The United States has not always prohibited the use, sale, manufacturing, and distribution of psychoactive drugs. Rather, the enforcement of drug prohibition, both domestically and abroad, has changed over the past 100 years depending on state and federal legislation and public opinion. And, it is still changing. Americans are not unified on the policies surrounding the use of drugs (e.g., many libertarians seek the legalization of all drugs). Acceptable and unacceptable or legal and illegal drugs continue to change (e.g., marijuana legislation). As a result, the enforcement of U.S. drug prohibition is often deemed arbitrary and met with hostility.
Drugs are not inherently classified as “good” or “bad.” The media, religion, politics, and even peers can shape ideas about drugs and their potential harms. Culture, customs, norms, beliefs, and moral ideologies influence the acceptance and use of psychoactive drugs. For example, in many cultures, the use of psychoactive substances— alcohol (wine), peyote, or marijuana (ganja)—is a cultural ritual, a right, and an expression of liberty. Thus, laws and the enforcement of those laws that arbitrarily define some substances as legal (alcohol) and their users as acceptable (binge drinkers) and others as illicit (marijuana) and users as deplorable (potheads) are seen by many as unethical. Nonetheless, these laws have heavily influenced both the positive and negative treatment of drug users. For example, users of illicit drugs in the United States—when caught by law enforcement—can be denied human rights (e.g., voting) and basic needs such as welfare, health care, and shelter. The restrictions placed on human rights have been exacerbated by the enforcement of drug policies.
Many of the current U.S. drug policies find their roots in the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Act of 1914. The U.S. federal government has since implemented over 20 different laws to reduce the use, sale, manufacturing, and distribution of these drugs. The current drug schedules (i.e., the categorization of “good” and “bad” drugs) were only created in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. However, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton that the enforcement of drug laws and drug prohibition exploded.
Drug enforcement over the past 30 years has resulted in the mass incarceration of, primarily, African American and Hispanic, nonviolent drug offenders. Many blame the animosity that exists between both African American and Hispanic communities and police officers on the injustices surrounding drug law enforcement. Such animosity has been exacerbated by the expansion of police powers and the limits on constitutional rights (e.g., the Fourth Amendment), which have encouraged corruption.
Despite the harms of drug enforcement, the United States primarily relies on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to alleviate drug problems. Little to no attention has been placed on understanding drug effects and reducing harms. Even fewer resources are allocated to providing accurate information on drugs and methods of safe and controlled drug use.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the United States began to establish legal sanctions aimed at psychoactive drugs. Up to this point, no restrictions existed that limited the usage of psychoactive drugs. The idea that psychoactive drugs should be regulated and legally sanctioned arose with medical advances in the pharmaceutical sciences. Many psychoactive drugs were essential tools for doctors and scientists in fighting disease and improving overall well-being—but unregulated use could have been very harmful. Thus, legal restrictions were an effort to control the use of psychoactive drugs for reasons other than medical needs (this remains an important legislative goal).
In 1906, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act (PFDA) passed as an attempt to regulate the sale and manufacturing of psychoactive drugs. Under this act, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created to monitor the food and drug trade and ensure that products sold were fit for human consumption. For example, the FDA sought to prohibit potentially harmful products such as Coca-Cola (which contained cocaine). Many companies were (and continue to be) forced to alter the substances and chemicals in their food and drug products. The PDFA has been amended since 1906, first under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (requiring labels) and again under the Kefauver-Harris Amendments of 1962 (requiring proof of a drug’s efficacy).
The United States was the catalyst for the first international effort, the 1912 Hague Convention, to control psychoactive drugs. There, nations met to discuss the increasing problems with the drug market and the need to control substances domestically and abroad. Upon return, the United States passed the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which labeled the sale and use of certain substances— cocaine and opium—as illegal. The act’s central intent was to control the use of cocaine (particularly among African Americans) and to stop the importation of opiates (used by the Chinese) to the United States. Prior to the Harrison Act, many easily accessed and regularly used these drugs, and after this law, the demand for drugs remained. Many were forced to obtain them on the black market, where llicit drug dealing and trafficking expanded to new heights. Now, those who were once only addicts were considered criminals, and drug enforcement shifted.
