America's Crusade

What is behind the latest war on drugs

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But as drug abuse and addiction abounded, the inevitable backlash set in, with a decidedly racist and xenophobic tinge. A 1910 federal survey reported that "cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes in the South and other sections of the country." Southern sheriffs believed cocaine even rendered blacks impervious to .32-cal. bullets (as a result many police departments switched to .38-cal.). Chinese immigrants were blamed for importing the opium-smoking habit to the U.S. "If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope," concluded the blue-ribbon citizens' panel, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit, in 1903, "we can get along without him." Despite the opposition of U.S. drug companies, the government began to crack down. Many states and Congress passed laws regulating the sale and use of cocaine and opiates; the U.S. banned the import ^ of opium in 1909. By the 1920s, public revulsion against drugs verged on the hysterical. "Drug addiction is more communicable and less curable than leprosy," declared Antidrug Crusader Richmond Hobson in a national radio address in 1928.

So ended the first drug crisis in the U.S. In less than a generation, public attitudes had been transformed. Once widely regarded as a harmless cure-all, cocaine "had become in the American mind the most hated, feared and loathed drug," says Dr. David Musto of Yale, a leading authority on the history of drugs and society.

The backlash drove coke and opium underground. Cocaine was the narcotic of choice among some jazz-band musicians and avant-garde actors and artists, but "decent" Americans steered clear. It was Prohibition, after all, and most Americans in the years after World War I were too busy finding bootleg gin to think about more exotic intoxicants. Marijuana began arriving in large quantities in the 1920s and '30s, smoked by Mexican immigrants who came North looking for jobs. Pot, too, was regarded with horror. One 1936 propaganda film called Reefer Madness warned the nation's youth that smoking the "killer weed" was a direct road to hell, suicide or at least insanity.

Drugs stayed on the fringes of society throughout the '50s, but Beat Generation artists began enhancing their perceptions with pot and later with more mind-bending hallucinogens. LSD's hallucinogenic qualities were discovered by a chemist who accidentally swallowed a dose in 1943. By the early '60s, an obscure Harvard lecturer named Timothy Leary began feeding his students LSD and advising them to "turn on, tune in, drop out." Fired by Harvard, he promptly became a counterculture deity.

The baby-boom generation offered the drug-culture priests a slew of ready disciples. "By 1960 you had a whole generation who knew nothing about drugs, and what little they did know came from people who didn't know anything about drugs either," says Historian Musto. "When people found out that marijuana didn't drive you wild and mad, the Government lost what little credibility it had."

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