Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy Sign the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy


Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Historical Research | Agency of Fear

Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Copyright, 1977, G. P. Putnam and Sons, New York.


Chapter 1 - Legend of the Living Dead

 The coup is a political weapon, and its planners have only political resources.



Richmond Pearson Hobson, even as a young man, had the romantic vision necessary to heroes. On June 3, 1898, as a newly graduated lieutenant of the naval academy at Annapolis, he guided the USS Merrimac into the narrow mouth of Santiago Harbor in Cuba.-Though the Navy described his ship as an antiquated tub, Hobson saw it as a magnificent fighting ship and saw himself that night as "Homeric manhood, erect and masterful on the perilous bridge of the Merrimac. " The Spanish-American War had just broken out, and the Navy planned for Hobson to trap the Spanish fleet in Santiago Harbor by scuttling his ship in the main channel. To this end, Hobson heroically had tied a string of homemade torpedoes-to the hull of the Merrimac, but owing to a failure in the ship's steering mechanism, he was unable to get the tub into the blockading position before the charges exploded. The Merrimac rapidly and ineffectually sank without interfering with any of the Spanish shipping lanes, and Hobson himself was rescued by the Spanish and imprisoned in Morro Castle, outside Havana. After Spain surrendered, Hobson was repatriated. The United States Navy, faced with the difficult choice of either court-martialing Hobson or decorating him for valor, chose the latter alternative and made Captain Hobson the first celebrated hero of the short-lived Spanish-American War. Hobson thus experienced what he later described hyperbolically as "the ecstasy of martyrdom." President McKinley personally decorated Hobson, and the Navy arranged a national speaking tour for its new hero. As crowds, swarmed about the man reputed to have blocked the entire Spanish Armada, his popularity grew, and he became known as "the most-kissed man in America" (Hobson's Kisses, a caramel candy, was even named after him). By 1906, the celebrated hero of Santiago Harbor had been elected to Congress.

Captain Hobson was at the turn of the century a hero in search of a grand cause. He first attempted to exploit his reputation as a military genius by calling for America to build a navy larger than all the other navies of the world combined, in order to protect the world against the "yellow peril" in the immediate form of Japanese military strength, which he saw increasing in Asia. He argued at every public gathering he could find that American naval supremacy was the "will of God." When his first crusade failed to excite continued interest in the nation's newspapers, and his speaking engagements dwindled, he switched his moral drumbeat to a far more pervasive enemy-alcohol, which he termed "the great destroyer."

Captain Hobson's crusade against alcohol, like his crusade against the yellow peril, attempted to mobilize public opinion into an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the outcome of which would determine the fate of Western civilization. Describing this ravaging battle, he gave statistics in various speeches for all occasions-"Alcohol is killing our people at the rate of nearly two thousand men a day, every day of the year"; "one out of five children of alcohol consumers are hopelessly insane"; "ninety-five percent of all acts and crimes of violence are committed by drunkards"; "nearly one half of the deaths that occur are due to alcohol"; "a hundred and twenty-five million white men today are wounded by alcohol." In adding up the economic cost of alcohol, he asserted that the "total loss" was more than "sixteen billion dollars," or one quarter of the gross national product of the United States. He posited a medical theory whereby alcohol attacked "the top of the brain ... since the upper brain is the physical basis of thought, feeling, judgment, self control, and it is the physical organ of the will, of the consciousness of God, of the sense of right and wrong, of ideas of justice, duty, love, mercy, self-sacrifice and all that makes character," and from that he reasoned that "the evolution of human life, the destiny of man and the will of God" were at stake in the struggle against alcohol. (While alcohol reached the "top of the brain" of "negroes," according to Hobson's theory, "they degenerate ... to the level of the cannibal." Similarly, "peaceable redmen" became "the savage" when they drank alcohol.)

Proposing in Congress that alcohol be totally prohibited, he forged a dramatic nexus between alcohol and crime. Innocent men were converted to violent criminals in almost all cases, he argued, because alcohol had degenerated the "gray matter" in their brains. Not only did alcohol destroy self-control in 95 percent of criminal cases, but it created an economic need for those afflicted with the disease of alcoholism to steal in order to pay for their chronic habit. In multiplying the number of alcoholics by the daily cost of the habit, Hobson arrived at his $16 billion estimate of the cost of crime engendered by alcohol.

