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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up


The Drug Hang Up, America's Fifty-Year Folly

by Rufus King

Chapter 1

Senator Hughes's Friendly Anger

IN THE EARLY 1960's, after a forty-year freeze, the drug-abuse pattern in America commenced to shift. Users took up new substances like LSD and revived markets for old substances like cocaine. Marijuana became important for the first time. There were notable changes in the make-up of the drug using community; citizens with-"advantages" began turning up as offenders, many of them not yet fully adult.

Similar shifts were noted in other Western countries. In England, for example, which had also been through a stable era of about four decades, but one characterized by virtually no problem, London youngsters began taking up pot, and the addict population grew from the low hundreds toward the low thousands.

The forces accounting for such changes in the relation between people and chemicals, in America and elsewhere, seem as complex as the sum of A the other problems of our times. Everything from the growing ill repute of cigarettes and the high cost of alcohol to increased leisure and the general discontent of our younger generations may play a part. And coinciding with these forces-or perhaps contributing to them-has been a Pandora release of new substances; the development of new drugs, new derivatives, and simplified production methods has created varieties of abuse unheard of a few years ago, while drug abusers now appear curious and sophisticated enough to stay close behind each new step taken by the laboratory pioneers.

Simultaneously in the early 1960's America's national response to the drug-abuse problem began coming under critical scrutiny. Alternatives to bare criminal repression were explored. So-called dangerous drugs were entrusted to the control of an agency with scientific orientation, -the Food and Drug Administration, rather than to the tough Narcotics Bureau in the Treasury Department.

Education was urged, and even private research in drug-abuse areas began encountering less official discouragement. New stress was laid on rehabilitation. The Supreme Court applied the Bill of Rights to knock out criminal penalties for merely being a drug addict.

A detailed account of all this will be presented in the ensuing narrative. But to put what follows in perspective, it must be noted that the pattern has now been frozen again. And though enforcement proponents were compelled to make a few concessions, America has been brought almost full circle back to 1920. To stem what former FDA Commissioner Dr. James Goddard calls "the Niagara of chemistry . . . the chemistry of trauma, psychosis, and death," we have reinstated the federal criminal apparatus with powers that make yesterday's tyrannies look almost beneficent.

On October 27, 1970, a week before the national elections, President Nixon took time from his campaigning to pay an unusual visit in the nation's capital. At his insistent u Congress had rushed out a sixty-one page drug bill titled Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, and instead of the customary White House ceremony, the President took this bill to a downtown office building, where the Department of justice maintains headquarters for its Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, for the official signing.

There he met Attorney General Mitchell and BNDD Director Ingersoll, the latter a former police chief, in a room decorated with trophies from Ingersoll's raids, to deliver a fight talk (which also reached anyone exposed to the national news media that day). Congress had been requested to act, the President said, because drugs were a major cause of street crime in the United States and, besides, their use was alarmingly increasing among young people. But now the federal government was going to move, and move very strongly in the field: "We can deal with it. We have the laws now. We are going to go out and enforce those laws." Calling for public support, the President seemed to be inviting citizens to stir up panic instead of giving calm backing for the federal effort:

And I urge all who may be listening to this signing ceremony to remember that in every home in America, in every school in America, in every church in America, over the television and radio media of this country, in our newspapers, the message needs to get through, that this nation faces a major crisis in terms of the increasing use of drugs, particularly among our young people.

Secretary Richardson of HEW, personifying the government's medical, scientific, and educational forces, attended the ceremony as a spectator but did not participate. This was the final act of an internal struggle that had been instrumental in unseating Richardson's predecessor, Secretary Finch, and which had climaxed earlier in the year when a dozen senators, led by Senator Harold Hughes, tried first to substitute a soft-line education and rehabilitation bill for the Administration's law-enforcement measure, and then, failing that, to tack it on the latter by amendment.

When HEW Assistant Secretary Roger Egeberg told Hughes the Nixon Administration opposed his bill ("Drug Abuse and Drug Dependence Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1970") and, in effect, wanted no changes except an enlargement of the repressive powers conferred on the Attorney General, Hughes – "not understanding how you and Secretary Finch could relegate this to the Department of Justice" -responded (referring to drug-traffic victims):

I regret I feel this passion, but they have been relegated to dying in the street forever, and I want to get them out. I need your help to do it. I am angry, it is obvious. I am angry that the Department says they have everything they need, when everything in the country indicates it isn't being done. So, I will continue to be angry. I hope it will be a friendly anger as we try to work out these problems that we have between us.

In the end the Hughes forces lost to a move that merely added a token enlargement of the government's existing mental-health efforts; Secretary Finch lost to Attorney General Mitchell; and President Nixon’s problems in this area were worked out by solutions borrowed straight from President Harding.

Every effort has been made in the telling of this long tale, starting from the beginning of America's involvement with drugs, to be as accurate and dispassionate as possible. But the subject is so inflamed these days that even the fairest statements are liable to be denounced as slanted to some particular viewpoint, while incontestable matters of fact (smoking pot, for example, does not lead specially to heroin) keep getting lost in controversy.

But anyway I do have a viewpoint. America has scarcely done anything right about drug problems since somewhere around the year 1912, and even then our spokesmen at the Hague Opium Convention, and our lawmakers at home, were moving onto shaky ground. We have been misled at practically every turn-misguided in the basic effort to control personal indulgences by criminal repression, often out of step with the rest of the world, wrong in tolerating so much federal domination of the field, and mistaken to some degree in nearly every current appraisal. We have been perennially victimized by unscrupulous exploitation of drug issues in the arena of Politics.

And at the same time there are indeed new challenges and new dimensions in today's problems, calling for accurate, coolheaded responses. We should be striving to eliminate old misconceptions, to come up with right answers, to avoid repeating old mistakes. Instead we seem bent on escalating this persistent national problem into a full-blown national disaster. The 1970 drug-control bill, administered by hard-nosed enforcement officials, may well achieve no less than that for us.

So perhaps a few traces of something like the good Senator's friendly anger may creep into my story. Perhaps as it unfolds they may even be found not unforgivably amiss.