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

On the Narcotic Trail


Deputy Commissioner, Bureau of Narcotics

From Current History, May, 1934. pp181-184

IT is unfortunate that the American public is so little acquainted with the problem of narcotics and the work that goes on day by day to fight the illicit trade in drugs. Nearly every American schoolboy had an opinion upon the late lamented Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead act, but were the average adult to be asked what he thought of the narcotic problem, his answer would be based upon the misinformation derived from so called true story magazines or from sensational newspapers which delight in announcing that "four men and three beautiful young girls were arrested today when Federal agents swooped down on a lavishly furnished apartment in the exclusive Heights section of the city."

The unvarnished facts of the battle against drug trafficking are exciting enough, and no sensationalism is needed. Lurid coloring, moreover, is likely to obscure the facts or conceal them altogether. The Federal Government is confronted with a titanic and apparently endless job in fighting dope peddling, and if the public fully understood the circumstances of the crusade they might more intelligently aid the efforts exerted by Washington.

Most narcotics imported into the United States are necessary to alleviate pain and suffering. For a long the trade in these drugs was unregulated but on Feb. 9, 1909, a Federal law was enacted prohibiting the importation of opium, its preparations or derivatives, except for medicinal purposes. This act, amended in 1914 and 1922, contains the only Federal provisions for controlling the movement of narcotics. The Harrison narcotic act, passed on Dec. 17, 1914, taxed importers of crude opium and coca leaves, as well as pharmaceutical houses, drugs, physicians, dentists, and veterinarians who handled or dispensed narcotics in their respective professions. This act, intended solely as a revenue measure, forbade the dispensing of narcotics to those addicts who were not medical cases, and thus made it profitable for illegitimate dealers to ply their trade.

The Federal Government's field agents responsible for enforcing the narcotic laws were greatly handicapped by the advent of national prohibition, for they were soon identified with prohibition agents, and where once they had received cooperation in their efforts to deal with narcotic bootleggers, they eventually found suspicion and closed doors. By 1927 the Bureau of Prohibition was established, and narcotic work was further hampered by being assigned to the same agency. Only when a separate Bureau of Narcotics was instituted in 1930 could the agents fighting the illicit dope trade begin to disentangle themselves from their association with the generally unpopular liquor sleuths.

The present task of the Bureau of Narcotics is to cooperate with the Customs Service to prevent smuggling of contraband drugs into the country, and to eliminate illegal domestic traffic. The bureau also supervises and checks the trade in drugs by those who are permitted by law to engage in it. About eighteen months ago a drive was begun to induce the separate States to assume responsibility for the suppression of peddlers within their borders by enacting a uniform State narcotic law, so that Federal enforcement officers might be better able to devote their energies to dealing with the mayor sources of supply and the interstate traffic. But thus far only Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Virginia have enacted the measure into law.

The problem of suppressing the illicit trade within the borders of the United States consists principally in fighting the narcotic racketeer and his peddlers. Some petty criminal makes the mistake of selling a grain of heroin (probably 10 per cent heroin and 90 per cent milk sugar and quinine) to an agent. He is thereupon arrested, and, fearing imprisonment and the consequent shutting off of his personal narcotic supply, usually offers to 'turn the connection" which sold him the drug in the first place. The "higher-up" is encountered and a sale of probably 100 ounces at $90 or $100 an ounce is negotiated-with marked money. When the purchase is completed the middleman is in turn arrested, and the search for the large scale smuggler is begun.

But, as in the case of liquor enforcement, the man at the top, the syndicate boss, is hard to catch. A few years ago a guard watching a consignment of smoking opium worth $500,000 was arrested, but he denied knowing what was in the packages or who had given him his job, and indicated that he would unhesitatingly tell a jury that a pair of strangers had hired him to take care of $500,000 worth of merchandise. Later this man changed his mind and pleaded and his confession resulted indictment of a large-scale smuggler who, however, has never been arrested.

Narcotic agents have had their successes, on the other hand. In 1933, starting from a small "buy,' from a female peddler, they worked through to one connection after another to make ten arrests, and eventually discovered that Japanese morphine entering the United States in false bottoms of drums of tuna oil. Judah and Isaac Ezra, former British residents of Shanghai and one-time millionaires were sentenced to twelve years in a Federal penitentiary as leaders of the gang responsible for this smuggling.

Difficult as it is to gather evidence against major operators, it is sometimes still harder to convince our courts that severe penalties should be imposed upon the guilty. An agent in one judicial district may obtain a conviction and rejoice that a large operator is out of the way for five or ten years (figures show that the criminal usually returns to his profitable racket), while in the neighboring judicial district fellow-officers of the law bemoan the fact that they have spent six months in catching an illicit trafficker only to find that the five year sentence he received in court has been reduced in chambers the next day to three years.