After opiates and cocaine, the United States attempted to eradicate alcohol consumption. In 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the sale, supply, and manufacturing of alcohol. The enforcement of alcohol prohibition occurred under the Volstead Act, which prohibited intoxicating beverages (containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol). Enforcing alcohol prohibition and controlling this drug market was both unsuccessful and violent. Each state did not equally enforce prohibition, and because the possession of alcohol was permissible, many people were able to obtain it for religious and medical reasons. Sixteen years later (1933), the Twenty-First Amendment ended the prohibition of alcohol.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was created in 1930 to enforce alcohol prohibition, but it also sought to address a new scourge— cannabis (marijuana). Marijuana entered the spotlight under the later discredited notions that marijuana could be linked to crime, violence, and suicide. This negative propaganda led to the 1932 Uniform State Narcotic Act (that only nine states adopted), which allowed law enforcement to treat marijuana as if it were a narcotic. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was implemented nationwide, which imposed a tax on marijuana sales and essentially criminalized marijuana.
Drug control and enforcement efforts expanded under the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, in which strict punishments and penalties for drug offenses were created. The act eliminated probation as a possible sentence, and parole was only granted to those with a first-time drug offense. This contributed to the mass incarceration of drug users and people of color.
During the 1960s, drug use seemed to become more prevalent among white middle-class youth, who were smoking marijuana and consuming hallucinogens. Also, many Vietnam war veterans were returning with heroin and alcohol addictions. As a result, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act was passed, providing a drug classification system (i.e., the Federal Schedule of Controlled Substances). It categorized the substances into tiers or schedules intended to be based on medical value, liability as it relates to abuse and addiction, and possible harm to the user. In practice, however, politics has played a more important role than science in determining a substance’s schedule and the enforcement of those schedules. Nonetheless, this was an important step in criminalizing drugs and establishing drug control policies in the United States and abroad.
Schedule I, substances with no medical value and the highest potential for addiction and abuse, includes GHB, heroin, peyote, LSD, and marijuana. In 1970, many U.S. states also decriminalized marijuana under the direction of a U.S. Senate committee report (the Schaffer Report). Schedule II includes those drugs that have medical value, and use is permitted under certain circumstances, but potential for abuse and addiction is less than that of Schedule I; Ritalin, Adderral, Codeine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and morphine are scheduled here. Schedule III drugs also have a potential for abuse (lower than II), but have fewer restrictions and are acceptable medications. Testosterone, anabolic steroids, and ketamine are some of the Schedule III drugs. Schedule IV drugs are widely prescribed by physicians and have minimal potential of abuse and a low risk for dependence. Some Schedule IV drugs are Ambien, Valium, and Xanax. Schedule V drugs have the lowest potential for abuse and dependence and are mostly preparations that contain small doses of narcotics such as Parepectolin, Lyrica, and Lomotil.
The primary goals of drug policies and the enforcement of drug laws have been to reduce and deter the use and sale of drugs. Despite the
$23 billion allocated annually, 75 percent of which is given to law enforcement (local, state, federal, international) agencies, and the $100 billion to fund militarized units and special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams to fight the War on Drugs, these policies have not reached their goals. Most argue that the problem can be attributed to law enforcement’s focus on drug possession and other low-level crimes instead of trafficking. For example, in New York City, drug possession arrests accounted for 88 percent of all arrests. In fact, arrests for trafficking were four times less than the number of arrests for drug possession, and 44 percent of all possession arrests were for marijuana with smoking marijuana, in public as the most common misdemeanor.
Law enforcement officers, who are often evaluated by number of arrests, have targeted street-level drug sales and use, which tend to occur in open-air markets. These markets are much easier to identify and investigate than are higher-level drug operations. They are also more likely to be operating in communities with high concentrations of people of color. White drug users and dealers often hide in concealed locations in middle-class neighborhoods (e.g., basements) and university dormitories. Consequently, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than are whites despite the fact that whites neither use nor sell drugs at a higher rate. Blacks, who compose 13 percent of the total U.S. population, represent 31 percent of all arrests for drug offenses. In contrast, whites compose 67 percent of all drug offense arrests and represent more than two-thirds of the population (72 percent). In Seattle, 67 percent of those arrested for the delivery of a serious drug were black even though blacks only compose 8 percent of Seattle’s population.
Not only are blacks more likely than whites to be arrested for drug crimes but they are also more likely to be convicted and incarcerated for longer periods of time. Most of the black inmates—in some states up to 90 percent—are incarcerated for drug offenses. Blacks, more than any other race or ethnicity, are incarcerated for marijuana offenses— particularly in California. Blacks are seven times more likely than Hispanics, 13 times more likely than whites, and 20 times more likely than Asians to be incarcerated for a marijuana offense.
