Tuesday marks the centennial of a fateful but forgotten watershed in state history: the start of California's war on drugs.
On March 6, 1907, Gov. James Gillett signed amendments to the Pharmacy and Poison Act making it a crime to sell opiates or cocaine in the state without a prescription. The act made California a national leader in the war on drugs seven years before Congress enacted national drug prohibition with the Harrison Act.
Many Americans don't know there was a time when people could freely buy any drug they wanted, including opium, cocaine, cannabis and other so-called narcotics. For most of the nation's history, there was no such thing as an illegal drug. That began to change after the turn of the 20th century, when an alliance of Progressive Era bureaucrats and moral crusaders began to push for prohibition of narcotics and alcohol.
California's law was engineered by the state Board of Pharmacy, a national pioneer in drug enforcement whose exploits have been largely lost to history. The board was established in 1891 to regulate pharmacies and the sale of poisons. The 1891 law required that narcotics carry warning labels and that their sales be recorded in a register, but it did not restrict purchases.
However, a rising national tide for pure food and drug legislation prompted the board to propose stronger measures to the Legislature. In 1907, the law was quietly amended without any press coverage or public debate -- or any discussion of possible adverse effects. As soon as the law took effect, the board began a high-profile enforcement campaign, dispatching its agents from city to city, investigating and busting offending pharmacists, raiding opium dens, and publicizing their arrests in the newspapers.
The campaign proved to be the opening battle in a 100-year war that still rages with no signs of ultimate victory.
California's anti-drug efforts go even further back. In 1875, San Francisco passed the nation's first anti-drug law, the Opium Den Ordinance, aimed specifically at Chinese opium smoking. Passed at the height of anti-Chinese hysteria, the law was the legacy of the city's shortest serving mayor, Dr. George Hewston, who was in office for a month after the sudden death of Mayor James Otis.
Although the dens had been around for years, Hewston decried the increase in dens "frequented by white males and females of various ages," and called on the supervisors to suppress practices "which are against good morals and contrary to public order." The ordinance did not prohibit sale or private use of opium, but banned dens for public smoking. Conscious that the city remained a lucrative center of the opium trade, the supervisors went on to impose a license fee on opium dealers, which the Chinese adeptly evaded.
For years, the dens continued to thrive underground, a lucrative industry of vice and a source of bribery and corruption, like prostitution and gambling. The Chinese were typically left alone, but dens that catered to whites were considered fair game for law enforcement.
Other cities began to ban the dens, and in 1881 the Legislature enacted a statewide ban. Nonetheless, the dens persisted, as did anti-Chinese sentiment, and stricter measures were proposed. Among them was an opium-prohibition bill by state Sen. George Perry of San Francisco, that managed to pass the 1885 Legislature but was vetoed.
The Perry bill would have banned sale of the drug except with a doctor's prescription. Opponents charged it was secretly aimed at extracting a bribe from the opium dealers to stop it -- charges that gained momentum when the bill was obligingly vetoed by Gov. George Stoneman, a crony of Perry's. The next session, another opium-prohibition bill was withdrawn amid renewed charges of bribery. The Legislature finally washed its hands of the matter by passing a resolution calling on Congress to act, but there was little interest in Washington.
San Francisco enacted a pioneering anti-narcotics law of its own in 1889. The move came in response to a petition from the San Francisco Medical Society, which, lamenting the ruination of the city's young men and women by Chinese opium, called for sales to be restricted to pharmacies and used for medical purposes only.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of the local House of Corrections reported a disturbing influx of inmates who were addicted to the newly popularized hypodermic use of morphine and cocaine. The supervisors responded with one of the nation's first comprehensive anti-narcotics laws, the Morphine/Cocaine Ordinance.
The ordinance, in effect a prototype of the 1907 law, banned the sale of opium, morphine and cocaine except by pharmacies on a doctor's prescription. Ironically for a city destined to become the mecca of the 1960s drug culture, the ordinance specifically forbade recreational use, disallowing prescriptions for the purpose of satisfying "curiosity or to experience any of the sensations produced thereby."
The ordinance proved unsuccessful. It faced significant opposition from the city's druggists, who objected to the hardship of requiring suffering patients to get a doctor's prescription. An initial flurry of arrests drove the drug fiends to Oakland, which in turn passed its own law.
However, enforcement efforts soon lagged, as police were reluctant to hassle otherwise peaceable pharmacists. By 1893, The Chronicle declared the ordinance a "dead letter."
California's war on drugs began in earnest with the 1907 amendments. The Board of Pharmacy launched an aggressive campaign and pioneered the modern tactics of drug enforcement. The board hired undercover agents who posed as suffering patients, wheedling drugs from unsuspecting pharmacists, then arresting them.
The board swept down on the Chinatown dens, busting down doors and arresting hundreds. It strategically expanded its powers through new legislation. In a crucial move, possession was outlawed in 1909. This set the stage for the criminalization of users, today the largest single class of criminals in California.
The board also moved to ban possession of opium pipes. It then garnered headlines by staging gigantic public bonfires of confiscated paraphernalia and drugs in the heart of Chinatown.
The raids broke the back of the opium-smoking culture, but the addicts moved on to morphine and heroin. The board proceeded to launch a pre-emptive attack on "Indian hemp" or cannabis in 1913.
At the time, cannabis was virtually unheard of in California. Nonetheless, the board warned of an influx of cannabis-using "Hindoos" (actually Sikhs) from India, and prevailed on the Legislature to ban the drug lest the habit spread to whites. Ironically, only after being outlawed did marijuana become popular, eventually being used by millions of Californians.
To a public unaccustomed to drug enforcement, the board's conduct initially stirred consternation. The public "has been disgusted with the sending of spies and stool-pigeons to gather evidence," the Santa Cruz News said in an editorial. Board inspectors were accused of brutal beatings and violence of a kind unknown in pre-prohibition days.
Inevitably, corruption also ensued. The board's chief inspector, Frederick Sutherland, was fired amid allegations of bribery after he married a drug-dealing widow.
In subsequent years, attitudes hardened. As black market dealers moved in, drugs were increasingly viewed as a criminal problem. At first, penalties were relatively mild: Sale was classified as only a misdemeanor. Later, possession became punishable by up to six years in prison. Originally, the board had envisioned that drug fiends would be treated in asylums rather than sent to jail. However, funding for asylums was repeatedly vetoed, sending addicts to prison.
As the screws tightened, the problem got worse. Federal and state laws forced prices out of sight, pushing addicts into crime. By 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported a "saturnalia of violent crime" caused by drug fiends desperate to get narcotics. Stories of drug crime and violence, rarely seen before prohibition, became a staple item in the press.
In the end, the drug laws became a giant crime-creation program.
Before 1907, the state's drug crime involved a few hundred opium den misdemeanors. Today, the state records 400,000 drug arrests per year, 250,000 of them felonies. Drug felons -- nonexistent in 1906 -- now account for 36,000 prisoners, 20 percent of the state's prison population. Drug gangs plague our cities, thousands of innocent people are victimized by prohibition-related theft and violence, and the rough stuff has escalated into outright war in Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico.
Today's addiction rate is more than twice what existed during the free market a century ago -- only about one-half percent.
After 100 years, it is hard to escape the conclusion that drug prohibition has failed. In recent years, Californians have begun to show second thoughts, approving initiatives to re-legalize medical cannabis and to send drug users for treatment rather than to prison. As the state with the longest historical experience with drug laws, it is fitting that California should be exploring new directions out of its 100-year war on drugs.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.