Drug prohibition was not always accepted as it is today. Indeed, until the early twentieth century, there were few drug laws at all in the United States. Before the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, one could buy heroin at the corner drugstore; even Coca-Cola contained small amounts of cocaine until 1903 (Vallance 4). Some of the most proscribed drugs today were sold like candy and (quite literally) soda pop. What caused the sudden shift to prohibition?
Prohibitionists often point out that legal drugs at the turn of the century led to an enormous "drug problem," yet they never give any evidence that any public menace due to drugs actually existed, other than showing that the public demanded drug laws (Trebach 45). This argument is analogous to defending alcohol Prohibition because "if so many people demanded for the eighteenth amendment there must have been an 'alcohol problem.'"
Indeed, a closer look at the history of drug use shows that, before 1914, most drug users were harmless to society and even carried on normal, productive lives. Troy Duster notes that "some of the most respectable citizens of the community, pillars of middle-class morality, were addicted…. Family histories [indicate] that many went through their daily tasks, their occupations, completely undetected by friends and relatives" (9). Even after drug prohibition, Lawrence Kolb, assistant surgeon general of the United States in 1925 noted that "no opiate ever directly influenced addicts to commit violent crime" (qtd. in Trebach 57).
If drugs posed little or no threat to society, why were they prohibited? Initially, drug laws were enacted not to prohibit drugs, but regulate them. The Harrison Narcotics Act was, on its face, a revenue-generating tax, not a ban. Eventually, however, it was used to justify punishing doctors who prescribed narcotics to their patients without a "legitimate" medical purpose, thus ending legal, recreational drug use. Still, even after the Harrison Act of 1914 drugs were seen as a primarily medical problem. Over time, the perception of drugs changed from objects of medical addiction to articles of immorality, until they were seen primarily as a "criminal" problem in the 1930's (Vallance 5). Much of this may have resulted from alcohol Prohibition, which accustomed the American public to substance regulation.
At the same time, the typical drug user changed. Before 1914, the average user was typified by the heroin addict Mrs. Dubose in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird: white, middle-class, middle-aged, and female. David Courtwright notes that "although fictitious, Mrs. Dubose personifies the American addict of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…her sex, age of addiction, race, nationality, region, class, and occupation…[are] typical" (qtd. in Trebach 56). As increasingly large numbers of males, minorities, and the poor began using drugs, people's attitudes towards drugs changed. ...