The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 1 pages 98-99 
© 2000 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946
 

 

 

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Dear Editor:

In his otherwise perceptive essay, “The History of Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States”
(Journal of Cognitive Liberties Fall 2000), Prof. Charles Whitebread gets off to the wrong foot in declaring, “the most important thing I am going to say” is that “in 1900 there were far more people addicted to drugs in this country than there are today.”

In fact, the case can be made that there are more drug addicts today than in the pre-prohibition days at the turn of the last century. Although Whitebread claims that 2% to 5% of the U.S. adult population were drug addicts in 1900, he gives no source for this estimate. Unless alcohol is included, this figure is grossly overinflated. While estimates of drug addiction are notoriously murky, estimates of the opiate addict population by contemporary sources were much lower.

An exhaustive survey of the evidence appears in Terry and Pellens’ classic, The Opium Problem, (1928), which summarizes estimates of the opiate addict population going back to the 1870s. For the period before 1914, these estimates ranged from 182,000 to 782,000 , or approximately 0.4% to 1.2% of the adult population. (Of course, this does not include non-addict users, who may well have amounted to 2% to 5% of adults.)

Compare this with today’s addict population. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, there are about 500,000 heroin addicts in the U.S.—roughly 0.25 % of today’s adult population. But this doesn’t include cocaine and other drug addicts, who are far more numerous now than at the turn of the century. Altogether, the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimates that 3.6 million Americans are “dependent” on illicit drugs—close to 2% of the adult population.
In short, there is no evidence that drug addiction has declined since the days of laissez-faire, caveat emptor at the turn of the last century. All of this raises obvious questions about the efficacy of the drug laws. Pace Prof. Whitebread, the most important fact about prohibition may be that it has had no perceptible impact on drug abuse. — Dale Gieringer, California NORML

Professor Whitebread responds:

The purpose of my estimate of the addict population at the turn of
the last century was not in any way designed to suggest that the criminalization of drugs, which I do not approve of, has had any positive impact in reducing the number of addicts in America. As I recall, I used
this estimate of the number of addicts and the estimated reduction in
addiction to show that the single law in this country’s history that did the most to reduce the number of addicted individuals was the non-criminal law, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The reason for this assertion is that a large number of people became addicted to drugs in the early 1900s, accidentally. The then-thriving patent medicine industry which advertised its elixirs in the most flamboyant terms did in fact put large amounts of opium and other addictive drugs in these elixirs (which, incidentally, did make you feel better no matter what ailed you). By requiring precise labeling of all drugs for sale, the Pure Food and Drug Act dramatically reduced this source of accidental addiction.

No matter how you compute the addict population, the impact of the Pure Food and Drug Act is undeniable. I do not feel that the criminalization of drugs has reduced addict populations in any way. In fact, in all my work, I stress that the negative social consequences of this prohibitive regime far outweigh any benefits it has provided us.

Prof. Charles H. Whitebread, USC Law School

 
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