Handbook of Drug Control in the United States

By James A. Inciardi | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
Debating the Legalization of Drugs

James A. Inciardi and Duane C. McBride

The history of American drug policy reflects a textbook case in the sociology of law and the dramatization of evil. 1 Largely through the moral enterprises of the medical profession during the 1880s and 1890s, the use of certain types of drugs (initially opium and morphine, followed by cocaine and heroin) came to be defined as sinful, deviant, and outright wicked. 2 By the turn of the twentieth century, politicians and police advanced claims that drug use was linked to the underworld. With the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, narcotics users became defined as criminal offenders. In the decades hence, a variety of new and aggressive opinion makers fought against drug use, and by the close of the 1930s they had constructed an image of drug users as "dope fiends" who faced a lifetime of slavery to drugs. 3

During these early years of drug policy formation, there seemed to be few critics of the emerging control efforts. A conspicuous exception in this regard was Alfred R. Lindesmith, who during the 1930s was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and in subsequent years a member of the sociology faculty at Indiana University. Lindesmith's first exposure to the drug field was through criminal addicts, but the majority of his thinking was influenced by his research with patients at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital at Lexington, Kentucky. There the addict population was comprised of individuals addicted to either morphine or paragoric, and their drugs had been obtained from physicians through either legal or quasi-legal means. They were members of neither the criminal underworld nor the street subcultures. As "patients" under treatment for some illness, Lindesmith argued that criminal penalties were inappropriate for those suffering from the chronic and relapsing disease of addiction. 4 Although a direct call for the legalization of drugs was not apparent in Lindesmith's early work, it was clearly implied. His arguments for policy changes were criticized at the federal level 5--and then essentially ignored.

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