Centennial of Federal Drug Prohibition - May 7th, 2006
Congress Passes D.C. Pharmacy & Poisons Act - May 7th, 1906


May 1st, 2006: This week marks the centennial of federal drug prohibition.  On May 7th, 1906,  just after the great San Francisco earthquake, Congress enacted  the District of Columbia Pharmacy and Poisons Act, the first federal law outlawing sale of narcotics to drug fiends. The act was the opening shot in a campaign that culminated in the first national drug prohibition law, the Harrison Act of 1914.  

The DC Pharmacy and Poisons Act made it a crime for pharmacies in the District to sell opium, cocaine or chloral hydrate except on a doctor's prescription, effectively prohibiting sales to addicts.  The act applied only to the District because it was then believed that Congress lacked power to regulate sales elsewhere.  However,  it was intended to serve as a model bill for the states,  30 of which passed similar laws before the Harrison Act.   Among them was California, which under the leadership of an activist Board of Pharmacy launched an aggressive anti-drug crackdown  in 1907, dispatching undercover agents around the state, busting pharmacies,  raiding opium dens, and lobbying for tougher legislation.

An article commemorating the birth of federal drug prohibition, "Centennial of an Unnatural Disaster,"  by Dale Gieringer appears in the June 2006  issue of Liberty magazine.

Anti-drug legislation was the work of insiders, led by prohibitionist missionaries and progressive era drug bureaucrats with an interest in regulation.   Their efforts received little attention from the public or press, which were far more preoccupied with alcohol prohibition.  In the days when drugs were legal, concern about drug problems was scarce.   Advocates of narcotics prohibition gave little attention to the possibility that their efforts might backfire.  However,  after the DCPPA was passed, the Washington Post reported that the law was  "broken continually" despite the police's best efforts.

Congress passed a second landmark piece of drug legislation in 1906: the Pure Food and Drugs Act (enacted June 30th).    While the intent of this act was basically sound -  to stop misbranded and adulterated products -  it incidentally empowered federal bureaucrats to dictate what drugs could be sold.   These powers were promptly abused by the first director of the Bureau of Chemistry (predecessor of today's FDA), Harvey Washington Wiley, who sought to ban caffeine, saccharine, and sodium benzoate.    In this he was unsuccessful, but Wiley did manage to banish coca beverages  containing harmless amounts of cocaine. There was never any evidence that the low levels of cocaine in coca beverages posed any health risk - in fact, they continue to be legally sold in the Andean countries, where they are thought to be beneficial for weight control, diabetes, and digestive problems. The consequence of Wiley's action was to divert the coca market entirely to dangerous, addictive, high-potency,  powder cocaine, which has since become a worldwide health & criminal problem.  As time progressed, the FDA acquired more powers,  to the point where today no drug may be used without prior agency approval.  This power is currently being abused by federal drug bureaucrats to prohibit medical use of cannabis, a drug whose pharmaceutical properties were widely recognized in 1906, but which is currently banned on the spurious grounds that it is a "new drug."

Viewed  in retrospect,   the toll of the drug laws exceeds that of the great earthquake.   In the past century, thousands have been killed by drug crime and violence due to prohibition; thousands more by dangerous black market products;  tens of millions of Americans have been arrested and criminalized;  millions more imprisoned;  and hundreds of billions of taxpayers' dollars spent on enforcement.   Yet for all of this effort, the rate of narcotics abuse today is no lower  than it was at the turn of the century when drugs were freely available around 1% of the population.   What is not lower is the rate of drug criminality.  Today, one-quarter of all crimes are drug offenses that simply did not exist a century ago.  As the 21st century begins,  the time is overdue  to repudiate the failed legacy of drug prohibition and consider ways of re-establishing a legal, peaceful market for drugs like that which prevailed a century ago.

By Dale Gieringer, Ph.D / Drug Policy Forum of California / Oakland, CA.

Based on an article in the June, 2006 edition of Liberty, "Centennial of an Unnatural Disaster," <http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2006_06/gieringer-centennial.html>.