Panacea One Day. Poison the Next

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The420Guy

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Jan.2, 00
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2000 Sydney Morning Herald
Author: David Savage
When the 20th century began, it was illegal to sell cigarettes in 14 American States, and selling a lottery ticket was a federal crime. Cigarettes were a "noxious" product, and "a belief in their deleterious effects, particularly among young people, had become very general", the Supreme Court said in 1900, as it upheld Tennessee's prohibition on cigarette sales.
And lotteries were a "widespread pestilence" that must be killed off, the court ruled three years later.
At the same time, narcotics such as opium, morphine and heroin were sold over the counter and from mail-order catalogues as balms for what one writer called the "nervous pace of modern life".
The evolution of US laws on personal vices makes for one of the oddest, most fascinating chapters of 20th century legal history. Unlike, for example, the universal recognition of murder and robbery as crimes, judgments on crimes of bad behaviour have come and gone, riding on the tides of public opinion. The criminal vice of one era - whether drinking, gambling, smoking or drug-taking - often has been lauded at another point in time as fashionable, or tolerated as simply a bad habit.
"Our notion of what is immoral behaviour has changed drastically," said Yale Law professor Steven Duke. "The pendulum has swung back and forth." The debate about which vices to regulate - and how best to regulate them - raged in each era and continues today.
Since 1980, the government has pursued a "war on drugs" with the full force of criminal law. In recent years, more than 60 per cent of the inmates in federal prisons have been put there for drug-related crimes, thanks to the mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress in the mid-1980s. These laws proved especially powerful because they imposed fixed prison terms on someone caught with a certain amount of an illegal substance, regardless of whether it was the violator's first offence or whether they were a minor player in a big drug ring. Of the more than 20,000 federal drug offenders sent to prison last year, only 41 were identified as "drug kingpins". Yet, far from easing off, the Senate on a 50-49 vote moved last month to impose new mandatory prison terms for low-level cocaine dealers. The Powder Cocaine Sentencing Act would trigger a five-year prison term for someone with 50 grams of cocaine, down from 500 grams under current law. The bill will be taken up by the House next year.
A century ago, narcotics were not seen as evil substances, although their addictive qualities were becoming well known. Instead, politicians focused their ire on cigarettes and gambling. In the late 19th century, pipes and chewing tobacco were considered safe and traditional, while the newly popular cigarettes were viewed as dangerous and disreputable. As a product, "they possess no virtue but are inherently bad and bad only", the Tennessee Supreme Court said. It upheld a criminal charge against William Austin, a merchant who had ordered a crate of cigarettes from the American Tobacco Co in Durham, North Carolina. The legislature was entitled to act for "the protection of the people from an unmitigated evil", such as cigarettes, the State judges said. The US Supreme Court agreed, on a 6-3 vote, noting that the "public press has been denouncing the use [of cigarettes] as fraught with great danger to the youth of both sexes". Be realistic, the three dissenters responded. "During the year 1899, cigarettes were manufactured in the United States," and "there is no consensus of opinion ... as to the greatness of the supposed evil." Still, the legal attack continued through the first two decades of the century.
In 1915, Michigan imposed a 30-day jail term on anyone who "harboured minors for indulgence in cigarettes". Gambling was also under attack. Lottery tickets that moved through the mail from any "enterprise offering prizes dependent upon lot or chance" were illegal under federal law. Although horse racing or card games were confined to a few, a lottery "infests the whole community", the Supreme Court said in 1903. "It enters every dwelling. It reaches every class. It preys upon the hard earnings of the poor. It plunders the ignorant and simple."
Narcotics were viewed in a kinder light. The patent medicines of the era were laced with morphine. In 1899, the Bayer company of Germany developed two pain medications that proved instantly popular. One was sodium acetyl salicylic acid and was named aspirin. The other, diacetylmorphine, was added to cough syrups. It was named heroin. Cocaine was commonly found in tonics and was the recommended treatment for those with hayfever and sinus trouble. Until 1903, it was added to the newly popular soda known as Coca-Cola. Cocaine was "considered a pick-me-up, a brain food", said Yale historian David Musto.
By the 1920s, however, the tides had reversed. In the wave of sentiment for Prohibition, alcohol and narcotics were seen as ruinously addictive, and their sale was banned under federal law. Heroin, which proved to be especially addictive, was brought under federal law in 1924. But the cigarette bans were lifted, and smoking became a glamorous, all-American habit. By mid-century, more than half of American men and one-third of women smoked regularly.
Nevada became an oasis for legal gambling in the 1930s. Lotteries did not spread across the nation until the 1970s, as the same governments that had prosecuted gamblers and the so-called numbers racket decided to promote lotteries as a source of instant riches for state coffers. It would seem that the nation can carry on only one prohibition crusade at a time.
Four years after the prohibition on alcohol was repealed in 1933, federal authorities adopted a new prohibition on marijuana. As if to come full circle, the Supreme Court now has before it the question of whether federal health regulators have the power, at least in theory, to prohibit the sale of cigarettes. The case tests whether tobacco is a "drug" and therefore comes under the control of the Food and Drug Administration. If so, federal authorities could demand either that nicotine be removed from cigarettes or that the product be banned entirely.
Meanwhile, the stigma of gambling and nearly all legal restrictions have disappeared. All but Utah and Hawaii have some form of legal gambling and 37 States sponsor lotteries. "People gambling in this country lost $50 billion in legal wagering in 1998, a figure that has increased every year over two decades, and often at double-digit rates," the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reported in June. "And there is no end in sight. Every prediction that the gambling market is becoming saturated has proven to be premature."