When Washington Staters toked up some legal doobies in December, Americans celebrated the first time since 1937, when the federal government criminalized cannabis possession, that a state attempted to legalize marijuana.
13 years prior to the end of cannabis liberty, heroin was criminalized. Passed in 1924, the Heroin Act made manufacturing, importing, and possessing the drug illegal. Like cannabis, which was originally racially vilified as the drug of choice for Mexican immigrants, heroin prohibition grew out of misguided racial animosity, in this case towards Chinese immigrants.
At the dawn of Prohibition, relatively few drug addicts multiplied rapidly. A black market materialized, plagued with new dealers who hooked schoolchildren on their goods with heroin?laced candy. Addicts, unable to purchase opiates legally or seek medical help for their criminalized illnesses, were forced to resort to crime to pay for their drug dependencies.
The problem grew substantially during the Cold War, when the CIA aligned itself with a multitude of anticommunist fronts. These anticommunists had a knack for reaping profits from drug smuggling and distribution. The CIA, through intentional neglect and, worse, entrepreneurial support, helped reopen a bustling supply chain of heroin into New York and eventually into cities from sea to shining sea.
Over 40 years after the expansion of the American heroin market, there remains a thriving addict population, supplied by violent heroin manufacturers, smugglers, and dealers. The Afghan heroin market, supported by the Taliban, Al?Qaida, and many of their associates, is alone a $3 billion?a?year industry. In the U.S., thousands of lives are needlessly ended by heroin addictions. But the dangers heroin poses are not a result of its chemical properties (the drug itself is actually less addictive and less bodily degrading then nicotine and alcohol, respectively). Rather, they come from its prohibition.
In accordance with the iron law of prohibition, which states that drug purity increases with law enforcement intensity, a 1999 UN report tells that average heroin concentration rose from about six percent to upwards of 60 percent between the years 1987 and 1997. Participants in the underground heroin trade maximize their profits and minimize their risk by manufacturing dangerously dense dope. As heroin moves down the supply chain to street?level dealers and users, cutting agents are increasingly added to the product, so dealers can increase their revenue. The purity of the actual heroin means that consumers sometimes take higher doses than they realize; sometimes, these doses are lethal. The cutting agents, too, can cause death. Addicts are also forced to share unsterile needles, since buying hypodermic needles is difficult or illegal in most of America. That’s why heroin death rates are over 400 percent higher today than they were in 1979.
These problems would evaporate with legalization. If the United States were to end prohibition, the market would be brought above ground, thus ensuring its regulation. Heroin could be manufactured and sold in licensed facilities: no more terrorist drug?dealing, blind dosing, cutting agents, dirty needles, or death. The United States should follow the lead of Switzerland, which began issuing heroin prescriptions to its most addicted population in 1994, and has since seen dramatic decreases in heroin consumption and addiction, heroin?related crime, as well as a market that became as emaciated as its addicts once were.
The Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom recently told British Parliamentarians that illegal drug users “shouldn’t be treated as criminals.” Today, American heroin addicts are suffering behind bars, where many are being denied access to methadone, the synthetic opioid used in the absence of medicinal heroin to curb heroin addiction. At the dawn of post?Prohibition America, they will be humanely treated in rehabilitation centers, and heroin addiction will no longer carry a potential death sentence.
Jonathan Green is a sophomore majoring in American studies and philosophy. He can be reached at Jonathan.Green@tufts.edu.