The History Of Drug Laws

Drug offenses are a relatively recent developmentMost drugs are legal; a few are illegal

It might come as a surprise, but drugs have not been illegal very long, relatively speaking. To say “drugs are illegal” is a misnomer; in fact, it is legal to purchase, possess and consume most drugs.

State and federal governments have acted, in recent decades, to criminalize the use and trade in some substances deemed by governments and, presumably, the society governments represent, to be too dangerous for any consumption at all, much less unfettered, unregulated consumption.

Changing laws and societal views lead to drug criminalization

At common law, felony offenses were generally confined to violent offenses against persons such as murder, rape, robbery, arson and burglary. Over time, however, as both the law and our society has become more complex, the criminal law has evolved to consider some acts to be felonious and worthy of significant criminal punishment, despite the absence of any immediate physical violence inhered in the acts considered criminal.

Drug addiction has afflicted human beings for all of recorded history, and historical accounts from America’s founding through the present have chronicled drug use, drug addiction and the problems they engender. In general, state governments have the power to safeguard the public health, safety and welfare. When people act in a manner that endangers the public welfare, state governments may act—within certain bounds—to restrict their behavior. The federal government lacks such broad authority, and instead, under the Constitution of the United States, the federal government enjoys only certain limited, enumerated powers.

Officials in both state and federal governments grew concerned in the mid-to-late 1800s about the abuse by citizens of opiate and coca products. Two well-known products of the coca plant and opium poppies are cocaine and heroin, respectively. The federal government’s first attempt at regulating these substances—the Harrison Narcotic Act—largely failed. Until 1970, most federal laws concerning illicit drugs were designed, in effect, to tax manufacturers and distributors out of existence.

Federal Controlled Substances Act criminalizes drugs

In 1970, the United States Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. The law became effective on October 27, 1970. This Act created five drug classifications or schedules based on a given drug’s potential for abuse and harm to the public welfare.

Schedule I substances have “a high potential for abuse,” have no accepted medical use, and lack “accepted safety for use of the drug… under medical supervision.” It is illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense Schedule I substances. It is likewise illegal to possess Schedule I substances with the intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense them.

The schedules are designed on a sliding scale, with Schedule II drugs being potentially less harmful and less of a threat to public health than Schedule I drugs, and so on. Accordingly, the penalties for crimes related to Schedule I drugs are much more severe than those related to Schedule II, III, IV and V substances. The placement of varying substances on the schedules has seen its share of controversy. Marijuana, for instance, is a Schedule I substance, while Cocaine and a bevy of other drugs such as Methadone, Hydrocodone and Oxycodone are Schedule II substances.

States pass their own Controlled Substances Acts

States like North Carolina followed the federal government’s lead and passed their own Controlled Substances Acts. The Tar Heel State passed its Act in 1971. North Carolina’s Act contains six substance Schedules. Whereas federal law generally prohibits the distribution of illicit drugs, state Controlled Substances Acts make it illegal even to possess controlled substances. Persons guilty of possessing or trading in illicit substances are subject to criminal punishment as prescribed by the Act and North Carolina’s sentencing statutes.

Controlled Substances Acts lead to millions of drug cases

The passage of state and federal drug control acts in the early 1970s had a dramatic effect on society. Aside from causing a significant reduction in drug use among Americans, the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 as well as like agencies and departments within state-level law-enforcement agencies devoted to the enforcement of drug laws greatly altered the relationship between citizens and law-enforcement officials. The Acts have led to new kinds of law-enforcement activities resulting in literally millions of drug charges levied against offenders and an avalanche of drug-related cases on state and federal court dockets.

As of September 27, 2014, nearly 100,000 persons were incarcerated in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for drug offenses. These make up nearly half of all persons incarcerated by that federal bureau. Over 38,000 persons are imprisoned in the State of North Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety. Drug possession offenses account for nearly 20-percent of inmates housed in state prisons.

You can avoid becoming a Department of Corrections statistic

State and federal law-enforcement officials take drug enforcement very seriously. Elected officials such as District Attorneys and District and Superior Court Judges have run on tough-on-crime mantras for years. As officials seen as ensuring and protecting the public’s safety, prosecutors generally seek to punish serious drug offenders to the fullest extent possible under the law. Many times judges have little sympathy for drug offenders, especially repeat offenders.

If you or someone you know has been charged with a drug crime, do not hesitate to contact one of the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. The time immediately following being charged with a drug crime is the best opportunity for an attorney to gather evidence for your defense. The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are well-versed in the court procedures and substantive drug laws and policies applicable in state and federal courts in North Carolina. Give one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys a call today at (704) 370-2828.