100 years of the war on drugs

By Tom de Castella BBC


Today it is taken for granted that governments will co-operate in the fight against the heroin and cocaine trade.

But 100 years ago, narcotics passed from country to country with minimal interference from the authorities. That all changed with the 1912 International Opium Convention, which committed countries to stopping the trade in opium, morphine and cocaine.

Then, as now, the US stood in the vanguard against narcotics. While the UK's position is unequivocal today, a century ago it was an unenthusiastic signatory, says Mike Jay, author of Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century. 

The real concern a century ago was over alcohol, he argues. "There was a big debate over intoxication as there was concern about the heavy, heavy drinking culture of the 19th Century."

Ambivalence towards opium was understandable. Britain had fought two wars in favour of the opium trade in the 19th Century, crushing Chinese efforts to restrict its importation. 

And opium use was viewed in the mid-19th Century in a very different way from modern beliefs about drug use. It was possible to walk into a chemist and buy not only opium and cocaine, but even arsenic. 

If you had been in a major British port in the 18th or 19th Century, you would have seen opium arriving alongside ordinary cargo. In February 1785 The Times listed opium from Smyrna (now Izmir) between oil from Leghorn (Livorno) and peas from Dantzic (Gdansk) in its roundup of goods unloaded at the port of London.

In the early 19th Century, travellers to Norfolk were warned to treat their pint in the pub with caution. Beer could be laced with opium to ward off the malaria that flourished in the Fens.

Opium, the dried residue of poppies, was usually consumed for its anaesthetic properties.

Queen Victoria's coterie ordered opium from the royal apothecary. She is also believed to have taken cocaine gum with a young Winston Churchill. Prime Minister William Gladstone is said to have taken opium in tea or coffee before making important speeches.

In 1868 the Pharmacy Act brought in restrictions. In theory, it became tougher to get hold of opium - with the user having to provide a name and address and other details to the chemist. But it made little difference.

There was another side to the opium story. It was also smoked recreationally - a practice brought in by Chinese sailors who settled in the East End area of Limehouse. Opium dens became a much mythologised world, where aristocrats could stumble in and discover a cornucopia of vice.

"There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new," wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

But the fashion in drugs was changing from the "downer" of opium to the "upper" of cocaine - hence Arthur Conan Doyle making Sherlock Holmes a cocaine injector.

Marek Kohn, author of Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, argues that Holmes was typical of a view at the time that cocaine was for "brainy, highly-strung" people who needed constant stimulation. It was a "personal shortcoming" but not a sign of the depravity that drugs would later be associated with.

But in the US, cocaine came to be associated with street gangs, alongside racist propaganda that the drug sent black men insane and put white women at risk.

So these domestic concerns helped drive the international agreement in the form of the 1912 treaty. But while it tackled the trade, in the UK at least, the authorities were slow to crack down on individual users.

When World War I broke out, opium and cocaine were still legal drugs in Britain.

The turning point had come more than a year into the war, says Kohn. There was a fear that the drinking culture was harming the war effort. In 1915 the licensing laws were tightened.

The unintended consequence was to create the conditions for the first underground drug scene in Britain, says Kohn. It criminalized a small number of people in London's theater district and a scene developed in which opium, cocaine, sex and prostitution overlapped. With so many soldiers passing through London, it was little surprise that emergency regulation to ban drugs soon followed.

The fact that opium and cocaine-dealing were closely identified with the Chinese merely fanned the flames in a war-time atmosphere of general xenophobia, Kohn says.

"There was intense paranoia about foreign subversion, ostensibly by the Germans," says Kohn. "And in the middle of this you have a drug panic in which the 'outsider' is central."

In the years after the war, concern crystallized, driven by a media hungry for scandal. The stories would seem familiar to any modern reader.

A young actress dies from an overdose of cocaine. The inquest whips up a storm of intrigue and exposes the widespread use of drugs among her social circle.

This was the death of Billie Carleton in 1918. The actress had attended an opium party the night before her death and a coroner's inquest found she had died of a cocaine overdose.

