- Today, it's widely accepted that drug addiction is a medical problem instead of a moral failure.
- A 1962 Supreme Court case is largely responsible for shifting thinking on addiction.
- Robinson v. California marked a decline of the old and cruel prohibitionist approach, which had failed to curb drug use.
From The Urge: Our History of Addiction by Carl Erik Fisher, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Carl Erik Fisher.
One cold February night in central Los Angeles, an old car full of young Black people was pulled over by two plainclothes policemen. Lawrence Robinson, a twenty‑five‑year‑old Army veteran, was sitting in the back with his girlfriend. As his friend Charles Banks stepped out of the driver’s seat, Robinson, despite the chill, was sweating. It was partly withdrawal—he was a heroin user and hadn’t had a fix in a while—but it was also fear of the law, even though they weren’t carrying drugs or any paraphernalia. In California in 1960, it was a crime just to be addicted.
Sure enough, once the officers found a fresh needle mark on Banks’s arm, they promptly arrested him. Robinson and the others were ordered out of the car and up against a nearby building. By this point, Robinson was in a full‑on flop sweat. The officers made him take off his coat and roll up his sleeves, finding an unmistakable constellation of scabs and splotchy bruises up and down the crooks of both his elbows. He was arrested and taken to the police station, where an LAPD narcotics expert grilled him further and took photos of his arms as evidence.
To fight the charges, Robinson secured Samuel Carter McMorris, an energetic young Black attorney who had recently won a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. At first, Robinson and McMorris objected on grounds that might be obvious today: the group had been “driving while Black,” and the pretext for the traffic stop in the first place was pretty flimsy (supposedly, their license plate wasn’t properly illuminated). But they lost the trial.
McMorris scrambled to appeal, probing for a deeper issue to contest. He challenged the police procedure of the traffic stop, and disputed several other elements of the case, but he also took a crucial step further and went after the law criminalizing addiction itself, arguing that it was unconstitutional to punish addiction as a crime. Robinson’s crime wasn’t an action at all, but the status of being addicted to narcotics. He sent off the appeal to the superior court, and he waited.
In the intervening months, the country continued a historic turn toward social reform. John F. Kennedy, a young, telegenic senator from Massachusetts, took the Democratic nomination from Lyndon B. Johnson and went on to defeat Richard Nixon. JFK and LBJ would hold the presidency for most of the next decade, commanders in chief of a new war against poverty and disease. McMorris’s appeal, meanwhile, was shot down in California. He refined his arguments and appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was cruel and unusual to punish addiction as a crime. The California statute was in fact a holdover from drug laws written in 1929, during the harsh era of narcotic control. Now, McMorris argued, people recognized that addiction was not a crime but a disease; it belonged in not the legal but the medical domain. The court took Robinson’s case, and McMorris, barely forty years old, soon found himself again before the old white men of the Supreme Court.
Today, many of the cases that reach the Supreme Court are the products of long‑term planning more akin to a rocket launch or military invasion than legal proceedings. Advocacy groups spend years combing the country for the perfect test case, the right combination of a sympathetic defendant and the ideal facts, and, of course, a star attorney. Not so in this case. McMorris was a true underdog, fighting what seemed to be a hopeless fight. When he appeared before the Supreme Court for oral arguments, he fearfully stuttered his way through the justices’ questions. On the face of it, he seemed woefully overmatched—but he had a gift, it seemed, for sniffing out the bigger philosophical issues that mattered to the court.
Addiction itself was on trial. The attorney for Los Angeles argued that addicts were responsible for their own addiction: Robinson was not some helpless victim, but someone who “willfully and voluntarily” chose to put “foreign fire into his veins.” The justices didn’t take too kindly to this notion at oral arguments. What about cigarettes, they asked pointedly, or people who have surgeries and then get addicted to pain pills? Would it really be fair for the state to punish all cases of addiction? Even by the end of the questioning, it seemed clear that Robinson and McMorris had found a sympathetic audience.
Sure enough, the court handed down a sternly worded 6–2 decision exonerating Robinson, proclaiming that “even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having a common cold.” Justice William O. Douglas compared the law criminalizing addiction to medieval times, when the criminally insane were “burned at the stake or hanged; and the pauper insane often roamed the countryside as wild men and from time to time were pilloried, whipped, and jailed.” At bottom, they agreed that addiction was a matter for medicine, not the law: “the addict is a sick person,” and it would be “barbarous” if the law “allowed sickness to be made a crime and permitted sick people to be punished for being sick.”
The decision in Robinson v. California was more than a tweak in the criminal code. It marked the decline of the old, prohibitionist approach and the rise of a more widespread acceptance of addiction as a medical problem. Harsh enforcement hadn’t worked. The biological research wasn’t leading anywhere—there was no scientific fix to addiction, no nonaddictive painkiller after all. The cycle of reform had turned again, and a new, revolutionary, rehabilitative ideal was on the rise: that addiction could be dealt with as a therapeutic matter.
The medical profession was finally speaking out against harsh drug laws and enforcement. The New York Academy of Medicine advocated for restarting opioid maintenance clinics—the strategy quashed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the twenties. From his semi‑retirement in California, Lawrence Kolb fired off a blistering rebuke of federal policy in a 1956 Saturday Evening Post article in which he also supported the plan for maintenance treatment. The rising prominence of social science scholarship also bolstered this movement, and the sociologist Alfred Lindesmith was especially influential in criticizing federal drug policy. Lindesmith’s research argued against simplistic explanations by questioning the line between so‑called normal people and those with addiction, and by describing addiction as a learning process beyond simple physical dependence.
In 1958, Lindesmith edited a widely read interim report of the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association that critiqued the punitive regime, doubting “whether drug addicts can be deterred from using drugs by threats of jail or prison sentences” and recommending experiments in maintenance treatment (inspired in part by the “British System” that had been providing controlled prescriptions of morphine and heroin to people with addiction since the 1920s). Harry Anslinger was livid. He mounted a sustained and vitriolic attack against the report, even trying to suppress it entirely, but he wound up looking desperate and out of touch. On one side was a respected coalition of physicians and attorneys, headed by an eminent academic who had spent years calling out the illogic of the punitive regime. On the other was the architect of that failed regime. The ABA/ AMA issued their full report in 1961. Anslinger, chastened and now in his early seventies, retired the following year, the same year the Robinson v. California decision was handed down.
Consensus was growing: treatment would no longer be confined to the basements of AA or the rarefied laboratories of Narco. No longer would we try to arrest our way out of the problem. And yet there was still great uncertainty about how exactly to help. People with addiction often denied that they had a problem and resisted treatment. Wasn’t there a point beyond which there was a need for some (hopefully benevolent) coercion? The dissenting opinions in the Robinson case highlighted exactly this tension. The justices who disagreed argued that addiction is complex, and that perhaps the law could be therapeutic by getting people off the streets who wouldn’t make that choice otherwise, committing them to a program of rehabilitation and cure. Perhaps, they argued, the goal wasn’t to control people but to catch them in early‑stage addiction and head off their problems before they progressed.
The court didn’t know it at the time, but when McMorris argued Robinson’s case before the Supreme Court, he was hiding one crucial piece of information about his client. Robinson himself had long since died of an overdose; ten months earlier, he had been found dead in a Los Angeles alleyway. Who knows whether Robinson would have been safer in jail than on the streets, but one thing was clear: despite the fact that people were finally ready to try to treat addiction, it was not yet clear how exactly to help.