Federal Bureau of Sleepy Times

The word "narcotics" distorts the drug debate

On Aug. 3, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico called for a national debate on the legalization of drugs.  Shortly afterwards, former president Vicente Fox demanded the outright legalization of all drugs in order to remove the monopoly guaranteed to the drug trafficking organizations by the current state of prohibition.  A year earlier, three other former Latin American presidents—Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—issued a report explaining why Latin American nations and the United States should abandon the “War on Drugs” and consider legalization as part of an initiative to begin treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

The debate in the United States has not yet reached this stage: no politician with presidential ambitions could imply support for the legalization of marijuana—let alone all drugs—and hope to win even the nomination of either of the major parties.  Most of this discrepancy in attitudes between the US and its southern neighbors can be explained by the much larger threat presented by drug-related crime in those countries.  Much of the rest of this gap is best understood in the context of the United States’ peculiar drug enforcement history.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, marking the beginning of marijuana prohibition in the U.S.  This fact itself, however, is less notable than the circumstances under which the bill was passed.


In 1919, The New York Times published an editorial warning that, unless a law was passed to prohibit it, an unknown new drug known as marijuana originating from Mexico would soon replace heroin and other “hard narcotics” (restricted five years earlier by the Harrison Act) as the addict’s drug of choice.  The article made no mention of the actual effects of marijuana; it merely associated it with heroin and “narcotics.”  In doing so, it provided the American public’s first impression of marijuana as a drug.

Fast forward back to 1937.  During the hearings preceding the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, Commissioner Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics quotes in front of Congress, “Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” This statement went unquestioned by those observing the proceedings.  No debate took place preceding the bill’s passage in the Senate, and the bill was passed in the House of Representatives after the following exchange between a representative from New York and Speaker Sam Rayburn: “Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?” “I don’t know.  It has something to do with a thing called marihuana.  I think it’s a narcotic of some kind.”


With this information in mind, consider the etymology of the word “narcotic.”  From the Greek “narkotikon meaning “making stiff or numb,” “narcotic” denotes drugs that put people to sleep.  This label fails to describe the most common illegal drugs present in the US today; in fact, drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine do precisely the opposite.  How, then, does the word “narcotic” affect the national discourse on drugs?

Imagine for a moment the reaction of the average American parent after having just been informed that X percent of people under the age of 18 use recreational drugs.  Now imagine their reaction after being informed that the same percentage of people use narcotics.  Not quite the same, is it?  “Narcotics” seem foreign, they seem inherently dangerous, and they seem unforgivably criminal.

The word “narcotics” is hardly ever used in a positive light: it appears almost exclusively in association with criminal activity or the law enforcement designed to combat it.  “Drugs,” on the other hand, is a morally neutral word, referring to anything from opium or alcohol to essential medicines such as penicillin or aspirin. Although the Federal Bureau of Narcotics has since been renamed as the Drug Enforcement Agency, its legacy in the popular consciousness lives on in the form of countless references to “narcotic drug abuse” in legislation such as the Controlled Substances Act, which continues to serve as the core document of drug law in the US.

It is both inaccurate and unjust to continue referring to all illegal drugs as narcotics. Such rhetoric distorts rational thinking on the subject and stalls efforts to reach a better solution. Discussing the most effective way to regulate controlled substances can therefore be done in a less misleading and more honest way under the label of “drug law” than “counter-narcotics.”

Christopher M. Lehman ’13 is a Crimson business editor in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.