Controlling Substances: The Evolution of the American Moral and Medical Drug Policy Regime 

By Logan Heiman, Digital Collections Manager

Senate hearings on narcotic addiction in 1969.

American drug policy as we know it today categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it is considered to place users under high risk for abuse and not accepted by the FDA or DEA as safe for use as medication with or without supervision. The FDA and DEA have rejected multiple petitions to reschedule marijuana under less restrictive categories from governmental and non-governmental entities. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 governs federal drug policy in the United States as part of a broader effort to curtail the sale, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs by the Nixon administration, later known as the War On Drugs. 

The “La Guardia Report,” 1944.

The status quo of American drug policy extends farther back than 1970, however. When the United States Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act championed by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger in 1937, it was a watershed moment in the history of drug policy regulation. The legislation represented a victory for marijuana opponents who successfully convinced lawmakers of a link between cannabis usage and addiction, deviance, and criminality. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia looked skeptically upon the Marihuana Tax Act and its pretext. He thus called upon the New York Academy of Medicine to prepare a report drawing from a wide variety of academic disciplines to scrutinize the drug law and the beliefs about drugs held by its proponents. In the “La Guardia Report” of 1944, the Mayor’s commission on marihuana use demonstrated that the widespread fear, even panic, around marijuana use was greatly overblown.

NYC’s Overdose Prevention Center
(Photo credit: OnPoint NYC)

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Academy continued to emphasize drug addiction as a treatable condition. During 1995 and 1996, NYAM’s Committee on Medicine in Society looked specifically at the concept of harm reduction. The Academy recommended policy changes that were, for the time, cutting edge. These included expansion of treatment programs, acceptance of methadone treatments, special efforts for those incarcerated, better training for medical professionals, and, especially, expanding needle exchange programs and decriminalizing needle distribution and possession. The Library’s Then and Now event “Drug Policy and Harm Reduction Services” brought that history up to the present time. A stellar panel mentioned NYAM’s continuing work in harm reduction, looked at the racial component of America’s drug control regime, considered the experience of those working in NYC’s new Overdose Prevention Centers, and noted that the most recent White House National Drug Control Strategy champions “harm reduction to meet people where they are.” For at least a quarter century, NYAM has supported the people-centered approach that lies at the heart of harm reduction. We wait to see where the national strategy goes next.

This entry was posted in Academy history, Events, History of public health and tagged , , , by nyamhistory. Bookmark the permalink.

About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s