When Drugs Were Legal In America

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right, healthcare, Schedule I, drugs

Drugs have been a staple in American culture for centuries; legal or illegal. Americans have seen prohibition, reefer madness, and epidemics sweep the nation. However, is America better off today than we were when these drugs were legal? Who or what caused these drugs to become illegal? 

Many people tend to forget that America once had no drug regulation. That’s right. There was a time where you could purchase your heroin and cocaine straight from the store. Not even a second thought about it. Just head on down to the country store and grab a bottle of “cough syrup.” 

This wasn’t just sold as a fun way to pass the time though. Instead, these drugs had remedies to them. Opium was used to ease a baby’s teething pain. Heroin was also used in the treatment of asthma, which ironically now is considered extremely dangerous for those with asthma. Several famous people like Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, John Pemberton, and Sandra Burnhart advocated for cocaine as a fix for numerous issues such as depression, impotence, and dieting. 

Just as these drugs were used medicinally, many people took these drugs recreationally. In fact, Sears & Roebuck had an ad for a syringe and cocaine for $1.50 in 1890, but if you preferred heroine you could order the same pack, just with heroin instead. This was a way for people to unwind from daily stresses. Similar to how we view a beer after work. 

Granted, many people did not know the long-term effects of these drugs. This resulted in unintended consequences. Still, this was a time where people were freely able to choose what to put in their bodies. Today we are more educated on what the potential damage of taking these drugs can be. We actually are better armed to deal with the repercussions then before, and yet we still have people seeking out these substances in black markets. 

Cocaine was taken by many laborers in an effort to increase productivity. The media began to run stories of girls being prostituted out, our youth being corrupted, and the disastrous effects the “cocaine epidemic” was having on the Black and lower-class communities. The stories even went so far as to blame cocaine for being the root cause of Black men committing rape against white women. Most of these cases were unsubstantiated. In the 1900s, much hyperbolic talk finally led to the first anti-cocaine bills in America. These bills were pushed by Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. This was shortly followed by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. 

Marijuana is one of the most peculiar substances in America. Marijuana was a huge part of the American economy for centuries. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the crop was referred to as cannabis, but as the perceived threat of Mexican immigrants began to sweep the nation, advocates against cannabis adopted the Mexican term; marijuana. In the 1930s the country was going through a depression and there was propagated fear of immigrants. It was at this time that the famous “Reefer Madness” propaganda film was released. 

It seems as though many of the pushes to make drugs illegal were backed by fear of “the other.” These anti-drug laws were furthered by imprisoning the poorest among us, which have historically been those that were previously considered the others. Other backhanded tactics that the state has used to oppress people were carried out in the Iran-Contra Affair, which saw the United States government complicit in injecting crack cocaine into some of the poorest communities in order to arrest and incarcerate more minorities. 

We currently have an opioid epidemic. This is portrayed as a problem among heroin and street opioids. However, this is not where it started. Over the course of the past few decades, we have seen doctors prescribing opioids so leisurely. This is thought to come from pressure by pharmaceutical companies. These are the same pharmaceutical companies that are purchasing poppy from the middle east, which also happens to be the same poppy fields that American soldiers are guarding. Ironically enough many of the people affected by the opioid epidemic are soldiers. The current epidemic comes from doctors overprescribing and the addictive behavior of wanting to feel high. When the medication is no longer effective or available people must find it on the black market.

We have been witnessing a change in the wind with the legalizing of marijuana across several states, and even the decriminalization of mushrooms and other psychedelics in some cities. However, there are issues with the regulations and taxations that have further solidified the very black market that the legalization was aimed to squash. 

Overall, I cannot say for certain that we would be better off with legal drugs. I can say that it is far more moral to let adults choose what substances they want to put in their bodies. I believe that as long as they are not violating someone else’s person or property, they should be able to use any substance. The very fact that the legality of many of these drugs was rooted in fear of others who were completely unrelated to the drugs, tells me that the legality is illegitimate. It is my opinion that we most certainly will not be worse off with legalized drugs.

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