“It was a Riot” – Berkeley, the FDA’s Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, and the Progressive Origins of Modern Drug Policing

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matt June. Enjoy!

From Telegraph Avenue to the steps of Sproul Hall, it was quite a scene in Berkeley, California in the spring of 1966. “That was right in the middle of the free speech movement,” recalled former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Inspector Frank Flaherty, “and the daily riots they had there, all the upset… real interesting time.” Another FDA man, Ed Wilkens remembered being immersed in “the hippie era.” He could still picture walking to lunch on “the main thoroughfare [and] there’d be, you know, ‘Legalize Abortion,’ ‘Legalize Marijuana.’” Joking, “it was Disney Land out there,” Wilkens concluded. “It was a riot.” Despite their own memories of this historic drama, Flaherty and Wilkens’ troupe of actors have often been forgotten or miscast. Nonetheless, their role in and around campus helped set the stage for the content and consequences of our contemporary drug policies.

Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)
Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)

In February 1966, the Food and Drug Administration prepared to launch its new Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) – designed to combat the problem of drug abuse with the first strict federal controls over amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens. Prepping their new agents to investigate the illegal manufacture and distribution of those “dangerous drugs,” officials chose the University of California’s School of Criminology as the location for their training programs. This was a natural choice, though not for the reasons one might first suspect.

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