drugs and their addictive, dangerous nature
among both physicians and the public. The rise of mass media helped;
for example, the Ladies’ Home Journal published numerous exposes
on narcotic-laced patent medications. Meanwhile, the market produced
safer medicines, such as aspirin. As a result of these factors,
addiction peaked near the end of the nineteenth century and then
began a long decline without any need for a government "war."
America did have addicts in the nineteenth century (perhaps as much
as 0.5 percent of the population), there are some things it notably
did not have. Most important, there was virtually none of the violence,
death, and crime we associate with the present-day drug problem.
Most drug users were not street criminals; instead, the typical
addict was, as author Mike Gray put it, "a middle-aged southern
white woman strung out on laudanum." Many or most opium addicts
led more or less normal lives and managed to keep their addiction
not perfect, as they never will or can be. But there was no real
crisis when all drugs were legal.
rest of this chapter in Libertarianism
January 27, 2011
H. Huebert [send him mail]
is the author of Libertarianism
Today (Praeger, 2010). He is also an attorney, Adjunct Professor
of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, and an Adjunct
Scholar of the Mises Institute.
Visit his website.
© 2011 Jacob H. Huebert. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO,
LLC, Santa Barbara, CA.
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