Narcotics Trade and Legislation

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NARCOTICS TRADE AND LEGISLATION. Narcotics are habit-forming drugs that relieve pain or induce sleep; in excess, they can cause convulsions or actuate coma. In the legal sense, narcotics refers to a class of controlled, criminalized drugs that most commonly includes opium, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, as well as many synthetic drugs that also have psychoactive effects.

Early Regulation and Legislation

In the nineteenth century, narcotics use was an unregulated activity, limited only by community mores and social stigma. Narcotics were available at grocery stores and through mail order, and cocaine was a key ingredient in many medicine remedies, as well as soda pop. Many veterans of the Civil War became addicted to the battlefield morphine. Addiction among members of the middle and upper classes was viewed more as a weakness of character than criminal behavior, although Chinese in the West and blacks in the South were readily stigmatized for drug use. Estimates of drug addiction ranged from 2 to 4 percent of the population at the end of the nineteenth century.

Opium was the first drug that was subject to regulation and trade restrictions. In the West, where many Chinese immigrants resided, xenophobic state governments instituted bans on opium use. Congress raised the tariff on opium importation in the 1880s and 1890s, and finally banned the importation of smoking-grade opium with the passage of the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909. Much of the legislation regarding opium at the time sought to create domestic concurrence with international treaties regulating the world opium trade.

An important step toward federal control of narcotics use was the Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required proper labeling of drugs sold to consumers. The muckrakers of the Progressive Era warned that many of the remedies marketed to cure a variety of ills were medical quackery. As a result of the act, over-the-counter sales of products that used narcotics as ingredients slumped. Narcotics users turned to doctors to get their products.

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was the federal government's first move toward the regulation of narcotics as a class of drugs. The act required that producers and distributors of narcotics register with the Internal Revenue Service, record their sales, and pay a federal tax. Under the Harrison Act, drug users could obtain narcotics with a doctor's prescription. The major forces behind the legislation were pharmaceutical and medical associations that wanted to increase their control of narcotics regulation; antidrug crusaders—led by Dr. Hamilton Wright, a U.S. representative at many international drug conferences; and the U.S. State Department, which sought to move U.S. domestic policy in line with the international agreements they were pursuing with countries in Asia. Their lobbying overcame the opposition of those in Congress who worried about federal usurpation of state government power.

The punitive nature of the Harrison Act was not evident until the Treasury Department began implementing its statutory provisions. The narcotics division of the Bureau of Internal Revenue issued regulations prohibiting physicians from prescribing maintenance doses to addicts. Doctors who refused to obey were targeted for prosecution and fines by the Bureau to such an extent that by the early 1920s, most doctors refused treatment of addicts.

The punitive approach toward narcotics use and addiction gathered strength in the era of alcohol prohibition. In 1922 Congress passed the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act, which banned the importation of refined narcotics and criminalized narcotic possession. A year later Congress passed a resolution calling on the president to pressure opium producing countries to curtail production.

In the 1930s responsibility for drug policy enforcement fell to a new bureaucracy within the Treasury Department, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Under the leadership of Commissioner Harry Anslinger, the FBN spearheaded an antidrug crusade, and persuaded most state governments to adopt uniform codes that criminalized narcotics possession. Anslinger was an important force behind passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Modeled after the Harrison Act, the legislation brought marijuana within the regulatory framework of harder drugs by requiring sellers and users to register with the IRS and pay taxes. The high tax rate shut the legal marijuana market down and forced many users to buy marijuana in illegal black markets.

After World War II attention turned to the demand-side of the drug trade. The Boggs Act of 1951 imposed a mandatory minimum two-year sentence for possession. The Narcotic Control Act of 1956 raised the minimum sentence for a third offense to ten to forty years, and permitted death sentences for drug sellers who dealt to minors.

Nixon's War on Drugs

Despite the criminal penalties imposed on the buying and selling of drugs, in the late 1960s drug abuse was widely perceived as a growing social problem. In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon, declaring the illegal use of narcotics the most pressing problem the country faced, launched the War on Drugs, a political initiative to curb the supply of illegal drugs as well as a public relations drive to discourage use. The Nixon White House cited studies showing a sixfold increase in the number of heroin users in the late 1960s, as well as close links between rising drug use and crime. High profile drug interdiction efforts were established like the well-publicized but short-lived "Operation Intercept" that allowed federal law enforcement agencies to police the Mexican-American border with heightened vigilance for one week in 1969. Efforts to restrict heroin routes were an important part of diplomatic work in the early 1970s. Payments were made to Turkey to destroy its poppy crops, and a new pesticide—paraquat—was developed to eliminate marijuana in Mexico.

