The Start of the Drug Laws

Todays United States citizens are used to living in a country with strict laws on drugs, have you ever thought about how we didn’t always have laws prohibiting the possession and use of certain drugs? To begin discussing drug laws in the United States it would be most logical to start with the earliest drug law that we had, to see where it all began. The United States has had a long history of drug laws, believed to date all of the way back to the 1600s when America was first colonized. I’m discussing colonized America here, Native American Indians were using drugs on this land before Columbus and the pilgrims arrived here. Although there are claims that there were drug laws dating back to the 1600s, the first official drug law on record (after our constitution was written) was passed in 1875. Today I want to discuss the one law that influenced the rest of the drug laws that followed it.

The earliest drug law was not passed federally, it was a state law. In 1875 San Fransisco, California passed the Opium Den Ordinance. This being the first drug law in the U.S, it likely influenced other parts of the country to pass legislation regarding drugs too. The Opium Den Ordinance obviously targeted opium but it wasn’t passed for the purpose of stopping people from possessing or smoking the drug. The law made it illegal to operate or visit an opium den, basically a bar for buying and smoking opium. If any readers are interested in seeing what an opium den looks like a quick google search will show you, multiple people in one small room strung out, looking half dead (see the picture at the bottom of the page for an example). The passing of the legislation wasn’t to better society either. The passing of the law was fueled by racism. The ordinance targeted Chinese immigrants at a time when most of the state discriminated against them. The Chinese are the ones that introduced the United States to opium and the Chinese owned most of the opium dens where they sold their opium.

Even though the Opium Den Ordinance was fueled by racism and didn’t out law the drugs use itself, it is an important milestone in the history of drug laws and we had to start somewhere. The law is responsible for getting the ball rolling on drug legislation at the state level and the federal level. The Opium Den ordinance came far before the drug laws that are common to us today were passed. Drug laws that we have today didn’t begin to be passed until the 1900s. Legislation on drugs (at least somewhat) reflects the publics opinion. United States Citizens in the 1800s had far different views on drugs and drug use than people today do. Today the use of most drugs is frowned upon by the public and we have drug laws that reflect that view. We may have the Opium Den Ordinance of 1875 to blame for the strict laws on drugs that followed. If that one first law never came to be, our drug laws today could be completely different.



opium den 2

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