6 Shocking (But True) Facts About the History of Illegal Drugs in America
There were no illegal drugs before 1906
Every American alive
today takes drug laws for granted, but the first law regulating drugs, the Pure
Food & Drug Act of 1906, was written a little over a hundred years ago. Even
that law was focused on protecting people from patent medicines containing
poisonous chemicals, not on banning drugs because of addiction. For most of
America's history, recreational drug use was perfectly legal. The first federal
law which banned the non-medical use of a drug was the Smoking Opium Exclusion
Act of 1909.
Prior to 1890, laws concerning opiates were strictly imposed on a
local city or state-by-state basis. One of the first was in San Francisco in
1875 where it became illegal to smoke opium only in opium dens. It did not ban
the sale, import or use otherwise. In the next 25 years different states enacted
opium laws ranging from outlawing opium dens altogether to making possession of
opium, morphine and heroin without a physician’s prescription
The first Congressional Act took place in 1890 that levied taxes
on morphine and opium. From that time on the Federal Government has had a series
of laws and acts directly aimed at opiate use, abuse and control. These are
1906 – Pure Food and Drug Act
manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous
or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic
therein, and for other purposes. Punishment included fines and prison
1909 – Smoking Opium Exclusion Act
Banned the importation,
possession and use of "smoking opium". Did not regulate opium-based
"medications". First Federal law banning the non-medical use of a
2. Opium, heroin, and cocaine
were once available in over-the-counter medicines
cocaine are often used as examples of drugs so dangerous they must be banned.
But for decades beginning in the late 19th century, both were freely available
in over-the-counter medicines. And yet somehow, society did not
The use of opiates became widespread in the
US in the latter part of the 19th Century. Morphine became widely available with
its use during the Civil War and heroin became available in 1894. Opiates were
sold widely in the form of patent medicines, and were freely available to anyone
who wanted to buy them, children included. Many patent medicines were fifty
percent morphine, and morphine, cocaine, and heroin were even included in things
such as baby colic remedies and toothache drops.
3. Opium was banned
because of anti-Chinese prejudice
Opium was freely available and
widely used by many Americans during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was
later banned, but not because it was destroying society, but because of
prejudice against Chinese immigrants. Many Americans feared Chinese labor would
drive down wages and so the anti-opium laws were written as an excuse to deport
the Chinese and discourage immigration.
The ordinance was aimed specifically at
Chinese smoking opium, not at the medicinal opium regularly consumed by whites.
The Chinese had brought smoking opium with them in the earliest days of the gold
rush. The habit caused little offense at first, until anti-Chinese sentiment
swept the state in the mid-1870s.
The roots of this ordinance were racist
rather than health-oriented, and were concerned with what today is known as
"life-style." Opium smoking was introduced into the United States by tens of
thousands of Chinese men and boys imported during the l850s and 1880s to build
the great Western railroads.* The Chinese laborers then drifted into San
Francisco and other cities, and accepted employment of various kinds at low
wages --- giving rise to waves of anti-Chinese hostility. Soon white men and
even women were smoking opium side by side with the Chinese, a life-style which
was widely disapproved. The San Francisco authorities, we are told learned upon
investigation that "many women and young girls, as well as young men of
respectable family, were being induced to visit the [Chinese] opium-smoking
dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise ** 4 The 1875 ordinance
followed, "forbidding the practice under penalty of a heavy fine or imprisonment
or both. Many arrests were made, and the punishment was prompt and thorough.
4. Marijuana was banned
because of anti-Mexican prejudice
The first state to ban
marijuana was Utah in 1914. This was because Mormon polygamists who had been
living in Mexico brought marijuana back with them and the Mormon Church wanted
to ban this practice in accordance with Mormon principles. By 1930, 30 more
states had banned marijuana, and in 1937, the first federal law against
marijuana was enacted. Included in the congressional are many revealing gems
-Two weeks ago a sex-mad degenerate, named
Lee Fernandez, brutally attacked a young Alamosa girl. He was convicted of
assault with intent to rape and sentenced to 10 to 14 years in the state
penitentiary. Police officers here know definitely that Fernandez was under the
influence of marihuana. But this case is one in hundreds of murders, rapes,
petty crimes, insanity that has occurred in southern Colorado in recent years.
-I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of
our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great;
the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking
persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.
-Did you read of the Drain murder case in Pueblo recently? Marihuana is
believed to have been used by one of the bloody murderers.