During the Nixon years a new antidrug bureaucracy was created. In 1973, federal drug enforcement agencies in the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health, Education and Welfare were consolidated into a new agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Drug enforcement spending increased from $43 million in 1970 to $321 million in 1975.

The 1980s and 1990s: Further Escalation

The 1980s saw a further escalation in federal efforts to stop the entrance of drugs into the United States. The DEA organized twelve regional task forces to coordinate state, local, and federal drug interdiction efforts. To demonstrate the Reagan administration's commitment, the biggest—the South Florida Task Force—was organized by Vice President George Bush. The National Narcotics Border Interdiction System was created to coordinate efforts to seal off U.S. borders from drug trafficking. President Ronald Reagan issued an executive order to increase the participation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the military in drug interdiction efforts. In a series of bills in the 1980s, Congress expanded police power and increased drug-related sentencing. The number of prisoners in federal detention increased from 36,000 in 1985 to 93,000 in 1996. The combined prison population rose from 744,000 to 1.6 million over the same period. Half of the rapid growth in the prison population from 1985 to 1996 is attributed to drug related crimes, both selling and possession.

The 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act again reorganized the bureaucracy, with the establishment of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). President Bush appointed William Bennett director with the mandate to serve as a "drug czar," the national leader of antidrug policy. Bennett established a national strategy that focused on targeting drug users, even occasional ones. Bennett's work had little long-term impact, and subsequent directors of the office—former Florida Governor Robert Martinez, and, in the Clinton administration, former New York City Police Commissioner Lee Brown and General Barry McCaffrey—maintained a lower profile.

Initially, the Clinton administration seemed open to rethinking drug policy. The surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, suggested publicly that drug legalization merited examination. As drug czar, Lee Brown sought to refocus policy on providing medical assistance to the "hard-core" users who, although they composed only 20 percent of the drug user population, consumed 80 percent of the drug product. But members of Congress from both the Democratic and Republican Parties blocked efforts to redirect funds away from criminal justice–oriented approaches. While medical approaches that focused on providing assistance to addicts were not discounted, they were widely viewed by policymakers as an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, criminal justice approaches.

The cumulative impact of the successive attempts to eliminate the drug trade created a bureaucracy—a group of local, state, and federal agencies that in 1995 (a representative year) spent $8.2 billion to stop the supply of drugs. (An additional $5 billion was spent on treatment and education programs.) More than forty federal agencies

participated in drug enforcement efforts. The lead agency, the DEA, carried out a broad range of work, including programs to eradicate domestic marijuana crops, gather intelligence about drug trafficking, and cooperate with foreign governments to carry out enforcement. The FBI investigated drug-running operations, and the Pentagon established special task forces that used military personnel and technology to detect drug smugglers. Other important agencies involved in 1990s drug enforcement included the U.S. Customs office, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the State Department. In addition, state and local police departments and courts enforced their own penal codes and funded treatment and abstinence programs. Estimates of sub-federal government spending are difficult to calculate, but generally ran ahead of federal spending. According to a federal study, in 1992 state and local governments spent $15.9 million on drug enforcement and treatment and the federal government spent $11.9 billion.

The Logic of the War on Drugs

The goal of government drug policy from the 1960s through the early 2000s was to control and reduce the incidence of illegal use, operating on the assumption that drugs impose substantial costs on the user (addiction, poor health, death) and society (drug influenced crime and violence). To that end, resources were devoted to working with or pressuring foreign governments to destroy drug crops, and sealing off U.S. borders from illegal drug smuggling. While interdiction policies were at work as early as 1914,it was not until the spike in both casual and serious drug use in the 1960s that the control of illegal narcotics trade became a serious foreign policy and federal law enforcement matter. Nixon's pressure on Turkey, as well as foiling the "French Connection" smuggling route into the United States, cut off the import of heroin from the west. However, production (the growing of poppies) simply moved to Mexico and Southeast Asia. The shift of production of narcotics to other nations and regions after the application of U.S. pressure marred subsequent interdiction and drug destruction efforts.

