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How imperialism and eugenics during America’s Progressive Era spawned international drug control

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Understanding the birth of international narcotic control is impossible without a grasp of its gestation during the Progressive Era (circa 1896-1920).

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

As Thomas C. Leonard points out in his book Illiberal Reformers, the United States was formulated and conceptualized as a contract between free men who called the country into existence, and who could dissolve it as well. States’ rights were paramount, federal government was minimal, and laissez faire capitalism and political isolationism held sway.

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Only white male property owners had the right to vote—and less than 5 percent of the US population voted in the first five presidential elections. States’ rights made sense when there was no railroad and interstate commerce and travel were practically nil. Laissez faire capitalism also worked well for the general group of free white property owners who constituted the ruling class at a time when industrial manufacturing was almost non-existent.

Of course things were far from idyllic for everyone else in those early days—with more than half of white men, plus slaves and free black people, women, indentured servants, and American Indians all disenfranchised.

However, by the time of the Gilded Age (circa 1870-1896), thanks to the industrial revolution and the railroad, laissez fairecapitalism had resulted in huge monopolies, rule by a shrinking class of the super-rich, widespread government corruption, and the demotion of the majority of those citizens who had previously prospered into cogs in a machine which squeezed them tighter every day.

“Progressive” thinkers of that time were strongly influenced by Darwinism, viewing society as an organism, rather than a contract between individuals. Society was infinitely perfectible, they believed, but only if ruled by the elite. The self-appointed elite were, of course, the progressives themselves: rich white American Anglo-Saxon protestants.

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Books like Josiah Strong’s Our Country (1885) taught that the Anglo-Saxon protestant race was genetically and morally superior, chosen by God to perfect the earth and uplift as well as restrain inferior races, including immigrants, Catholics, Jews, “negroes,” the Chinese and poor whites.

Progressives were strong advocates of eugenics and feared “race suicide”—the idea that the elite whites would disappear by being out-bred. The first compulsory sterilization law for “defectives” was passed in Indiana in 1907 and the last compulsory sterilization outside prison was carried out in 1981—although forced sterilization of women in prison has been reported as recently as 2010. A total of 33 states had forced sterilization laws, which were always disproportionately applied to poor and marginalized groups.

Other means by which the progressives sought to improve society include prohibition of alcohol and shutting down brothels, both of which backfired and caused more problems than they cured. Although many of the Progressives’ efforts—such as trust-busting, fair wages, women’s suffrage, and the end of child labor—had positive outcomes, the Progressive Era was also the period of growing Jim Crow laws, anti-immigration sentiment typified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Acts of 1882 and 1917, and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

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American Imperialism

The Spanish-American war of 1898 brought an end to American Isolationism and resulted in the birth of American Imperialism. The war left the US in possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

US debate around what to do with the Philippines diverged into two factions: Imperialists and Anti-Imperialists. Most Americans on both sides regarded the Filipinos as genetically, mentally and morally inferior. However, while the Anti-Imperialists eschewed taking on another “white man’s burden,” the Imperialists thought it a God-ordained duty of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants to lead the (Catholic) Filipinos down the path of democracy and Protestantism, while developing an international American Empire to compete with the British one.

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Few Americans, with the noble exception of Mark Twain, particularly cared that the Filipinos themselves wanted independence. President McKinley sided with the Imperialists and set off the bloody Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in which the Filipinos fought for independence but were ultimately defeated. A colonial government was then established, with William Howard Taft as Governor General and Charles Brent as Episcopal Bishop.

Under the Spanish, opium smoking in the Philippines had been strictly regulated: Only ethnic-Chinese residents were allowed to smoke it, and all who did had to be registered as opium users with the government.

But this system fell apart during wartime—what’s more, a 1902 cholera epidemic reportedly led to many Filipinos medicating their symptoms with opium. The Americans were thoroughly disgusted by the Chinese vice of opium smoking in the Philippines, and re-instituted the Spanish registration system as a temporary measure until opium-smoking could be eliminated in the Philippines entirely. Legal importation of opium into the Philippines and legal distribution of opium through the registration system ceased in 1908.

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Bishop Brent had become perhaps the world’s first international drug-war crusader.

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At the instigation of Bishop Brent and others, the Shanghai Opium Commission was convened in 1909; this is the first time the topic of world drug control was ever brought to a multinational table. Thirteen nations participated: the US, Austria-Hungary, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia and Siam.

It is typical of the US view of addiction as a vice of “other” people that Americans were attempting to create international opiate prohibition laws before a federal US opiate prohibition law even existed. Although there were a number of state and local bans in place, no federal laws regulated opiates at this time—although the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required labeling of ingredients and the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 banned import of smokable opium, if not its use.

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China and the United States were the only two countries participating in the Shanghai Opium Conference which favored prohibition. Much of China’s motivation was the result of a huge trade deficit caused by British opium imports, which were leading the country to the brink of financial ruin. Much of the US motivation was moral outrage, although the prospect of opening trade with China also figured. However, the other delegates essentially told the US that it had no business telling other countries to initiate nationwide narcotic prohibition laws when it had none of its own.