Other revealing comments include a
Texas state legislator who remarked that "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff
is what makes them crazy" during a debate to ban marijuana and a Montana state
legislator who said "Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of
puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at
It makes sense- marijuana was virtually unknown in the US
until Mexican migrant workers introduced it in the early 20th century. Like many
immigrant groups, the Mexicans were distrusted and the marijuana laws were an
indirect attempt to control them.
The idea of prohibition first took hold
around the time of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, which drove waves of poor
immigrants north into the Western United States. Along with their willingness to
pick beets and cotton for pitifully low wages, the newcomers brought a penchant
for smoking a peculiar sort of cigarette. At the time, cannabis was virtually
unknown as an intoxicant among the Anglo-American population, writes Dale
Gieringer, the California state director of the National Campaign for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws. Aside from a few accounts of hash houses in New York and
travelers who had visited the hashish-loving regions of the Middle East, there
is next to no record of pot's recreational use in America before the 20th
Criminalizing marijuana, then, was a way of criminalizing
Mexicans: a kind of stoner's Jim Crow. And state lawmakers who favored the
policy weren't exactly shy about their agenda. "All Mexicans are crazy," said
one Texas legislator during the floor debate over marijuana criminalization in
his state, "and this stuff is what makes them crazy." Or as an advocate of
Montana's first anti-marijuana law said in his state legislature: "Give one of
these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and
he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona." California's 1913 law against
pot—one of the first such statutes in the nation—banned "preparations of hemp,
Cocaine was banned because of anti-black prejudice
Cocaine was a
common ingredient in many patent medicines in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. Another thing that was common in that era was racism. When the New
York Times published an article in 1914 about "Negro Cocaine Fiends", Congress
was swift to act and later that year banned cocaine.
The advertisements went away. By 1903,
there was no more cocaine in Coca-Cola. By 1914, the drug was often seen as
something for undesirables -- and often, mixed up in ugly
An infamous article in The New York Times, by the physician
Edward Huntington Williams, warned of a new danger: "Negro cocaine 'fiends.' "
Williams described a North Carolina police chief who claimed his regular
ammunition had little effect on these drug users, and had switched to larger
Later in 1914, Congress passed the Harrison
Narcotics Act, banning the nonmedical use of cocaine, as well as other drugs,
like marijuana. Cocaine's long career as an outlaw had begun.
6. The CIA tested
LSD on unsuspecting Americans during the Cold War
1950s and 1960s, the CIA ran a program called MK-ULTRA, whose goal was to
explore the mind-control properties of LSD. Basically, it was a real-life
version of The Manchurian Candidate. No one knows how many Americans
were tested because most of the files on the program were destroyed in the early
70s. When a congressional investigation was launched in 1975, the only remaining
information concerned the exploits of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb & his associates,
who had given LSD to hundreds Americans without their knowledge.
The CIA was fascinated by LSD, and thought
it a wonder drug that could be used not only to create zombie-like armies, but
to drive enemy leaders like Fidel Castro insane. There were few willing subjects
in the research — often, LSD was secretly given to a range of people, from CIA
employees to prostitutes and the mentally ill. Sometimes, agents even posed as
prostitutes and secretly drugged their clients, while fellow agents watched in
The goals of MK-ULTRA included
investigating the following:
•Materials which will render the induction of
hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its usefulness.
•Substances which will
enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion
during interrogation and so-called "brain-washing".
•Materials and physical
methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their
•Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods
of time and capable of surreptitious use.
•A knockout pill which could
surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol,
etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable
for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.
At first it was White who carried out
Gottlieb's tests. White and his ostensibly informed wife held parties at their
New York apartment wherein White furnished his guests with LSD-laced martinis.
As the drug took hold, he observed its effects on the unwitting participants,
making notes on their reactions. In some instances, the effects included
giddiness and euphoria; others were darker, with the subjects realizing
something was terribly wrong and reacting badly. White noted this type of
reaction as "the horrors" [source: Valentine].
experiments were moved from White's apartment in New York to a CIA-funded safe
house in San Francisco dubbed "the pad" [source: Stratton]. It was here that
White recruited Ike Feldman. In his guise as pimp, the cop collected prostitutes
and paid them to bring back customers to the pad and surreptitiously administer
LSD into their drinks. Throughout, George White sat quietly behind a two-way
mirror, drinking martinis, watching the ignorant test subjects trip and taking
notes on their reactions.