By 1915 Captain Hobson had become the highest-paid speaker on the lecture circuit in America. He helped organize (with financial support from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which helped galvanize national support for Prohibition. Congress ordered his speech to the House of Representatives in 1912, entitled "The Great Destroyer," to be republished in 50 million copies by the Government Printing Office. (The order was never carried out by the GPO.) Defeated in his attempt to win the Senate seat for Alabama, Hobson organized the American Alcohol Education Association, which attempted to marshal American youth behind his crusading banner.

The dramatic mythology that Hobson had popularized, if not created, which put alcohol at the root of all of society's evils, was undermined ironically by the passage of National Prohibition legislation in 1921. Neither crime rate nor death rate was diminished by the banning of alcohol; indeed, each rose during Prohibition. Human nature did not markedly change for the better. Hobson no longer had a demon on which to unleash his virtually unlimited moral indignation. In the 1920s, thus, Captain Hobson was again in quest of a great cause.

For almost a year Captain Hobson retired from public life-or at least from public speaking engagements-and sought an issue around which another moral campaign could be organized. He soon found a new "greatest evil," which not only could be held accountable for all crime and vice but had the added advantage over alcohol of being a foreign import, thus coinciding with the xenophobia of the times. This new devil was a drug called heroin.

Heroin (from the German heroisch-"large, powerful") was first developed by the A. G. Bayer Company, of Germany, in 1898 as a "nonaddictive" pain-killer. This white powdery substance (known scientifically as diacetylmorphine) was refined from morphine, a natural alkaloid of opium, which for thousands of years had been derived from the dried juice of the unripe capsule of the opium poppy. When morphine was first isolated from opium in 1803, it was thought to be a universal panacea, called by physicians "God's own medicine," and was recommended for fifty-four diseases, which included everything from insanity to nymphomania. As late as 1889, morphine was recommended in medical journals as a drug for treating those addicted to alcohol on the grounds that it "calms in place of exciting the base of passions, and hence is less productive of acts of violence and crime." However, by 1898, morphine addiction was considered a serious national problem. And heroin (even though three times as powerful a pain-killer as morphine) was now recommended in medical journals as a new means of treating morphine addiction. The attempt to cure drug addiction by substituting one drug for another again proved to be a failure, and in the early 1900s, confronted by a growing number of heroin addicts, the American Medical Association defined heroin as a dangerous and highly addictive drug not suitable for medical treatment. At the same time, the United States State Department, under increasing pressure from American missionaries working in Asia who were concerned with the morality of opium trade, supported the idea of international laws to regulate narcotics. In December, 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which attempted to control narcotics in the United States through licensing and taxation.

Federal laws did not, however, diminish public concern over heroin. A spate of newspaper stories during the final days of World War I suggested that Germany was attempting to addict the entire American population through heroin by mixing the powder with cosmetics. And in New York City, public officials increasingly attributed bank robberies and anarchist bombings to heroin-crazed fiends. Though the postwar scare stories in the press tended to be inconsistent and fragmented, they provided Captain Hobson with fertile grounds for a new crusade. Unlike alcohol, heroin was a foreign and mysterious drug; its powers were not known to the general public. Hobson quickly foresaw the potential of reorganizing the available bits of information and assertions about this new drug into the specter of the vampire. In a frenzy of public appearances, lectures, and writings, he termed narcotics addicts "the living dead." In explaining the operations of this "demonic" drug, he used the same convenient pseudomedical jargon that, he had previously used in denouncing alcohol. For example, explaining in the September 20, 1924, issue of The Saturday Evening Post that addiction is essentially a "brain disease" responsible for most crime, he gave the following quasimedical explanation:  

The entire brain is immediately affected when narcotics are taken into the system. The upper cerebral regions, whose more delicate tissues, apparently the most recently developed and containing the shrine of the spirit, all those attributes of the man which raise him above the level of the beast, are at first tremendously stimulated and then-quite soon-destroyed....

At the same time the tissues of the lower brain, where reside all the selfish instincts and impulses, receive the same powerful stimulation. With the restraining forces of the higher nature gone, the addict feels no compunction whatever in committing any act that will contribute to a perverted supposition of his own comfort or welfare.

