Published on Dec 4, 2012 - 9:58:00 AM
By: Patricia Smith,
December 4, 2012 - America was founded by Puritans
and their moral ethic still permeates our culture today. Their faith embraced a life devoted to the glorification of God and their strict interpretation of the scriptures. Whether justified or not, they are seen as a prudish society with a "superior to others" attitude. The concept of fun was alien to their beliefs.
Laws to regulate morality never succeed. Prostitution
is still the world's oldest profession. Prohibition has only proven to exacerbate the problems it was intended to cure and demand creates a criminal market to supply the banned substance.
Drug laws have their basis in racial discrimination and are always aimed at something that is used to "feel good" more than the actual danger the substance represents when used in moderation.
To trace the roots of prohibition, we must look at the start of the Temperance Movement
for every prohibition follows a similar course: an influx of cheap ethnic workers followed by an economic downturn. Then, when times get tough, a campaign ensued to demonize the newest immigrants especially by attacking their drug of choice. Fear mongering followed a similar storyline no matter the minority, the drug being discussed or the behavior associated with its use.
Sculpture depicting victims of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.
The Irish Invasion
Nasty publications depicted the Irish as Drunks and Brawlers.
Europe was experiencing a major upheaval in the 1840′s. The Great Potato Famine
caused millions of people to die of starvation in Ireland. Germany was floundering in political turmoil; rioting was common. The Industrial Revolution displaced craftsmen by the score plunging many skilled laborers into poverty when demand for their handmade goods fell in favor of cheaper factory products. As a result, a massive wave of immigrants from both countries arrived on America's shores.
A large contingent of Irish immigrated to Massachusetts, primarily Boston. In one year, the city's Irish population grew from 30,000 to 100,000
. Jobs were scarce and the newcomers were willing to work for less than prevailing wages which weren't that great to begin with. Irish women primarily found work as servants in the homes of established Bostonians. The men were given the most hazardous jobs in the factories- when they could get them. Many employers hung NINA signs
: No Irish Need Apply.
Resentment quickly grew among the working class, but it behooved employers to maintain a second-class group of laborers. Darwin's Theory of Evolution
was sweeping the nation and some used his theory to discriminate against the Irish who they considered closer to apes than men. Editorials back in the day depicted Irishmen with ape-like features and an ubiquitous beer mug or a club in hand.
The temperance movement gained significant traction as a backlash against these "hard-drinking" immigrants. It's no coincidence that the National American Temperance Society
was established in Boston. Because the Irish were Catholic rather than Protestant, prominent clergymen issued stern warnings from the pulpit about Irish men engaging in drunken brawls and raping good "Christian" women.
The Yellow Peril
America was still in its infancy in the mid-1800's. Travel from Missouri to California in a covered wagon could take 4 – 6 months
, weather depending, and one in fifteen people died before reaching their destination. Railroads would offer America a faster form of travel, but it would take an incredibly large work force to lay the thousands of miles of track necessary to connect the coasts. It was a daunting task.
Chinese railroad workers.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains posed a major obstacle to the completion of the railroad. Heavy snowfall through Donner Pass often slowed construction to a snail's pace. To complete the railroad, a large work force of low cost laborers would be need. Executives turned to the recent influx of Chinese workers
who were lured to this country by the California Gold Rush.
Conditions for the workers were brutal. A typical day of grueling, backbreaking work started at dawn and finished at dusk. The men were pushed to the breaking point until they did the unthinkable: they went on strike. Central Pacific Railroad executive Mark Hopkins came up with a brilliant solution. He imported Negro workers from the East coast. Hopkins believed, "A Negro work force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet." He was right. The men returned to work.
The Transcontinental Railroad
was completed in 1869 when The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads united in Promontory, Utah. As railroad jobs dwindled, the Chinese migrated to big cities, especially Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles where they established their own enclaves. "Little China Towns
" provided the immigrants a safety zone where they could maintain their culture and customs – including their infamous opium dens.
Chinatown opium den.
Initially the Chinese were welcomed to this country, but things changed abruptly when the Long Depression
erupted on Black Thursday, September 18, 1873.
