Opiates have been around for centuries, and for nearly as long, the drugs have led to political in-fighting, controversy, failed policies – even wars. Because opiates have the potential to addict users, most governments see the need to regulate use, sale, production, import and distribution.
Many, however, argue for decriminalization of drugs, saying it will erase the black market that leads to crime, corruption and international trafficking. Used historically for pain relief and recreational purposes, opiates, derived from the opium poppy, activate opiate receptors in the brain and body, blocking pain signals and stimulating the brain’s pleasure and reward center.
A Historical Perspective
The two Opium Wars, also known as the Anglo-Chinese wars, lasted from 1839-1842 and 1856 to 1860. The wars broke out because of a trade dispute between China and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The catalyst was the British smuggling of opium into China, defying Chinese drug laws.
In the U.S., opiates and cocaine were largely unregulated in the 1800’s. Addiction in the early 1900s was a problem. Many of the addicted were women who were legally prescribed opiates for “female problems.” Opium dens sprung up around the world, providing a place for people of all walks of life to smoke the drugs.
The Debate Over The U.S. War On Drugs
In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon first mentioned a nationwide “War on Drugs,” a prohibition campaign designed to target illegal drug trade. The effort has been supported by television propaganda via public service announcements and anti-drug advertisements by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
Much criticism and controversy have swirled around the “war’s” policies. Social consequences of anti-drug efforts are to blame for the exploding prison populations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the effort is racially biased. A 2006 report by the Justice Policy Institute says America’s drug-free zones around schools do little to keep young people away from drugs, instead creating racial disparities in the court system. Those who support the policies argue the country has seen success in the last several years.
Prescription Painkillers Problematic
Though heroin is illegal and is not considered relevant for medical use, other opiates have caused widespread dependence and addiction. Because of their addictive nature, opiates are considered controlled substances in the U.S., regulated by the federal government. Opiate addiction has soared as legal pharmaceuticals have flooded the market.
The diversion of prescription painkillers is big business around the world. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have had a hard time keeping up with the related thefts, property crimes, personal crimes and other infractions. A report from the office of National Drug Control Policy says as the number of prescriptions rises for opiates like Fentanyl and OxyContin , so does the number of emergency room visits related to non-medical abuse. Feeding this problem is the online market, which makes prescriptions readily available, often without a prescription.