Her friend Reginald De Veulle was charged with manslaughter and conspiracy to supply a prohibited drug. He had bought the drug from a Scottish woman Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You, in Limehouse.

De Veulle was acquitted of manslaughter but found guilty of supplying her with cocaine and sentenced to eight months in prison, Ada was sentenced to five months hard labour while Ping You was fined £10.

The emergency legislation brought in during WWI was made permanent in the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920.

Two years later came another notorious case of a young woman whom the media decided had been seduced and corrupted by a charismatic Chinese entrepreneur known as "Brilliant" Chang.

Freda Kempton, a young dancer, was found dead after taking an overdose of cocaine. At the inquest it emerged that she had been with Chang on the night she died. These two cases hardened feeling against the Chinese community and the sense that they were using drugs to ensnare innocent white women.

The media presented her as a vulnerable ingenue, says Kohn. "There was already a moral panic associated with drugs but it was prostitutes who weren't seen as sympathetic," he says. "But Billie Carleton was seen as different, she was portrayed as this waif-like figure when she was nothing of the sort." 

The cases prompted many to become aware of cocaine as a serious menace for young innocent women. But almost as soon as panic reached its peak with the Kempton case it dissipated.

In reality, there was no "drug scene" in Britain back then, says Jay. What existed was confined to a few streets in Soho and a handful of dealers in Limehouse. 

And once the drug laws came in banning cocaine and opium, the problem was easily contained by the police.

"Victorian Britain had been awash with opium but you wouldn't smoke it in a den, you'd get it from the chemist as a gloopy liquid. The opium dens were largely fictional constructs encouraged by stories like Sherlock Holmes and the writings of Oscar Wilde," Jay notes.

Today, when the efficacy of anti-drug measures is constantly debated, it seems curious that the 1912 treaty was an effective measure. Domestically, in the UK, the police had the upper hand. 

The big changes in the West's attitude to drugs came after World War II, Jay argues.

"The baby boomers were the first generation in history to become real global consumers. People were suddenly going to Morocco to smoke hash, or hitching with lorry drivers who were using amphetamines."

So the floodgates opened. Where once the authorities were fighting relatively small groups of offenders in a tiny drugs subculture, now they must fight millions of users and powerful international cartels. 

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10 Reasons to legalize all drugs


1.) Address the real issues For too long policy makers have used prohibition as a smoke screen to avoid addressing the social and economic factors that lead people to use drugs. Most illegal and legal drug use is recreational. Poverty and despair are at the root of most problematic drug use and it is only by addressing these underlying causes that we can hope to significantly decrease the number of problematic users.

2.) Eliminate the criminal market place The market for drugs is demand-led and millions of people demand illegal drugs. Making the production, supply and use of some drugs illegal creates a vacuum into which organized crime moves. The profits are worth billions of pounds. Legalization forces organized crime from the drugs trade, starves them of income and enables us to regulate and control the market (i.e. prescription, licensing, laws on sales to minors, advertising regulations etc.)

3.) Massively reduce crime The price of illegal drugs is determined by a demand-led, unregulated market. Using illegal drugs is very expensive. This means that some dependent users resort to stealing to raise funds (accounting for 50% of UK property crime - estimated at £2 billion a year). Most of the violence associated with illegal drug dealing is caused by its illegality

Legalization would enable us to regulate the market, determine a much lower price and remove users need to raise funds through crime. Our legal system would be freed up and our prison population dramatically reduced, saving billions. Because of the low price, cigarette smokers do not have to steal to support their habits. There is also no violence associated with the legal tobacco market.

4.) 
Drug users are a majority Recent research shows that nearly half of all 15-16 year olds have used an illegal drug. Up to one and a half million people use ecstasy every weekend. Amongst young people, illegal drug use is seen as normal. Intensifying the 'war on drugs' is not reducing demand. In Holland, where cannabis laws are far less harsh, drug usage is amongst the lowest in Europe.

Legalization accepts that drug use is normal and that it is a social issue, not a criminal justice one. How we deal with it is up to all of us to decide.

