6:22pm

Wed January 16, 2013
Health, Science, Environment

Who passed the first drug laws in America?

"People often forget that at the turn of the last century, drugs were entirely legal," says Bay Area resident Dale Gieringer, coordinator of the California chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"In my grandparents' generation, in fact, it was possible to walk into any drug store and buy cocaine, heroine, opiates, cannabis, right over the counter," Gieringer continues.

Cannabis, or Marijuana, was used for everything from corns on your feet to aching muscles.

"Cannabis was widely recognized at that time as a pharmaceutical drug," says Gieringer.

Cough medicines often contained an extract of heroine, right up until World War I and a variety of tonics contained cocoa leaf extract, Coca Cola being the best known in this country.

"There really was very little problem with the Coke beverages that were used up to the turn of the old century," says Gieringer.

They were so wholesome, even the pope endorsed them as Gieringer recites from an ad for coca wine: "His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII awards gold medal in recognition of benefits recieved from Van Mariani wine tonic."

A listing in the 1900's Sears Roebuck consumers guide claimed that its Peruvian wine of coca sustained and refreshed both the body and brain. Coca Cola was marketed as a temperance tonic – an alternative to booze. And the U.S. government recognized its tax benefit.

So what happened? In the early 1900's, the British government cracked down on the Chinese opium trade and the U.S. soon followed. Then, the first federal Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906. The times were changing – and it started right here.

"We had a very active board of pharmacy, which in 1907 really launched the war on drugs at the state level by cracking down on opium, morphine, and cocaine," says Gieringer, "and shortly thereafter on cannabis as well."

So laid-back California passed its first anti-drug law at the state level, but there was earlier drug legislation, in San Francisco. The city had the very first laws against narcotics in the United States – the 1875 Opium Den Ordinance in San Francisco.

You can probably win some bets on that one, now that gambling is legal. Now that's a situation our tonic-drinking great grandparents would never have believed possible in Bay Area history.

California NORML is holding a two-day conference next weekend, January 26 and 27, marking the 100th anniversary of cannabis prohibition.

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