Drug enforcement and the consequences of arrest, conviction, and incarceration have contributed to the demise of inner-city neighborhoods. The enforcement of drug laws has succeeded in arresting, convicting, and incarcerating many nonviolent drug offenders who will have few opportunities upon return to their communities. In the United States, convicted drug offenders can be denied basic human rights, such as health care and welfare. They can be evicted from their rental residence, be denied employment in various industries, be fired from their job, be denied financial aid for a college/university education, be denied food stamps, lose custody of their children, have their voting rights revoked, and/or become ineligible for government housing. This has significant negative effects on their life chances and stifles the growth and advancement of their families and communities.
The enforcement of drug laws has not only harmed communities of color, but it has also harmed law enforcement. Police corruption in the name of the War on Drugs can be found in all levels of law enforcement (federal, state, local). Most commonly, law enforcement officers abuse their power and manipulate individuals into consenting to an otherwise illegal search and seizure (i.e., stop and frisk). In New York City, in 2011 blacks and Hispanics made up 85 percent of all the stop and frisks (only 6 percent of the stops resulted in an arrest). Planting drugs and stealing money are among the most widespread accusations against law enforcement officers who are in charge of the operations. This has resulted in many wrongful convictions and contributed to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Police corruption in drug enforcement was most evident under alcohol prohibition. Many law enforcement officers provided alcohol to individuals in return for bribes. Some became bootleggers to take advantage of the money circulating in this underground economy. Others helped facilitate bootlegging operations.
One of the most notorious police corruption cases occurred in 1999 during an operation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on cocaine trafficking in Tulia, Texas. There, DEA Agent Tom Coleman, who failed to provide money, drugs, eyewitness testimonies, audio/video from police surveillance, or any corroborating evidence, arrested 15 percent of all blacks in Tulia. Blacks accounted for 85 percent of those arrested. Despite the lack of evidence, and the contradictory testimonies when the defendants either took the stand or were questioned by police, an all-white jury convicted and sentenced the black defendants from 20 to 314 years in prison.
The use of DEA task forces to enforce drug laws has been growing in the United States. In 2009, the DEA State and Local Task Force Program deployed 381 task forces. States and other U.S. territories also constructed their own task forces. In Los Angeles, SWAT teams were created and used throughout the 1980s to target drug possession crimes and other low-level offenses up until the 1980s. By the mid-2000s, 50,000 teams were used to serve search warrants for drugs and for drug raids. These teams even used aerial drones. For example, Austin, Texas, police used a drone to inspect the home of a suspect in 2009. While one would expect that drug enforcement could benefit from militarized task forces, especially those composed of personnel from different agencies, such task forces have neither reduced the number of drug crimes nor addressed enforcement corruption.
Police corruption has been encouraged through the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which permit the confiscation of assets believed to be obtained with drug money. Any money the police confiscate, or money made from assets sold in police auctions, can be used to finance police operations and equipment. Police are even able to keep assets when charges are not filed (which occurs in 80 percent of the cases).
Drug policies and drug enforcement rarely consider cultural norms when structuring drug enforcement. Prohibiting a drug can be seen as a method to control a dangerous substance and protect the children, but in one culture it could be seen as a violation of civil liberties. Furthermore, because many legal substances have dangerous side effects and can be addictive, many argue that both historically and currently, drug enforcement is political and merely a way to control particular groups. For example, smoking marijuana has not been linked to any deaths, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every five deaths in the United States is attributed to smoking cigarettes.
Moreover, many people in the coastal areas of Colombia cultivate and use coca, from which cocaine comes, as medicine and as a stimulant. However, U.S. international drug enforcement efforts attempt to eradicate coca crops. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy has criticized U.S. drug enforcement efforts as repressive, encouraging the development of organized crime, and contributing to the violence in Latin America. The policies marginalize those countries and impede their ability to establish sustaining economies.
Illicit drug enforcement has greater links to violence than does illicit drug use. Some legal substances have stronger correlations to violence than illicit drugs. For example, alcohol is implicated in many crimes such as drunk driving, domestic violence, and aggravated assaults. Yet, less drug enforcement occurs around the manufacturing and consumption of alcohol.
Drug enforcement in the United States has grown and shifted in (unsuccessful) attempts to control the manufacturing, sale, and use of psychoactive drugs. Unintended consequences of drug enforcement have resulted, including law enforcement corruption; racial disparities in arrests, sentencing, and incarceration; the collapse of inner-city neighborhoods; and the marginalization of Latin American nations. Thus, many claim that drug enforcement is arbitrary, harmful, and unethical.
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- Rosen, Winifred and Andrew Weil. From Chocolate to Morphine. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
- S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “Drug Scheduling.” http://www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/ds.shtml (Accessed May 2013).
- Youngers, Coletta and Eileen Rosen. Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers,
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