In 1970 there were 9000 convictions or cautions for drug offences and 15% of young people had used an illegal drug. In 1995 the figures were 94 000 and 45%. Prohibition doesn't work.

5.) Provide access to truthful information and education A wealth of disinformation about drugs and drug use is given to us by ignorant and prejudiced policy-makers and media who peddle myths upon lies for their own ends. This creates many of the risks and dangers associated with drug use.

Legalization would help us to disseminate open, honest and truthful information to users and non-users to help them to make decisions about whether and how to use. We could begin research again on presently illicit drugs to discover all their uses and effects - both positive and negative.

6.) Make all drug use safer Prohibition has led to the stigmatisation and marginalisation of drug users. Countries that operate ultra-prohibitionist policies have very high rates of HIV infection amongst injecting users. Hepatitis C rates amongst users in the UK are increasing substantially.

In the UK in the '80's clean needles for injecting users and safer sex education for young people were made available in response to fears of HIV. Harm reduction policies are in direct opposition to prohibitionist laws.

7.) 
Restore our rights and responsibilities Prohibition unnecessarily criminalises millions of otherwise law-abiding people. It removes the responsibility for distribution of drugs from policy makers and hands it over to unregulated, sometimes violent dealers.

Legalization restores our right to use drugs responsibly to change the way we think and feel. It enables controls and regulations to be put in place to protect the vulnerable.

8.) Race and Drugs Black people are over ten times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offences than whites. Arrests for drug offences are notoriously discretionary allowing enforcement to easily target a particular ethnic group. Prohibition has fostered this stereotyping of black people.

Legalization removes a whole set of laws that are used to disproportionately bring black people into contact with the criminal justice system. It would help to redress the over representation of black drug offenders in prison.

9.) Global Implications The illegal drugs market makes up 8% of all world trade (around £300 billion a year). Whole countries are run under the corrupting influence of drug cartels. Prohibition also enables developed countries to wield vast political power over producer nations under the auspices of drug control programmes.

Legalization returns lost revenue to the legitimate taxed economy and removes some of the high-level corruption. It also removes a tool of political interference by foreign countries against producer nations.

10.) Prohibition doesn't work There is no evidence to show that prohibition is succeeding. The question we must ask ourselves is, "What are the benefits of criminalizing any drug?" If, after examining all the available evidence, we find that the costs outweigh the benefits, then we must seek an alternative policy.

Legalization is not a cure-all but it does allow us to address many of the problems associated with drug use, and those created by prohibition. The time has come for an effective and pragmatic drug policy.
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"If the (drug) problem continues advancing as it is at the moment, we're going to be faced with some very frightening options. Either you have a massive reduction in civil rights or you have to look at some radical solutions. The issue has to be, can a criminal justice system solve this particular problem?"
Commander John Grieve, Criminal Intelligence Unit, Scotland Yard, Channel 4 1997

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Prohibition KILLS
(from around the web)

America is the largest drug market in the world. We're 5 percent of the world's population — we consume 25 percent of the world's illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. At the end of the day, they'll run out of products. It's the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there's no recourse to law, there's only recourse to violence. That's created the cartels. It's our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.

On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking

Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what's happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they've been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they've almost stopped growing it now, because they can't compete with the American quality and the American market. I'm not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they're telling us is it's down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.

Recognize drug laws as the price-support program that they are. If this stuff was trading at its actual cost, without the illegality premium, there wouldn't be enough money in drugs to support the cartels. But don't take my word for it, just ask Al Capone. Notice gangsters don't sell liquor any more. And there are no more drive-bys by bootleggers.

The US drug policy has caused the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of thousands, as prohibition did in the 30's with booze. It has allowed these cartels to become powerful and deadly. Now the US has created this monster and it's loose. And as long as drugs remain illegal the dead bodies will continue to pile up.

Prohibition didn't work in the '30's and it didn't make any one's family safer, just the opposite. How dumb are American voters? To allow politicians to fleece them for wars they know can't be won. Obviously, since the American voter continues to elect these "law and order" assholes they must be as dumb as bricks.