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Want to Understand U.S. Drug Policy? Learn Your History at FindLaw

By Steven Tanner on August 21, 2014 1:39 PM

Illicit drugs have been part of human civilization since the beginning, although government policies and public perceptions tend to change quite regularly. It wasn't that long ago when doctors regularly prescribed cocaine and heroin as wonder drugs for a whole host of maladies, as trumpeted by an 1884 New York Times article: "The new uses to which cocaine has been applied with success ... include hayfever, catarrh [excessive mucus buildup], and toothache."

That may seem absurd now, but are we really that much more enlightened today? U.S. laws have tried to control drugs ever since the Prohibition movement mobilized in the late 19th century, with mixed results. FindLaw's Drug Charges section not only helps non-lawyers understand these laws, but provides essential historical context as well.

Today's Insider introduces three recent FindLaw articles about the sweeping drug enforcement changes of the 1970s and how they continue to shape drug policies today. Take a look at what's new:

1. Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

Few federal laws have impacted U.S. drug policy more than the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The Act has two main components: The Controlled Substances Act (or Title II, discussed in greater detail in the next article) and Title III, which strengthened enforcement mechanisms and penalties for drug trafficking. In addition, this legislation established forfeiture laws, in which property and cash could be seized from high-level drug offenders.

The law also required stricter security and record-keeping with respect to certain types of legal drugs available with a doctor's prescription, such as opiates and others with the potential for abuse.

2. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA): Overview.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, regulating the manufacture, importation, possession, use, and distribution of certain substances. The Act classifies drugs into "Schedules," based on their medical usefulness and potential for abuse. For each Schedule, there is a protocol for enforcement, penalties, and (if legal through a prescription) rules for how they should be handled by the pharmaceutical industry.

But these Schedules are quite controversial, particularly the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug. While Schedule I is reserved for those with the highest potential for abuse (i.e., addictive) and with no known medical use, marijuana is not considered addictive and has been cleared for medical use in a number of states.

3. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Overview.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created in 1973 in response to the rise in recreational drug use and associated crimes. The DEA, a division of the Department of Justice, is solely focused on enforcing controlled substances laws. The DEA works with state and local police forces to share intelligence and cooperate in stings; creates informational campaigns meant to curb drug use; and works with the international community to enforce worldwide drug efforts, among other activities.

There is currently some tension between the DEA and state governments that have decriminalized or even legalized marijuana or allowed for the medical use of the drug by approved patients. And even President Obama's declaration that the federal government would not interfere with such state initiatives hasn't prevented the DEA from enforcing federal marijuana laws.

Drug use is an often polarizing topic that brings race, privacy, economics, and other divisive issues into the conversation. Virtually everyone has an opinion, but knowing the law is important. Consider speaking with an experienced drug crime attorney if you have any questions or need legal assistance with a drug charge.

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