According to the "scientific" explanation that Hobson popularized, the degeneracy of the "upper cerebral regions" turned the addict into a "beast" or "monster," spreading his disease like a medieval vampire. Hobson explained thus: "The addict has an insane desire to make addicts of others." As evidence of this vampire phenomenon of the "living dead," Hobson gave examples of how a mother-addict had injected her eight-year-old son with heroin; how teenage addicts infected other teenagers by secreting heroin in ice-cream cones; and how lovers seduced their partners with heroin. He suggested the calculus (which President Nixon adopted a half-century later) that "one addict will recruit seven others in his lifetime." He also fully played up the xenophobic appeal of heroin's coming from foreign lands, stating, "Like the invasions and plagues of history, the scourge of narcotic drug addiction came out of Asia...... Also, like the irreversible bite of the mythical vampire, Hobson asserted, "So hopeless is the victim, and so pitiless the master," that the heroin addicts are termed "the living dead."

After having established the dreaded imagery of the vampire-addict, Hobson went on to organize his crusade. In a short time he had mobilized such groups as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Moose, the Kiwanis, the Knights of Columbus, the Masonic orders, and various other lodges in his battle against heroin. (The cause of temperance having been mitigated by the Prohibition law, the heroin crusade provided a new sense of purpose for many of these organizations.) He created the World Narcotic Association and the Narcotic Defense Foundation, whose goal was to raise $10 million in ten years for "the defense of society from the peril and menace of narcotic addiction." He also published his own journal of "narcotic education."

By 1927 Hobson claimed to have recruited "21,000 major clubs and organizations" into his various "narcotic education programs." The development of the radio networks after the First World War gave him a new national pulpit, and time was provided for his uninterrupted lectures on four hundred stations for "Narcotics Education Week," which he inspired the government to promulgate. He thus spoke to an audience of unprecedented size, and warned in 1928 that virtually all crime in America was a symptom of the new wave of heroin addiction. On the NBC network, for example, he told a nationwide audience: 

Most of the daylight robberies, daring holdups, cruel murders, and similar crimes of violence are now known to be committed chiefly by drug addicts who constitute the primary cause of our alarming crime wave....

Drug addiction is more communicable and less curable than leprosy. Drug addicts are the principal carriers of vice disease, and with their lowered resistance are incubators and carriers of the strepti coccus, pneumo coccus, the germ of flu, of tuberculosis and other diseases.

New forces of narcotic drug exploitation devised from the progress of modem chemical science, added to the old form of the opium traffic, now endanger the very future of the human race.... The whole human race, though largely ignorant on this subject, is now in the midst of a life and death struggle with the deadliest foe that has ever menaced its future. Upon the issue hangs the perpetuation of civilization, the destiny of the world and the future of the human race. 

In 1929, Hobson journeyed to Los Angeles and, again using radio, warned his West Coast audience that "drug addicts are the cause of our crime wave with its daring holdups, cruel and unnatural murders, and the chief factor in the disappearance of girls who fall to the underworld in ever increasing numbers, now estimated at seventy-five thousand per year." He argued that the "suffering of slaves" was "easy and light" compared to the "living death of drug addicts." He now asserted that addicts were responsible for crime's placing "a burden exceeding ten billions of dollars yearly on the American people." At one point he placed the number of heroin addicts as high as four million, and stressed that this "army of addicts" would contaminate all other Americans in a few short years. Up until his death, in 1937, Captain Hobson continued to broadcast to millions of Americans on the perils of narcotics, and distribute through his many organizations tens of millions of pages of educational material to schools and media. Since there were few (if any) systematic studies of heroin during this period, Captain Hobson's energetic crusade created for a large segment of the American public the stereotype of an addict as a vampire-like creature with an insatiable appetite for crime and destruction and a need to infect with his disease all who came in contact with him.

Hobson's legend of the living dead lived after him. The apocalyptic battle he depicted between the forces of good and the army of addicts provided countless politicians, police officials, and medical bureaucrats with a conceptual framework from which they could advance their particular interests. The Hobsonian notion that heroin transformed innocents into uncontrollable "desperadoes" became a persistent part of police rhetoric. For example, in explaining a "crime wave" to the newspapers in the late 1930s, New York City police commissioner Richard E. Enright said that addicts, "when inflamed with drugs ... are capable of committing any crime"; and his successor, Commissioner John O'Ryan, went further in attributing "wanton brutality and reversion to the life of the beast" to narcotics, which, he explained (apparently on Hobson's authority), "penetrate the upper brain and inflict swift and deep injury upon the gray matter so a transformation of the individual follows quickly......

