by Tessie Castillo
Looking out at the trail of devastation and death that the heroin epidemic has left in its wake, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago one could purchase the drug from a Sears catalogue.
Heroin was created by German chemists during the late 1890s and marketed through Bayer, the company best known for selling aspirin. For decades, suburban housewives could peruse pages of flashy advertisements for Bayer Heroin, the cure for sore throats, coughs, headaches, diarrhea, stress and menopause. In fact, until recently the percentage of Americans using opium-derived medicine was higher at the turn of the 20th century than at any other time in history.
The majority of illicit drugs we see today were once legal, popular and used for medicinal purposes. Cocaine made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children. Cannabis was recognized for its ability to relieve pain and nausea long before it became associated with youthful vagrancy.
As the world grapples with the fallout from the War on Drugs—and heads towards UNGASS 2016, a possible opportunity to put things right—it’s important to know the history of these drugs and their journey from medicine to menace. We didn’t suddenly discover that they were far more addictive or dangerous than other medicines. In fact, the reasons that drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and others are illegal today have far more to do with economics and cultural prejudice than with addiction.
Heroin was the first to fall from pharmaceutical darling to a demonized, black-market street drug. Long used as a cure for aches and pains, it wasn’t until Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroads and mines that opium-based products such as heroin were perceived as dangerous. American settlers were not happy with the Chinese arrivals, who brought with them a cultural tradition of smoking opium for relaxation in the evenings. The settlers accused the Chinese of “taking our jobs,” and economic resentment morphed into rumors of Chinese men luring white women into opium dens and getting them addicted. Rumors turned to fear, which turned to hysteria, which politicians seized upon. In 1875 California passed the first anti-opium law, enforced by raids on Chinese opium dens. Other states soon followed. The first federal law regulating heroin was the Harrison Act of 1914, which eventually led to its criminalization.
Cocaine was criminalized for similar reasons, only this time the backlash was directed against black Americans. After the Civil War, economic resentment simmered over the freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy. White Southerners grumbled about black men “forgetting their place,” and fears spread about a drug some of them smoked, which was rumored to incite them to violence. In the early 1900s New Orleans became the first city to slap down laws against cocaine use and the trend quickly spread, dovetailing with efforts in Latin America to criminalize the coca leaf, an ingredient in cocaine, which was used for religious purposes among indigenous populations.
Marijuana was next in the firing line. During the 1920s, tensions sprang up in the South over the influx of Mexican immigrants who worked for low wages. By the 1930s, the Great Depression had bred panic among people desperate for work and they directed their angst towards immigrants. The media began propagating stories about Mexicans and their mysterious drug, marijuana. The first national law criminalizing marijuana, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, passed thanks to a strong push from Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who referred to marijuana as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
While such claims of marijuana inducing violence may sound ridiculous to those of us who know marijuana as a drug that does precisely the opposite, it goes to show that the criminalization of drugs has little to do with relative risk or danger. Instead, the main impetus for criminalization is fear over certain groups seen as an economic or cultural threat to established America. Recognizing this fact does not mean ignoring or minimizing the very real harm that drugs can cause.
Most illicit drugs carry risks and serious potential for problematic use. But so does glue. So do gasoline, cough syrup, shoe polish, paint thinner, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, spray paint, whipped cream cans, vanilla extract, mouthwash, nutmeg, prescription pills and countless other household items that are not only addictive, but potentially fatal if misused.
Scientists have now demonstrated that illicit drugs are pharmacologically equivalent to any other medicines on the market. We could easily declare OxyContin or Adderall illegal tomorrow, demonize the drugs and the people who use them, and in a few decades no one would remember that those street pills were once marketed by pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by doctors…