Over the next six years, 18,000 businesses failed, 100's of banks collapsed, and ten states declared bankruptcy. Unemployment topped 14%. Americans eyed the huge population of workers in China with growing unease. Fears were fueled by the unlikely possibility that Asians would flood this country and gain a majority over white Americans. Xenophobia reached its apex when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
that banned any further immigration from China for ten years.
Discrimination raged across the country aided by editorials lambasting the Chinese. Asians were portrayed as untrustworthy, lazy, filthy vermin. Chinese men were accused of luring innocent Christian woman (read "white") into prostitution by addicting them to opium. They were often beaten by angry mobs for no reason other than they were Asian.
Laws were swiftly enacted that targeted "The Yellow Peril
" by outlawing their customs. One law went so far as to make the Chinese tradition of wearing pigtails illegal. The first drug law in this country
was passed in San Francisco in 1875.
It was aimed solely at the Chinese opium dens (which were regularly frequented by whites from all levels of society). The law only banned smoking opium which was perceived as a Chinese problem; however, most of the white population got their drugs in liquid elixirs or injectable powders which were still perfectly legal.
National opium laws were also tailored to the Chinese. In 1887, Congress forbade the Chinese from importing or manufacturing opium, but the ban did not extend to Americans. In 1901, Congress forbade the sale of opium & alcohol to "aboriginal tribes and uncivilized races," later extending the bill to include "Indians, Alaskans, inhabitants of Hawaii, railroad workers and immigrants at ports of entry."
But opium addiction was not solely a Chinese problem. There was a higher percentage of addicts in America from 1860 – 1914 than at any other time in our history. Morphine was used so extensively during the Civil War that drug addiction became known as the "Soldier's Disease." Clearly there are no accurate accounts of the total number or addicts (now or then), but estimates range anywhere from 250,000 to 4,000,000. Reasonable estimates place the number around 1,500,000.
Heinrich Dreser, the inventor of heroin, died an addict.
Things went from bad to worse once Bayer chemist, Heinrich Dreser
, learned how to synthesize heroin in 1898. It enjoyed widespread popularity in many patent drugs until the Harrison Narcotic Act
was passed in 1914. At the time, it was thought to be a safe replacement drug for morphine and opium addiction and even a child could buy heroin from the corner druggist. However, the majority of Americans lived in rural areas that were a great distance from town.
Traveling salesmen filled that gap as they provided access to the things people needed immediately like medicine. Barkers peddled nostrums to unsuspecting farmwives throughout rural America for headache cures, melancholy, and menstrual cramps. Some of the concoctions were harmless (and worthless), but many contained 50% morphine. As a result, rural middle-aged women comprised the bulk of addicts at the turn of the century
Before the Pure Food and Drug Act, patent medicines were not required to list any ingredient on their labels and manufacturers fought aggressively to avoid requirements to do so. F. J. Cheney
, manufacturer of Hall's Catarrh Cure, devised a scheme called the Red Clause to keep regulators at bay. It soon became the standard of the industry.
Patent medicines were the biggest advertisers of the day. Knowing publishers wanted to protect this lucrative source of income, Cheney had an exclusion printed in big red letters on every contract, "THIS CONTRACT SHALL BECOME VOID IN THE EVENT OF HOSTILE LEGISLATION IN YOUR STATE." Needless to say, patent medicines received favorable editorials from the leading periodicals and newspapers of the day until the Ladies' Home Journal
and Collier's took up the issue of patent medicine addiction.
The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906
. It only required that manufacturers state on the label if opium, cocaine, cannabis or chloral hydrate were included in the medication and the amount of each drug, but it did not ban the substances. Most manufacturers voluntarily reduced the amount of the drugs in their potions by half once their were required to label the ingredients.
Next week we will document the horrors that occurred once the Harrison Narcotic Act was passed in 1914 when Prohibition replaced medical supervision to treat addiction.
Since the Dawn of Time: The History of Marijuana Prohibition in America - Part 1
The Country that Cannabis Built | The History of Marijuana Prohibition in America - Part 2
Patricia Smith lives in Nevada County. She is the Chair of Americans for Safe Access - Nevada County Chapter.