Although such "scientific" explanations of crime provided a convenient rationale for an expanded police department, they were based on little more than the rhetoric that Hobson himself borrowed verbatim from his earlier crusade against alcohol. In fact, in more than fifty years of analysis, scientific studies have not substantiated the image of the crazed heroin fiend or "the living dead." On the contrary, virtually all of the medical and pharmacological investigations have found that heroin is a powerful analgesic that depresses the central nervous system and produces behavior characterized by apathy, lessened physical activity, and diminished visual acuity. Instead of inducing "wanton brutality," this medical evidence suggests that heroin-and other opiates-decreases violent response to provocations (as well as hunger and sex drives in individuals). For example, in studying the relation between drugs and violence, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse concluded, in 1973, "Assaultive offenses are significantly less likely to be committed by ... opiate users." To be sure, doctors have consistently found that heroin is a habit-forming and dangerous drug, but it does not necesarrily produce violent behavior. Nor, of course, has any evidence been found suggesting that it suppresses moral instincts, as Hobson claimed, or reverses the evolutionary process. Hobson's theory that heroin was the root cause of most crime in America also appealed to a number of liberal doctors and medical bureaucrats. After the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed, some doctors established clinics in which they legally dispensed narcotics to addicts to prevent them from suffering from what was known as withdrawal symptoms. In a number of notorious cases these clinics simply became wholesale narcotics distributors, selling heroin and morphine to all comers. The federal government held that such clinics were in violation of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which originally attempted to regulate the nonmedical sale of drugs. Medical authorities argued that the applicability of the act depended on the medical purpose for which the drug was being used. However, in 1922, in U.S. v. Behrman, the Supreme Court held that regardless of medical intent. such treatment could be construed as illegal tinder the act, and agents moved to close down the narcotics clinics and arrest thousands of doctors dispensing heroin and morphine.

Many doctors interested in treating narcotics addicts assumed that these actions by the federal government impinged on the legitimate domain of medical expertise. Their protest that addicts should be treated by doctors, not police, had little popular appeal, since there was little concerti for the individual addict on the part of the public. However, when Captain Hobson connected in the public imagination the addict and the crime problem, he also provided the doctors and liberal reformers with a publicly acceptable rationale for medical treatment. Accepting Hobson's assertion that addicts committed billions of dollars' worth of crimes (which was based on no evidence whatsoever), these reformers argued that the addict was driven to crime because he was "enslaved" by his insatiable need for heroin. They argued that because the drug was illegal and expensive, addicts were forced to steal to obtain the money for it. On the other hand, doctors were allowed freely to dispense, at low cost, heroin and other narcotics to addicts, they would have no need to commit thefts, and the American public would be spared billions of dollars' worth of crime and violence. In other words, these doctors proposed that the crime problem was essentially a medical problem, and given the freedom and resources to open narcotics-maintenance clinics, they could solve the problem.

This "enslavement theory" gained added currency in the 1960s with politicians and reformers who sought a palatable explanation for the increase in crimes in the city. Since heroin was imported from abroad, local police commissioners and mayors could claim that their urban crime rate could be controlled only if the federal government and foreign governments curtailed opium production at its source. For example, 'in 1972, New York City police commissioner Patrick V. Murphy testified: 

Local police agencies cannot ... effectively stem the flow of narcotics into our cities, much less into the needle-ridden veins of hundreds of thousands of young people. Only the Federal government is capable of making effective strides, through the massive infusion of funds to damming or diverting the ever-rising, devastating flood-tide from the poppy fields of the Middle East, South America, and Indo-China into the bodies of pathetic victims in the United States. 

In suggesting most crime was not the work of hardened criminals but of innocent individuals afflicted with an unquenchable addiction, the enslavement theory had great appeal to those objecting to stricter police measures as a solution to the crime problem. Despite its advantages, however, the empirical evidence gathered about drug addiction in the twentieth century runs counter to the main tenet of the theory. Reviews of criminal records of addicts have shown, without exception, that most addicts had long histories of criminal behavior that predated their addiction, or even their use of drugs.* In other words, according to all existing studies, heroin does not necessarily convert innocent persons into criminals: generally, criminal-addicts are first criminals, then addicts. Though heroin undoubtedly is used by a large number of individuals engaged in crime and other risk-taking behavior, there is little persuasive evidence suggesting that it is the cause rather than an effect in most cases.

* See, for example, J. Tinkleberg, "Drugs and Crimes," appendix, National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1973, C. J. Friedman and A. S. Friedman, "Drug Abuse and Delinquency," National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1973. J. C. Jacobi, N. A. Weiner, and M. E. Wolfgang, "Drug Use and Criminality in a Natural Cohort," National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, 1973.