In the 1980s, enforcement efforts concentrated on South American production of coca, from which cocaine and its smokable derivative, crack, are derived. In 2002 military and economic aid continued to be directed to Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to destroy crops as well as eliminate production facilities. Appropriations for the "Andes Initiative" totaled $1.8 billion in 2000. U.S. efforts at controlling drug production in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s were ineffective. In the case of Bolivia, for example, crop elimination efforts in the 1980s were thwarted by widespread corruption among high-ranking government officials, successful efforts of farmers to avoid detection, and the country's overwhelming dependence on drug trade revenue. In 1990, the Bolivian drug trade employed 500,000 workers and financed half of the country's imports. The ineffectiveness of interdiction efforts can be seen in the decrease in the street value of hard drugs during the 1980s and 1990s, despite the federal government's efforts to increase the costs and risks of selling drugs. Efforts to destroy foreign marijuana production also proved unsuccessful, having little impact on street price as crackdowns on production in foreign countries encouraged domestic cultivation.

Interdiction efforts involved the use of sophisticated technology as well agents from the DEA, the U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol, and soldiers of the U.S. military. But in the late twentieth century these efforts captured only a small percentage of the drugs entering the United States each year. Smugglers became increasingly sophisticated in evading detection, in some cases smuggling drugs in the steel containers of cargo ships. An effort to concentrate interdiction in one region simply diverted the traffic to another. Successful interdiction efforts in southern Florida in the 1980s, for example, shifted smuggling to the northern Mexico routes.

Longer jail terms for users as well as crackdowns on street selling characterized drug policy from the 1980s to the early 2000s, with little effect. Jail time was not a strong deterrent to addicts, and sellers assumed the significant risks of incarceration because of the profits that drug sales created. Punitive policies may have discouraged the casual use of drugs, since two thirds of all drug related arrests were for possession (the remaining third for drug sale). But the decline in drug use among casual users since 1978 may be attributed not only to stiffer sentencing for possession, but also to a changing social and economic context, improved public health education, or a combination of all three factors. The number of hard core drug users remained relatively constant during the period 1980–2000 despite the acceleration in incarceration rates.

Between 1988 and 1995, Americans spent $57.3 billion on criminal drug enforcement and each year during that period made 1.23 million arrests for drug related offenses. Nevertheless, illegal drug sales and use did not decline. The political economy of the drug trade makes the eradication of illegal narcotics virtually impossible. Studies estimated that even if the government had been able to seize 50 percent of the cocaine from Latin America, U.S. street prices would have risen only 3 percent. Most of the value of drugs was added after the product entered the United States. The cost to drug dealers from interdiction or crop destruction was easily absorbed because of the healthy profits enjoyed in the black market.

The Politics of Narcotics Policy

The crackdown on drug use by the Nixon administration was part of broader political strategy to secure middle class voters with law and order policies at a time when the Democratic Party was under criticism for being "soft on crime." Seeking to undermine the president's efforts to differentiate the two major parties on the crime issue, congressional Democrats supported the president's drug initiatives. The same dynamic was at work during the Reagan and Bush years. President Bill Clinton made modest attempts to redirect resources from enforcement to drug treatment, but was rebuffed by members of his own party.

In the 1990s many libertarians within the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as public heath and medical professionals, argued to varying degrees for the decriminalization of narcotics. George Soros, a financier, in 1994 established the Lindesmith Center to lobby for reductions in criminal penalties for drug use. In 1996 the editorial board of The National Review labeled U.S. drug policy a failure and called for a public heath–oriented approach to policy. Opponents of the status quo were especially critical of laws that prevented the distribution of clean needles to heroin addicts in order to prevent the spread of AIDS. Still, in the late 1990s and early 2000s most law enforcement associations and elected officials resisted any major legislative changes in U.S. drug policy.


Meir, Kenneth J. The Politics of Sin: Drugs, Alcohol, and Public Policy. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994.

Bertram, Eva, et al. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Musto, David. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Richard M.Flanagan

See alsoDrug Trafficking, Illegal ; Substance Abuse .