Historical Lineage of the War on Drugs: The CSA
Fifty years ago, on May 1st 1971, the U.S. enacted the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA consolidated over 200 drug laws and effectively categorized all regulated substances on a scale of legality from one to five.
Schedule I substances have no officially recognized medical value and a high-likelihood for abuse. Schedule V substances have both an officially recognized medical value and a low-likelihood for abuse. Notably, cannabis is a schedule I substance. It ostensibly has no recognized medical value and a high propensity for abuse and addiction.
In addition to this scale, the CSA came with the emergence of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) two years later and an increase in incarceration rates for the possession of now-illicit substances.
Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914
The CSA and DEA were the result of the Nixon Administration’s War on Drugs, which every subsequent American President has perpetuated. Yet, the War on Drugs began well before the enactment of the CSA, with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.
The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 officially regulated opium and cocaine and rendered these substances as prescription-only. This resulted in the incarceration of many physicians. Though they were legally prescribing opium and cocaine, officials considered their patients to use them ‘beyond medical scope,’ according to the Congressional Research Center.
Eventually, doctors stopped prescribing these substances due to complicated laws and uneven enforcement. It consequently forced users to buy from the unregulated and illegal market. This was the beginning of America’s draconian drug policies.
“Hunted Down in the Street by Police”
Prior to the inception of the Harrison Narcotics Act, drugs such as cocaine, opium, and cannabis were legal to sell and use without a prescription in the U.S. That started to fade with the introduction of anti-immigrant, anti-drug policies in the early 20th century.
Less than a decade after the introduction of the Harrison Narcotics Act, in 1920, the 18th amendment was ratified, which prohibited the production and sale of alcohol. And in 1937, officials passed the Marihuana Tax Act. The act effectively prohibited the sale and transfer of cannabis by over-taxation and heavy regulation. It rarely (and eventually, never) permitted the sale and transportation of cannabis in the U.S.
As the famous poet Allen Ginsberg stated in 1959 (12 years before the CSA): “Those of us who have used certain benevolent drugs (marijuana) to alter our consciousness in order to gain insight are hunted down in the street by police… Those who have used opiates and junk are threatened with permanent jail and death.”
Ginsberg’s statement is not hyperbolic. Lawmakers actually imposed the death sentence on some heroin dealers in the mid-twentieth century due to the Narcotic Control Act of 1958, according to the Congressional Research Center.
The War on Drugs has led to some hyper-punitive and paternalistic contemporary policies. This includes broken window policing (like probable cause based on the scent of cannabis). It also includes the racialized, disproportionate crack and cocaine sentencing, and even some non-violent drug offenders who lawmakers gave life-sentences.
Drug-Related Incarceration: The Numbers
According to a Human Rights Watch study done in 2016, a person is arrested in America for a drug-related offense every 25 seconds.
The frequency of drug-related arrests has led to a high incarceration rate. Currently one-fifth of the incarcerated population is serving for a drug-related offense. Furthermore, the federal government has spent over a trillion dollars since the enactment of CSA on the War on Drugs, according to the Center for American Progress.
This doesn’t include the 7 billion spent annually by state governments. Notably, in 2015, officials spent over 9 million tax-payer dollars every single day to incarcerate drug-related offenders. Further, studies have found that there is little to no correlation between incarceration rates and crime rates. Arresting people for drug possession neither deters drug usage nor prevents violent crime. Yet, 450,000 people are still in jail or prison for non-violent drug offenses on any given day, reports the Prison Policy Initiative.
It is clear. Since the passing of CSA, there has been a dramatic rise in drug-related arrests, going from less than 500,000 in 1971 to 1.5 million in 2019. Cannabis possession has made up nearly half of these arrests, finds the Pew Research Center.
“War on Us”
As the famous neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart stated: “[…] the War on Drugs is not a war on drugs; it’s a war on us.”
There are three interconnecting meanings to Hart’s deployment of the word “us.”: (1) the abstract American person in general; (2) any person that chooses to use substances (for alleviation of pain, pure joy and pleasure, exploration of consciousness or insight); (3) and, more specifically, people of color.
Despite roughly equal drug-use among whites and minorities, minorities make up 60% percent of state prison populations who are incarcerated for substances, according to The Center for American Progress. Eighty percent of the federal convictions for drug-related offenses are also people of color.
The most stunning statistic is the following: although white and Black people use cannabis at virtually the same rate, officials are four times more likely to arrest Black people for a cannabis-related offense, reports the ACLU.
So, the War on Drugs is indeed a war on “us”—meaning the American people. But people of color feel the consequences most acutely.
Yet the drug war is truly waged against us all: from those incarcerated, to any citizen whose rights are circumscribed and violated due to the fanaticism of those that enforce the laws, to every single American tax-payer whose money is wasted to fund this war of misery.
The drug war and the passing of the CSA has engendered so much needless suffering in America and beyond. But now, 50 years later, we can be apprehensively optimistic for the future.
Cannabis is the leading hope with 34 states legalizing cannabis for recreational or medicinal use. Additionally, many cities are decriminalizing it. And, since cannabis-related charges comprise a little less than half of all drug arrests, this is already making a huge difference in drug-related arrests and incarcerations.
For this, Oregon has set a clear precedent: in 2020 they decriminalized personal possession of all drugs. This will reduce incarceration rates. It will also curb the amount of taxpayer’s money spent on unjustified incarceration. Hopefully, it will allow a more empathetic and medical approach toward those addicted to a substance.
And hopefully, there’s more openness, compassion and freedom rather than punitive measures that have devastating effects for everyone involved. Because we’re all involved.