Drugs and the Criminal Justice System

Tackling the problem of illicit drugs requires recognition of differences between experimental or casual users and hard-core addicts. Something like an 80–20 rule seems to be true for illicit drugs—20% of drug users consume 80% of the drugs. That hard-core 20% is also the group most likely to be involved in crime and to come to the attention of the criminal justice system. That group is also least likely to respond to prevention or treatment programs.


I. Introduction

II. In the Beginning

III. The Harrison Narcotics Act

IV. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics

V. A New Era: The 1960s and 1970s

VI. Drugs and Crime

VII. The Modern Era

VIII. Drugs and Police

IX. Drugs and Courts

X. Drugs and Prisons

XI. Future Directions

XII. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

Drugs have had a major impact on the criminal justice system for decades. Each year since 1996, more people have been arrested on drug charges than for any other single offense. If one were to include arrests specifically for alcohol (driving under the influence [DUI], liquor law violations), then nearly one third of all arrests have been directly related to alcohol or illicit drugs. If one were to count robberies, burglaries, and assaults conducted under the influence of alcohol or drugs, then it could be said with confidence that no other factor has demanded so many criminal justice resources or has caused communities so many problems. To understand the current situation, it is helpful first to look back to the beginning when drug abuse first came to be defined as a criminal justice problem.

II. In the Beginning

Americans like to look to the past as a time of innocence, but substance abuse problems have been a feature of American society from the beginning. At first, alcohol was a problem; by the early 1800s, Americans were consuming perhaps twice the amount of alcohol per person as in the 2000s. Immigration, industrialization, and the rise of cities led to an increase in social problems associated with alcohol and the rise of anti-alcohol groups. Numerous state and local laws were put in place to restrict or even ban alcohol, but the federal government did not become involved until passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1919. With that amendment, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol became a federal crime to be enforced by the newly created Bureau of Prohibition, located within the Treasury Department. Prohibition remained in place until 1933.

The social environment that led up to Prohibition also ushered in a host of state and local laws designed to control a wide range of behaviors thought to be a problem— including gambling, prostitution, sex, drugs, the length of women’s skirts, and the size of bathing suits. It was during this period that the criminal justice system saw the spread of prisons, the rise of probation, and the creation of the juvenile court. The late 1800s and early 1900s was also a time of relatively widespread drug use. This was a time when medicine was crude, to put it mildly, and a number of drugs were marketed for a variety of ailments. Codeine was discovered in 1831. Morphine was rather freely administered as a pain killer to wounded Civil War soldiers— to the point that morphine addiction was sometimes called the “soldier’s disease.” In 1898, Frederich Bayer and Company marketed heroin as a treatment for respiratory problems, and the drug was used by some as a treatment for morphine addiction. Marijuana has a long history of use as a medicine in the United States and by the late 1800s was administered for more than a dozen ailments, from rheumatism to alcohol withdrawal to asthma.

At that time, many of the street drugs known today were freely available, often in over-the-counter medicines known as patent medicines. There was no requirement that over-the-counter medicines list their contents. Consequently, consumers were unwittingly taking medicines laced with opiates, cocaine, or other drugs. Medicines sold as treatment for morphine addiction sometimes had morphine as a main ingredient. Similarly, elixirs sold to combat alcoholism sometimes were heavily loaded with alcohol.

Finally, with magazines and newspapers running stories about these unregulated medicines, and with Upton Sinclair’s expose The Jungle revealing disgusting practices in the meatpacking industry, Congress felt compelled to act. The result was the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This act did not ban such drugs as heroin, morphine, or cocaine, but required that the content of medicines and packaged food be clearly labeled. Having been made aware of the presence of addicting drugs in these medicines, the public increasingly turned away from them. While the problem of drug addiction had diminished, it had by no means disappeared.

For so long as the drug problem was defined primarily as one of the white middle class, the government emphasized regulation, not criminalization. However, narcotic drugs (opium, morphine, and heroin in particular) and cocaine were seen as a growing problem among minorities, and there were concerns about violence arising from the use of these drugs. In addition to concerns about domestic abuse, the United States was in the awkward position of encouraging other nations to enact restrictions on the trafficking in narcotics while having no national law of its own.

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