The emergence of a drug culture, usually called a subculture, also occurred during an age of reform in the United States. The Progressive Era, as scholars have characterized the U.S. political scene, began around 1890 and persisted until just after 1920. The reform spirit of the time arose out of a felt need for order and stability amid waves of immigration, the promises and challenges of industrial consolidation, and recurring threats of recession. The historian Richard Hofstadter found that the reformers were responding to real conditions that needed to be addressed in a nation undergoing rapid urbanization. Perhaps more important, he also believed that they were engaged in a quest for meaning in their lives and, hence, were desirous of finding something akin to the sense of mission that had earlier inspired the Civil War generation. Social reform naturally became one of the causes they championed.
To be sure, Americans had inveighed against drink throughout their history, especially since the Jacksonian era. The influx of immigrants, many of whom drank as a matter of course, gave the temperance movement a new urgency in the late nineteenth century. Assimilation through acculturation became the standard by which reformers measured the success of their endeavors to transform immigrants into good Americans.
Moral and social reformers did not limit their evangelism to newcomers. They sought to curb, if not stop, excessive drinking among the male citizenry of the republic and tried to restrict, if not eliminate, the practice of prostitution. Ultimately they turned their attention to the use and abuse of opiates. In their striving to make the United States what is now inaccurately termed a "drug-free" nation, reformers created a deviant class within society. Before reformers singled out and stereotyped casual users and addicts as deviants, though, the educated and the well respected were more likely to use narcotics than members of the working class, who typically drank alcohol because of its comparatively low cost. The medical community, for instance, especially seemed to fall prey to opiate abuse. By the early 1900s researchers feared that middle-class women, young people with time on their hands, and hard-working, progressive professionals would succumb to the temptation of drugs.
The concern that educated whites would find drug use an exhilarating experience had some basis in fact. No less a social reformer than Jane Addams wrote in her account of life at Hull House that she and four classmates had experimented with opium while attending Rockford College. The data are not available to establish the extent of drug abuse or addiction during the Progressive Era; estimates range widely between one hundred thousand and one million persons. Usage, of course, often remained a secret known only to the user's doctor or druggist. Despite public impressions that addiction was rapidly increasing, consumption may actually have been in decline in the early 1900s. Consequently the reality of a serious drug problem at that time remains open to question.
Even before the inception of progressivism, some reformers in the United States, baffled by the intractability of addiction, associated the prevalence of drugs in America with a foreign presence. These reformers did not directly charge foreigners with causing America's problem with drugs. What they were alleging was rather more sinister. They contended that foreigners, often Asians, and other purveyors of drugs had managed to unlock the worst instincts of the American populace. That is, many Americans were predisposed to surrender themselves to the drug habit "based as it is," in the words of a Massachusetts physician, "upon a [human] craving no laws can eradicate."
It seems evident, therefore, that reformers in several drug producing or consuming countries around the world had a common objective in the early twentieth century: to save from themselves those people living in a culture of drugs. Drug reformers rarely asked whether their basic assumptions about the drug cultures within their societies were accurate. By failing to so inquire, they consigned those subcultures to the margins of society. The ready identification of involvement with drugs as characteristic of a dangerous culture enabled Washington to promote its style of drug control as a desperately needed international goal. In 1903 the governing Philippine Commission failed in its attempt to return to the Spanish contract system in the Philippines. Charles H. Brent, Episcopal bishop of the Philippines and a leading antidrug crusader, declared the entire opium enterprise from import to sale to consumption an unacceptable "social vice …a crime."
A report by the Philippine Opium Committee, set up in 1903 to study opium throughout East Asia, had recommended the creation of a government monopoly in the islands. Deriving revenue from opium, critics charged, would make the United States no different from Great Britain, which was still selling chests of Indian opium to the Chinese. Thus the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1905 mandating for the Philippines the total prohibition by 1 March 1908 of all commerce in opium except for governmental and medical purposes. As the law went into effect the opium business went underground, thereby creating not only an illegal drug subculture but also a chronic law enforcement problem.
The inability of law enforcement personnel in the Philippines to curtail the illicit trade in opium allowed the United States to propose a deceptively simple solution to the emerging global drug problem: control at the source. First at Shanghai in 1909 and thereafter at three meetings held at The Hague beginning in 1911, U.S. officials, notably with the help of Chinese reformers, called upon other major powers to control the production and manufacturing of narcotics. How such controls would come about could not easily be agreed upon. The British, for example, were reluctant to put a premature end to the declining Indian trade, and commercial interests in China did not want to surrender a lucrative source of revenue. Asian opium smokers living outside of China understandably feared the loss of accustomed access to their drug.
The Shanghai meeting constituted the opening skirmish in what some analysts have called a new Hundred Years' War: the campaigns to control drugs in the twentieth century. The U.S. delegation, led by Brent and Dr. Hamilton Wright, who was well known for his work in Asia on communicable diseases, knew that mobilizing an antiopium alliance would be no easy task. The meeting accomplished little more, therefore, than the introduction of the issue of opium control. Great Britain, for its part, continued not unreasonably to doubt China's willingness and ability to prevent the spread of poppy production and opium smoking.
Shanghai did, however, set the stage for additional international meetings and gave Wright and other reformers a basis for insisting that the U.S. Congress pass domestic drug control legislation. Armed with the moral high ground for having put in place a program of strict prohibition in its Asian colony, the United States was determined to accept nothing less than the same from other regional imperial powers, namely the British, the French, and the Dutch. The realities of the economic importance of opium in East and Southeast Asia and the inception of the Great War impeded American plans. Other major nations in attendance at the Hague Opium Conference of 1911–1912 agreed only to take preliminary steps to bring the illicit trade in opium under control.
Meanwhile the United States moved toward passage of its first comprehensive drug control law, the Harrison Act of 1914. During the first week of the Shanghai meeting the U.S. Congress had prohibited the importation of smoking opium. The limited and, for Wright, disappointing outcome of the meeting at Shanghai convinced him to intensify his efforts on behalf of federal regulation. Only when the United States had in place adequate federal antidrug legislation, he reasoned, could America legitimately ask other nations to follow its lead.
Fears based on race and class clinched the case for federal drug control. America's cultural majority perceived heroin, which was usually taken through subcutaneous injection, and cocaine, a drug reportedly favored by African Americans in the South, as substances that decent people shied away from. By definition those who consumed these drugs were exhibiting antisocial, deviant behavior. Since the American public feared the spread of addiction and its attendant dangerous and often criminal behavior, the advocates of federal control had virtually no trouble making their case.
With scant debate Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act in December 1914. President Woodrow Wilson soon signed it into law, and it took effect on 1 March 1915. This law, typical of the regulatory legislation of its time, promised to promote cultural homogeneity and social stability through the unlikely though quintessentially progressive device of revenue collection. Despite widespread popular support for prohibition, the Harrison law did not cut off access to narcotics any more than imperial edicts in Qing China had eliminated the practice of opium smoking.