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Javier Zarracina/Vox

The drug war will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now

One day we’ll look back on the drug war as a catastrophic failure.

Part of Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Here’s what they told us.


Kathleen Frydl has examined conservative state-building in an award-winning book on the GI bill; a book on the drug war; and in articles on the FBI as well as the care of foundlings.

In 1953, a Daily Boston Globe columnist sketched a hypothetical scenario for his readers: “Team A on the one-foot line, fourth down, one minute to play, a Bowl game invitation ... riding on the result.” The stakes were high. “Any reason why the team doctor,” he wondered, “shouldn’t send in a substitute with just a little heroin in him?”

This question may have (intentionally) distressed his readers, but it would not have drawn their censure, at least not in the way that our modern sensibilities might lead us to suppose. Despite what you may have previously read or learned, the opioid painkiller known as heroin was not considered illegal with passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, nor was it regarded an illicit substance when Congress passed the 1924 Jones-Miller Act, dramatically curtailing the drug’s legal importation and supply.

It was only in 1956, when legislators introduced the Narcotics Control Act ordering licit holders of heroin (doctors, hospitals, and pharmacists) to surrender all remaining stockpiles of the drug to the government, that all heroin could be said to be prohibited. At the time, the confiscation of all legal heroin was greeted in press reports as “a completely new approach.”

It was also the wrong one.

For almost 40 years before that fateful decision, the federal government closely monitored and deliberately diminished the supply of heroin, arresting hundreds of people for possession of the drug without the appropriate tax stamp. Still, arrests were rare, especially outside of major cities, for the simple reason that most police did not recognize heroin or its paraphernalia when they saw it.

During that same interval of time, people using the drug for recreational or non-prescribed reasons acquired it either from diversion from legal channels or from a totally clandestine network of production and distribution. The former supply chain relied on something like an unscrupulous pharmacist; the latter, a tenacious and endlessly renewable cast of global criminals. But instead of grappling with the nuisance of diversion, the federal government decided to implement drug prohibition, further incentivizing and enormously strengthening criminal networks of subversion.

Today, heroin is still classified as a Schedule I, or prohibited, drug. The consequences of this fateful decision continue to haunt us. Gross failures of our criminal justice system, ranging from police corruption to excessive use of force, all achieve a scale, and foster a profound alienation, as a result of drug prohibition and the militant drug war it spawned.

Maybe in times of only modest failure, or devastation that affects only the marginalized, the tactics of deflection traditionally used to defend the drug war would be enough to sustain it. But it is untenable in the midst of the opioid crisis, the worst drug epidemic in our country’s history.

It is my belief that its staggering body count gives us little choice but face hard truths, even in the face of the deep dependence on the drug war that the US government has developed. What falls between now and that awful reckoning is nothing but denial.

In another 50 years’ time, our children’s children will view drug prohibition as America’s greatest social policy failure — and ascribe blame to its architects, as well as to its indifferent observers.

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