VOTERS - and governments--change their minds about ways to deal with
activities they disapprove of. Governments used to ban gambling; now
many run their own lotteries. Prostitution, although still generally
illegal, is rarely the target of police campaigns. Attitudes to
alcohol have changed in the past centuryandhalf. So have attitudes to
drugs.

In 19thcentury America, campaigners talked of the demon drink in much
the same way that they now talk of drugs. The temperance movement
blamed booze for crime, "moral degeneracy", broken families and
business failure. In America, this led to Prohibition, with its
accompanying crime and bootlegging. In England, campaigners won
restrictions on access, in the shape of the pubclosing hours that have
puzzled foreign visitors ever since. It may have been a bore, but it
was a less socially costly way of dealing with an undesirable habit
than a ban.

Today's illegal drugs were patent medicines in the 19th century.
Morphine and opium were freely available in both Europe and America.
Victorian babies were quietened with Godfrey's Cordial, which
contained opium. Cocaine was the basis of remedies for the common
cold. When Atlanta prohibited alcohol, John Pemberton, producer of a
health drink called French Wine Coca, developed a version that was
nonalcoholic but still contained traces of coca, thereby creating the
world's bestselling soft drink. As for marijuana, Queen Victoria
reputedly used it to soothe the royal period pains.

Far from opposing the drugs trade, the British and the Americans
notoriously promoted it in the 19th century. In 1800 China's imperial
government forbade the import of opium, which had long been used to
stop diarrhoea, but had latterly graduated to recreational use.
British merchants smuggled opium into China to balance their purchases
of tea for export to Britain. When the Chinese authorities confiscated
a vast amount of the stuff, the British sent in gunboats, backed by
France, Russia and America, and bullied China into legalising opium
imports.

Initial efforts to stamp out drug use at home had little to do with
concerns about health. One of America's first federal laws against
opiumsmoking, in 1887, was a response to agitation against Chinese
"coolies", brought into California to build railways and dig mines. It
banned opium imports by Chinese people, but allowed them by American
citizens (the tax on opium imports was a useful source of federal
revenue). The drafters of the Harrison Act of 1914, the first federal
ban on nonmedical narcotics, played on fears of "drugcrazed, sexmad
negroes". And the 1930s campaign against marijuana was coloured by the
fact that Harry Anslinger, the first drug tsar, was appointed by
Andrew Mellon, his wife's uncle. Mellon, the Treasury Secretary, was
banker to DuPont, and sales of hemp threatened that firm's efforts to
build a market for synthetic fibres. Spreading scare stories about
cannabis was a way to give hemp a bad name. Moral outrage is always
more effective if backed by a few vested interests.


Newshawk: Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (www.cfdp.ca)
Pubdate: Thu, 26 Jul 2001
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Contact: letters@economist.com
Website: http://www.economist.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/132