Hobson's formulation of heroin as a chemical that would, after ingestion, render one a slave for life also provided medical practitioners with a rationale for maintenance treatment. In ruling on the Harrison Narcotics Act the courts had in effect subscribed to the theory that addiction was a dangerous condition defined by the continuous use of heroin. Thus, if the agent-heroin-were completely withdrawn from an addicted person, the "disease" would no longer exist. On the other hand, Hobson's notion that heroin induced an irreversible change in the victim whereby he was "normal" only when taking heroin, and abnormal without it, justified the dispensing of heroin by doctors as a form of medical treatment. (Methadone maintenance is merely a modern-day extension of this logic.) However, the contention that heroin irreversibly enslaves the user has not been confirmed by any large-scale study of drug use. In Vietnam, for, example, the U.S. Army found by testing urine specimens that more than 250,000 American soldiers had used heroin, and that of these, some 80,000 could be classified as addicts (in that they used it every day for long periods and suffered withdrawal symptoms). Yet, more than 90 percent of these users and addicts were able voluntarily to withdraw from the use of heroin without any medical assistance or without any permanent aftereffects. Follow-up studies showed that less than 1 percent of the total number-and less than 6 percent of the addicts-used heroin again in a two-year period after they were discharged from the Army. Doctors and scientists studying this massive data were compelled to conclude that heroin use did not necessarily lead to addiction, and that addiction was not necessarily irreversible. Indeed, the Vietnam data suggested that in large part addiction resulted from problems in adjusting to an unfriendly environment (i.e., the war in Vietnam) rather than from the chemical effects of the drug itself. Though Vietnam may be a special case in many respects, it has also been found in studies of prisoners that after they have been withdrawn from heroin, they perform normally for the balance of their terms in prison.

Hobson's definition of narcotics addiction as a threat to the very existence of civilization subsequently became the official justification for the federal government's mounting a massive law-enforcement program against drug smugglers, dealers, and even addicts. Hobson argued in his book Drug Addiction-A Malignant Racial Cancer that, as suggested by the cancer metaphor, addiction knew no racial boundaries, and it would spread from the yellow and black to the white race by "contaminating" the vulnerable youth. The suggestions he gave in his educational material-that white girls were seduced by narcotics into a life of prostitution by men of other races-were subsumed by public officials, one of whom was Harry J. Anslinger, the director of the federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. In explaining the purpose of his law-enforcement bureau, Anslinger gave the public lurid descriptions of how Orientals used drugs to entice "women from good families" into brothels. (The persistence of this cancer theory can be found not only in contemporary stories about heroin spreading out of the ghetto but also in the newspaper reports that Patricia Hearst was "drugged" into joining an interracial group of urban guerrillas.) Anslinger soon found that the Hobsonian rhetoric could be applied to marijuana as well as to heroin, and in the mid-1930s, in asking for funds to expand his bureau, he sounded the alarm of an epidemic of marijuana addiction, asserting that this "dope addiction" had brought about "an epidemic of crimes committed by young people." After publishing an article on this subject in 1937, entitled "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth," he succeeded in having Congress -pass the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Anslinger's campaign to depict marijuana as a crime-breeding drug was debunked to such an extent by later critics that the prewar film Reefer Madness, which supposedly depicted how marijuana converts innocents into criminals, is today enjoyed on college campuses as a parody.

During World War II, Anslinger waged a press campaign to convince the American public that Japan was systematically attempting to addict its enemies, including the American people, to opium, in order to destroy their civilization. Although there was no other evidence of the putative "Japanese Opium Offensive," Coast Guardships and Internal Revenue Service investigative units were directed to work with Anslinger's bureau. In 1950, during the Korean War, Anslinger again used the Hobsonian theme, leaking a report to the press that "subversion through drug addiction is an established aim of Communist China," and that the Chinese were smuggling massive amounts of heroin into the United States to "weaken American resistance." The New York Times, after reporting the assertion as fact, explained in an editorial, "Communists ... are eager to get as many addicts as possible in the territory of those to whom they are opposed." Again, despite the yellow-peril hysteria of the time, no evidence was ever found that China was sending heroin the United States.

For a host of reasons, then, Hobson's vampire like visions of addiction were kept alive by politicians, police officials, doctors, and enterprising bureaucrats. The drama of the "living dead" subverting our civilization was reported with great enthusiasm by the press rather than questioned. The themes were not woven together into any coherent pattern until the early 1960s, when the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, ingeniously transformed Hobson's vampire-addict notion into a political design.


Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Historical Research | Agency of Fear