Holly M. Karibo: Cutting the Cancer of Drug Use Out of the Nation? Reflections on the History of Mandatory Minimum Sentences in the United States
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, a law that dramatically reshaped American drug policies. While the precedent for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses had been established four years earlier, the Narcotic Control Act greatly expanded the scope of these sentences. Among its many clauses, the act raised the minimum sentence on some drug offenses to five years and allowed the imposition of the death penalty on anyone over the age of eighteen convicted of trafficking heroin to minors. This made the Narcotics Control Act the strictest drug law in the nation’s history—one that treated addiction as a plague that needed to be addressed through punitive measures.
The 1956 law did not arise in a vacuum. For a decade Americans had been reading sensational news stories that claimed that the rate of drug addiction in the country had grown exponentially since the close of the Second World War. Newspapers were especially focused on the issue of addiction among teenagers, framing it as a symptom of juvenile delinquency, urban disorder, and a general sense of chaos in the Atomic Age. Reports had readers believe that teens were shooting heroin and smoking marijuana at school, at home, even at soda shops. If left unchecked, papers warned, young people would join the ranks of the addict populations infecting the nation’s urban neighborhoods.
By 1955, politicians felt that public outrage was strong enough to justify a large-scale federal investigation. That year, the U.S. Senate formed a subcommittee in order to analyze the issues of drug use and addiction. It would travel to over twelve major U.S. cities in order to ascertain the extent of the drug problem and how best to deal with it. The committee, chaired by Senator Price Daniel of Texas, claimed it would provide an objective, factual, and “sober” investigation into addiction in the country. What resulted, though, was anything but a balanced approach.
While the Senate investigation covered many aspects of the drug problem—including rates of drug use within U.S. cities, recidivism rates in treatment programs, and the history of individual addicts—it relied largely on information provided by law enforcement officials. Many of the experts they interviewed were police chiefs, district attorneys, judges, and others tasked with enforcing drug laws. Even medical experts interviewed often emphasized that, while drug use was a physical affliction, it was something that individuals had done to themselves and therefore needed to be punished. Thus, far from presenting a nuanced approached to a very complicated issue, the overarching narrative of the 1955 senate committee reinforced the belief that prohibition and punishment were the most effective ways to deal with the drug problem.
The recommendations made by the 1955 Senate committee laid the foundations for the passage of the Narcotic Control Act the following year. Since the committee’s findings seemed to reinforce popular perceptions—that urban centers had become hotbeds of addiction, that teens were particularly susceptible to drug use, and that that users were turning to crime and prostitution in alarming numbers—they helped to solidify public support and political capital that would push through the extremely punitive law. When evidence contradicted the overarching narrative of drug addiction (for example, experts repeatedly denied media claims that the teen drug problem was skyrocketing out of control), they were overshadowed by the testimonies of experts like Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Drug use was a growing cancer, he and others assured the committee, and must be cut out of the nation at any cost.
In the end, the Narcotic Control Act, like many federal drug laws, failed to adequately address the issue of drug use in any meaningful way. The complicated nature of addiction was overshadowed by a public appetite to punish those who chose to consume illicit substances. The law would remain on the books for fourteen years, during which countless Americans would find themselves ensnared in the criminal justice system. While it would be replaced by drug “schedules” in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, the rate of incarceration for drug use and possession would only continue to grow over the following decades.
Although sixty years have passed, the legacy of the Narcotic Control Act endures. As politicians debate the place of mandatory minimum sentences in the criminal justice system today, it’s crucial that they fully understand their long history and damaging impacts on countless individuals. We need to push for nuanced approaches, ones that can address the extremely complex issue of addiction as well as the many damaging legacies of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Too many people’s lives are at stake for us to once again let overly simplistic narratives overshadow the mounting evidence against such a punitive approach.
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