The Harrison Act

The upshot of this defeat on the international stage was that Bishop Brent and others began lobbying for federal narcotics legislation in the US; as a result, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 was born. It should be remembered that there was little federal regulation at all in the United States prior to the Progressive Era; the Harrison Act was just one example of many of the shift of power away from state government and toward federal control.

Unlike with alcohol prohibition, there was no public debate about the Harrison Act. Undoubtedly, upper- and middle-class white Anglo-Saxon protestants considered their use of opiates to be medical; in their minds “dope fiends” were only to be found among minorities and the lower classes. In any case, on the surface, the Harrison Act appeared to be primarily a way to track sales to retailers: It required physicians and pharmacists to register with the government and file records of their purchases of opiates and cocaine from wholesalers with the federal government; there was no requirement to record sales from retailers to consumers. However, the Act eliminated the retail sale of opiates and cocaine by grocery stores and mail order houses like Sears Roebuck by only permitting physicians, pharmacists, veterinarians, etc. to register as retailers.

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There was some debate in Congress by patent medicine and pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as doctors and druggists on the exact details of the Act—in its final form, it specified that patent medicines could contain two grains of opium, one fourth of a grain of morphine, one eighth of a grain of heroin, or one grain of codeine per ounce.

The Act also contained a clause to prohibit “dope doctors” from lining their pockets by unscrupulously selling narcotics to “dope fiends.” The clause states that the narcotics must “have been prescribed in good faith.” This left open the question of whether maintenance prescriptions to regular users could be defined as legitimate or not; however, the Supreme Court finally ruled that narcotic maintenance was a violation of federal law in two decisions in 1919 (US v. Doremus, 249 US 86; Webb et al. v. US, 249 US 96).

Before the Harrison Act the US had not had a drug problem in its own eyes, rather, among elites, it had had “a Chinese problem,” “a negro problem,” “an immigrant problem,” and so on. Now, however, the fact that some people could no longer get their drugs legally resulted in a considerable amount of drug-related crime.

But instead of reaching the logical conclusion that the crime was caused by a bad law, the progressive reformers jumped to the conclusion that the drugs caused psychopathic disorders in those who used them.

It is also important to remember that there were no prescription drug laws in 1914; the first of these did not appear until the late 1930s. Under the Harrison Act, doctors and pharmacists were free to sell cocaine and opium to anyone whom they believed to have a legitimate medical need for them so long as they did not sell to “habitués” or “dope fiends.” We should remember that in 1914 there was little or nothing resembling any scientific study of addiction and (as we see from the Flexner Report) the state of education of physicians practicing in this period was generally dismal.

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“Dope fiends”—what we might call chaotic users today—comprised the poor, minorities and foreigners. Functional-but-dependent opiate users such as Johns Hopkins Hospital co-founder William Halstead, MD could carry out long distinguished careers until the day they died while using opioids in secret. Indeed, Halstead’s dependence on morphine was revealed only eight years after his death. There is little doubt that upper- and middle-class opiate-dependent whites had little difficulty getting legitimate prescriptions after the passage of the Harrison Act; the label of “dope fiend” was reserved for the poor and the minorities, whom doctors cut off under fear of penalty of law. This prejudice is epitomized in a 1917 article in The Pennsylvania Medical Journal titled “Relative Infrequency of the Habit Among the Middle and Upper Classes.”

Exporting a Disaster

Having succeeded in creating a disaster domestically via federal narcotics prohibition laws and alcohol prohibition, the progressive reformers became more anxious than ever to export this disaster to the rest of the world.

Although the US made a number of attempts to establish international drug prohibition between the Shanghai conference of 1909 and World War II, the international treaties established during this period favored regulation over prohibition, respecting national sovereignty with respect to non-medical use of narcotics. This setback to the American prohibitionist agenda was due in part to the fact that the US refused to join the League of Nations.

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As David Bewley-Taylor writes in United States and International Drug Control, things changed drastically after World War II, since the US had now established itself as the dominant world power and participated fully in the United Nations, which replaced the League of Nations.

Harrison-style drug prohibition was immediately established in US-occupied Japan and Germany. Bewley-Taylor also tells us that between 1945 and 1961 the US relied heavily on economic coercion to force many of the world’s nations into adopting prohibitionist drug laws, while working to pack the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) with prohibitionists. In 1948 synthetic drugs such as methadone were included in the CND’s purview and in 1953 the UN signed the Opium Protocol, which limited production and trade to medical and scientific needs.

However, the ultimate triumph of the US imperialist-prohibitionist agenda came in 1961 with the adoption of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the creation of the International Narcotics Control Board which effectively made prohibition the rule of international law. It was, as has been well documented, a global catastrophe for humanity and human rights.

What to Do Right Now

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The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS 2016) is taking place this week to discuss the world’s “drug problem.” We can make our voices heard. We can deluge the twitter feeds of @UNODC (The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), @UN_HRC (The United Nations Human Rights Council), and UNODC director @YuryFedotov. Try the message: “Drug user rights are #humanrights! #UNGASS2016.”

Mass incarceration, forced treatment, forced labor camps, and executions are unacceptable. International drug prohibition, with its racist American roots, is unacceptable. Human beings have a right to use drugs. The drug war is, and has always been, a tool of repression. Let’s make sure the UN knows that we’re mad as hell and not going to take it any more.

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

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