December 1, 2020

A Chart of Which Drugs Were Illegal Federally Throughout US History

December 1, 2020
This chart documents which drugs were illegal federally throughout history.

1880 Opium Importation from China to the US is Banned

Opium is first on our chart of illegal drugs. One way to look at this, the earliest drug ban enacted by the US Government, is as a pioneering step in the direction of government being involved in public health. This sunny interpretation, however, ignores the enormous role anti-Chinese racism played in this particular legislation. Opium was seen as a Chinese problem, and this legislation went hand in hand with a wave of anti-Chinese “Yellow Peril” style sentiment. Although that term had not yet been coined, the sentiment was there in force in 1880…..only two years later, we would see the “Chinese Exclusion Act” passed, and in 1880 itself there was an anti Chinese massacre in Denver.

Pure Food and Drug Act

Inspired by muckraking journalism in general and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in specific, the Pure Food and Drug Act, among other things, required labelling a product when they contained alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine or cannabis. It also expressly forbade that implication of ingredients that weren’t in the actual product. This regulation was obviously feather light, but represented some of the first tentative steps towards stricter governmental regulation, and eventually prohibition, of addictive substances.

Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

Although nominally a tax, in practice this act significantly regulated and controlled “narcotics”, which for the purposes of the act included cocaine, as well as opiates. It was unsurprisingly brought on by a wave of racist panic falsely linking the drugs in question to black and Asian people committing crimes against white people. It was interpreted to outright forbid the distribution of opiates to addicts by their doctors, resulting in numerous doctors being arrested and charged under the act. Unsurprisingly, the severity of this act saw the rise of true organized crime as a way of surreptitiously meeting demand, which of course went unabated.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution

The big one. The 18th amendment rendered the transport, sale and production of alcoholic drinks illegal. Although it would require a later act to allow enforcement, this was of course a massive social experiment with far reaching repercussions, most significantly seeing huge growth in organized crime in the United States. Interestingly, the amendment did not make mere ownership or consumption of liquor illegal, allowing for many seemingly paradoxical parties to be held by the particularly wealthy, who would claim with a straight face that the party was fueled by their personal, private reserves.

18th Amendment is Repealed by the 21st Amendment

“The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” Short and sweet, America had awoken to the damage their well meaning prohibition had caused. Regrettably, this understanding of the futility of such regulation only stretched to alcohol and not other drugs, which of course would cause the same woes as liquor’s banning did.

Marijuana Tax Act

Since they did not yet have the option of banning cannabis, the federal government instead chose to levy an extraordinarily prohibitive tax on it. This tightened the supply of cannabis somewhat, but simultaneously allowed for greater profits for those willing to risk selling without the tax, again increasing crime. One thing this did do is to strangle the nascent hemp industry, making it less likely to act as a competitor to wood pulp in paper production.

Boggs Act Increases Penalties

This is when the penalties began getting serious. No longer were people merely fined, possession of marijuana alone could lead to 2-10 years in prison and up to a $20,000 fine in 1951 dollars. America has plainly learned nothing from Prohibition times, and were ready to again wage war on a drug they saw as endangering white youth and inciting minorities to violence and resistance.

Daniel Act Increases Penalties Further

Arising simultaneously with the “gateway drug” theory that marijuana use would lead to heroin, the Daniel Act enormously increased already draconian pot related penalties and removed the possibility of parole or probation for offenders. It also allowed for the death penalty for offenders over the age of 18 who were caught selling heroin to anyone under 18. Truly draconian, the Daniel Act predictably failed to slow drug sales or use, only further increasing the risk and attendant reward for dealing.

Controlled Substances Act Regulates LSD, DMT, Mescaline, Marijuana, Peyote, MDMA and Heroin as Schedule I Drugs

This Act, of course, had ramifications which are still with us today. It completely revamped federal drug policy, assigning the various known recreational drugs of the time to schedule ranks based on their supposed danger to the user and potential for abuse. Marijuana’s place at the very top of the list, literally claiming to have no medical use, is a source of continuous derision by anyone with any substantive knowledge of the substance. Likewise, heroin is prohibited but various other opiates are not, even given that there are few differences between them. Accurate or not, this schema, albeit heavily amended over time, is the foundation for modern day federal drug policy.

Controlled Substances Act Regulates Amphetamines, Barbiturates, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Fentanyl, Oxycodone as Schedule II Drugs

If nothing else, at least the Controlled Substances Act allowed for the above to be used medically, albeit only with “severe restrictions.” Nonetheless, as anyone with any knowledge of the modern day oxycodone epidemic is aware, these laws did not in fact prevent the misuse of these drugs. Instead, those addicted to them find themselves in fear of the law as well as their own health. For those in need of oxycodone for pain treatment, this act ensured they need to constantly be in contact with their physician to write new prescriptions, as they could not be refilled normally. 

DEA is Formed as the Main Federal Entity for Enforcing Prohibition

As is oftimes the case, the DEA was formed through the merger of various disparate federal agencies- including the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), among others- to forge a single entity to be responsible for enforcing the increasingly comprehensive and complex federal drug laws. The DEA is still with us today and, even in this time of greater liberalization, its budget sits at a hefty 3 billion dollars and change. 

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 adds Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, System becomes more Punitive

Not only did this act resurrect mandatory minimums for marijuana possession, which had earlier been repealed, it also added them for crack and powder cocaine- vastly overweighing the former over the latter in what observers have called an obvious race based clause. Since crack cocaine was more used by black Americans and powder by whites, the theory is that the largely white creators of the law were more concerned with punishing black people. A mere 5 grams of crack cocaine could land you in jail for 5 years, whereas it originally took literally 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence!

Office of National Drug Policy Created to Centralize and Focus Federal Drug Policy: Officeholder is Known as the Drug Czar

The DEA alone evidently did not allow for sufficient centralization, so an office was created to unify executive decisions for national drug policy. This allows for the unification of both international and domestic drug prevention efforts, something that had previously been difficult due to the dispersion of responsibilities between those realms. Strangely, part of the Drug Czar’s mandate is to make certain governmental funds are not being used to argue for the legalization of drugs, adding a sort of propaganda element to the role.


Recent & Related Posts


Recent & Related Posts
Leah Maurer

Illegal Drugs: A Timeline

The same tinctures once freely sold off of carts now may lead to years of imprisonment in harsh conditions in America. Why? When was the

Read More »