A Bit of History

             In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan helped guide the thinking of the nation, and emphasized law enforcement as the solution to the war on drugs. The War on Drugs was born. Spending increased for police and other enforcement agencies, but decreased for addiction research and addiction treatment. When crack cocaine captured the attention of America in the mid-1980’s, it re-ignited old fears.

            As in times past, what people thought of drug addicts depended in part on who was addicted. There was much rhetoric about the nature of crime committed by minorities, addicted to drugs, and of crack babies, based more on media exaggeration than on science. As a result, the drug laws were again re-written.

          During the Reagan years, laws were passed that were quite similar to the draconian Boggs Act of the 1950’s. The death penalty was even re-introduced for drug dealers, under certain circumstances. Laws mandating sentences for simple possession were resurrected, and in general, drug laws were set back to the way they were thirty years prior.

            Parents of the 1980s observed with alarm the rise in cocaine abuse, with its hazards and easy availability. They leapt into action, by forming the Parent’s Movement.  They were a powerful political voice that helped coerce lawmakers into passing tougher drug laws. The American public had once again demanded more punitive drug laws.

             Laws passed against the possession of crack were different from those for powder cocaine. The penalty for five grams of crack was the same as the penalty for five hundred grams of powder cocaine. African Americans, of lower socioeconomic status, tended to use crack because it was cheaper than powder cocaine. Therefore, African Americans were more likely than whites to receive a mandatory sentence for drug possession, because it took so little crack, a hundred-fold less, to carry the same sentence. (1)

             State and federal laws differed considerably, because federal convictions could not, by new law, be shortened by more than fifteen percent. This meant that being convicted in federal court lead to longer sentences than being convicted in state courts. District attorneys had the power to decide in which jurisdiction to try an offender, and this gave them considerable influence over the fates of arrestees. Predictably, prisons filled around the country, and prison censuses doubled, at both state and federal levels. (1)

             Shortly before the first of the George Bushes took office in 1989, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed, which re-organized the bureaucracies assigned to overseeing the drug addiction problems of the nation. Under this Act, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was formed, and William Bennett was designated drug czar. This agency was given the task of monitoring all of the anti-drug programs in government agencies. The forerunner to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) was formed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). There was much fanfare about new policies, which would both emphasize a zero tolerance toward drug use and also give more attention to treating addiction. However, Bennett resigned abruptly and the fanfare fizzled.

              When Clinton took office in 1993, he cut funding for the ONDCP by eighty-three percent, and exhibited a general lack of interest in addiction and its treatment. His Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, angered many when she appeared to advocate legalization of drugs. (2) Probably in response to public pressures, and concerns about the rising rate of marijuana use among adolescents, Clinton publically announced a new attack on drugs, just before the next election year, and nominated Barry McCaffery to head the revived ONDCP.

              Throughout the 1990’s, heroin purity on the U.S. streets was gradually increasing. In 1991, heroin was about twenty-seven percent pure, while by 1994, it had risen to forty percent. That was a dramatic increase in purity, compared to 1970’s and 1980s, when an average purity of three to ten percent was found in U.S. cities. Many potential addicts, scared off cocaine by high profile deaths of people like Len Bias and John Belushi, turned to experimentation with heroin. (1). Columbian drug cartels, diversifying from dealing only with cocaine, began selling heroin to meet an increasing demand by the U.S. Because heroin was so pure, it could be snorted, rather than injected, and many people who balked at injecting a drug would snort it, and did. By 1997, heroin accounted for more treatment center admissions than did cocaine. (2). “Heroin chic”, a trend of thin and ill-looking models as the ideal of beauty, came into vogue in the mid-1990s.

             At that same time, in the mid-1990s, several more ingredients besides higher potency heroin were thrown into the simmering caldron of opioid addiction: the pain management movement and access to controlled substances over the internet. Then, with the release and deceptive marketing of OxyContin, the cauldron began to boil. 

1. David Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, 3rd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p 274.

2. David T. Courtwright, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in American, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2001) pp180-181.

excerpt from “Pain Pill Addiction: Prescription for Hope”


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