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The first century of the war on drugs

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The first international drug treaty was signed a century ago this week. So what was the war on drugs like in 1912?

Today it is taken for granted that governments will co-operate in the fight against the heroin and cocaine trade. But 100 years ago, narcotics passed from country to country with minimal interference from the authorities. That all changed with the 1912 International Opium Convention, which committed countries to stopping the trade in opium, morphine and cocaine.

Then, as now, the US stood in the vanguard against narcotics. While the UK’s position is unequivocal today, a century ago it was an unenthusiastic signatory, says Mike Jay, author of Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century.

The real concern a century ago was over alcohol, he argues. “There was a big debate over intoxication as there was concern about the heavy, heavy drinking culture of the 19th Century…”

And opium use was viewed in the mid-19th Century in a very different way from modern beliefs about drug use. It was possible to walk into a chemist and buy not only opium and cocaine, but even arsenic…

“There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

But the fashion in drugs was changing from the “downer” of opium to the “upper” of cocaine – hence Arthur Conan Doyle making Sherlock Holmes a cocaine injector…

But in the US, cocaine came to be associated with street gangs, alongside racist propaganda that the drug sent black men insane and put white women at risk…So these domestic concerns helped drive the international agreement in the form of the 1912 treaty. But while it tackled the trade, in the UK at least, the authorities were slow to crack down on individual users…

In reality, there was no “drug scene” in Britain back then, says Jay. What existed was confined to a few streets in Soho and a handful of dealers in Limehouse. And once the drug laws came in banning cocaine and opium, the problem was easily contained by the police…

The baby boomers were the first generation in history to become real global consumers. People were suddenly going to Morocco to smoke hash, or hitching with lorry drivers who were using amphetamines.”

So the floodgates opened. Where once the authorities were fighting relatively small groups of offenders in a tiny drugs subculture, now they must fight millions of users and powerful international cartels.

RTFA for an understanding of laws and “wars” on drugs in the time when the community of users was small, coppers ruled the streets – instead of gangbangers – and profit hadn’t yet driven drugs into a global economy.

Not that today’s governments seem to be any more capable of understanding changing circumstances.

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Written by Ed Campbell

January 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm

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