Last October, for instance, a federal judge from the West sitting temporarily in an Eastern court sentenced one Max Gordon, alias One-Eyed Maxie, to five years' imprisonment. Maxie had been previously convicted three times for a total of eleven years, and this time had been arrested with a bag containing about six pounds of gum opium His attorneys pleaded that since in another case a culprit had been sentenced to only four years imprisonment for having been caught with 1,000 pounds of opium, Maxie should receive better treatment. Despite the arguments of the prosecutor in chambers next day, the penalty was lowered and the report to the bureau in Washington contained the information that the presiding judge thought that "heavy sentences do not act as deterrents and for that reason the sentence was reduced to three and one half years and a fine of $1,000."

The narcotic agents in the larger cities must combat all forms of the illicit trade, but those assigned to rural areas are faced principally with the problem of the distribution of morphine by unethical medical practitioners. The medical profession as a whole, of course, aligns itself with the government, but as there have been lawyers disbarred and clergymen unfrocked, so have there been physicians imprisoned for violating the narcotic laws With the careful check upon sales, the bureau soon learns when a doctor in a small community has purchased enough morphine to treat thousands of medical cases for months, and an inspector is dispatched to investigate the situation. It is surprising how often he uncovers questionable practices. One informer obtained from a doctor a prescription for two ounces of morphine sulphate which is easily 3,500 medical doses. Another physician issued 400 prescriptions to transient drug addicts in the course of eleven months.

A jury is usually loath to convict a Professional man, and if only one or more "buys" have been made by the agent or only a few prescriptions uncovered in the neighboring drug stores he is usually acquitted. The rural jurymen no doubt know some aŁ the addicts for whom the doctor has been prescribing, and feel that since "Sarah and Lem mind their own business and do their own work," there is little harm in their being relieved by their physician. Yet these same jurymen fail to realize that one addict makes another, and that the offending doctor in violating his Hippocratic oath has become a menace to his community.

It is sometimes difficult, even after a conviction, to have the authorities revoke a physicians license. In many instances, even before the agent's report of the arrest is received in Washington, a shower of protesting letters on behalf of the physician from outstanding citizens begin to descend upon the Bureau of Narcotics There have been instances, moreover, in which Congressmen are enlisted to inquire into the case of an arrested physician or druggist, and recently at least thirty official Federal, State and municipal-hastened to the rescue of an arrested pharmacist. According to their letters, he was the community hero, a great humanitarian. They failed to realize that even were he such a high-minded individual, he had dispensed on prescriptions four times as great a quantity of narcotic drugs as all the other drug stores in the city put together.

The bureau finds itself handicapped in its work not only by lenient judges and short-sighted friends of connected persons but also by the dissemination of misleading information. All too frequently men seeking public office seize upon the word "dope" for their campaign speeches, and shout about the widespread use of drugs by "high school girls and boys." A few dull youngsters have tried marihuana cigarettes (the sale of the hemp weed marijuana is not restricted by Federal legislation), but the practice is not widespread, and the records show that few persons under 20 years of age use narcotics and the average age of addict is 32 years. Nor is it true, as a distinguished speaker recently declared over a national radio hook-up, that there are 1,000,000 drug addicts in the country. If there were that many, nearly the entire world supply at narcotics would be needed in the United States A more nearly correct figure is 100,000.

It is also repeatedly charged that drugs are largely responsible for crime, and about a year ago the League of Nations issued a document on "The Connection Between Crime and Drug Addiction." As a matter of fact, a major criminal is rarely an addict, and, according to figures furnished by Lewis E. Lawes, Warden of Sing Sing Prison, only sixty eight of the 1,562 men admitted to Sing Sing during 1932-33 were users of narcotics. Warden Lawes explains further that most criminals addicted to drugs commit minor felonies, at the most, and are sentenced to county penitentiaries or city or town jails. The major criminals as a rule have only one interest in narcotics and that is to sell at $100 an ounce a drag that is often cut seven, eight or nine times, as bootleggers cut liquor. In the legitimate trade, morphine sells at about $10 an ounce, and heroin is forbidden

Minor crimes undoubtedly are more frequent among addicts than among happier citizens, but this must be attributed to the addict's terrible agony without the drug. He is driven to petit larceny to obtain money to satisfy his craving, and is more to be pitied than regarded as a criminal menace. The Federal Government recognizes this fact, and an institution to house 1,000 habitual users of drugs is now being built in Lexington, Ky. Here will be sent those arrested for peddling narcotics and here also will be a haven for those who wish to rid themselves of the habit. This institution will be under the direction of the United States Public Health Service, as will be that now planned for construction at Fort Worth, Texas. By study and observation of the inmates, it is, hoped a method of permanent cure will be developed, so that the number of these unfortunate people will not increase and so that the long and bitter fight against the illicit drug trade may eventually be brought to an end.

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

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Historical Research