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Drug Policy from a Historical Perspective

Michael J. Ring, writing recently on drug policy, was right about everything, except his statement “Some drugs, such as cocaine, crack, and heroin, are so dangerous as to preclude any thoughts of legalization” [“A More Sensible Drug Policy,” Oct. 5].

At one time, all of those drugs were sold without restrictions in the United States. There were no labeling requirements, so consumers didn’t even know what they were taking. There were no age restrictions, so children could purchase them. Heroin was even included in some over-the-counter baby colic remedies. There were no restrictions on advertising, either. Drug sellers could make the most ridiculous claims for their patent medicines, and suffered no penalties for outright consumer fraud.

Even under those extreme conditions, we did not have most of the problems with these drugs that we have today. The addiction rate was fairly high -- by some estimates even higher than it is today -- but addicts did not commit crimes and most of them led socially productive lives. The Pure Food and Drug Act, passed in 1906, required contents labeling. People became aware of what they were taking, and addiction dropped. It continued to drop until these drugs were outlawed by the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914.

In truth, there is nothing so magical about any of these drugs that we need to lose our good judgment. For instance, heroin is diacetyl morphine. It is simply another form of ordinary hospital morphine, and there is no legitimate medical reason why one should be used routinely in medicine, while the other is prohibited entirely. The prohibition of heroin is, at best, a historical accident.

I suggest that Ring read the various histories of and reports on these laws, which can be found at .

Clifford A. Schaffer
Director, DRCNet Online Library of Drug Policy