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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up


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

by Rufus King

Chapter 4

Hysterical Beginnings

PEOPLE who had a direct stake in turning the American drug problem from a minor social concern into a major law-enforcement commitment fifty years ago, and in keeping it that way ever since, have always been few in number. Their success started with some lucky breaks-lucky for them, that is, not for the national welfare or for, so far, almost three generations of their countrymen.

As has been noted, at the outset there was no popular swell, like the anti-saloon movement, against evils inherent in drugs. Even the medical profession, with few exceptions, hailed the advent of each new narcotic as a welcome addition to its scanty armory. U.S. leadership in attempts to repress opium in the Far East led to the Hague Convention which in turn was a major factor in inducing Congress to pass the Harrison Act. But in the latter action other forces came into play, one generated, unlikely as it now sounds, by a famous rivalry in the elite "Four Hundred" of New York society.

In 1911 William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the renowned Commodore and a towering figure among New York socialites, divorced his first wife and, after an appropriate interval, married Ann Harriman Sands. Also after a seemly interval, the first Mrs. Vanderbilt married O. H. P. Belmont. And soon the second Mrs. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Belmont became cutthroat rivals. The ladies jousted for prominence in their own circles and for attention in the society pages of the New York press, but Mrs. Belmont gained a telling advantage by espousing the cause of the suffragettes, thus making a place for herself in the news coverage on front pages as well.

Seeing her rival thus featured in accounts of the not-so-gentle campaign waged by the fair sex for the electoral franchise, Mrs. Vanderbilt (and, as it turned out, her attorneys-lawyers doubled for public relations consultants in 1912) cast about for a cause with which she could win similar recognition. And what she hit upon was repression of narcotic drugs.

As Mrs. Belmont's distaff revolt tied into other major trends in American life the economic emancipation of women, the decline of the paternal-protector image, the disillusionments of war-so Mrs. Vanderbilt's crusade against drugs picked up undeserved momentum because of mounting pressures behind the Prohibition drive. Described by one observer as "a famous lady who had time on her hands, money in the bank, and rivalry in her heart," she organized anti-narcotics committees, led marches up and down Fifth Avenue (with news coverage that must have produced despair in the camp of her rival), and, thanks to the bottomless reservoir of Vanderbilt funds, launched telegram and letter campaigns to lawmakers in Albany and Washington on the theme that helpless people of the lower classes had to be protected from "this poison."

Partly as a result of such efforts, just before World War I the State of New York enacted the first repressive anti-narcotic law in America, and, for that matter, the world’s first, if one disregards the unique situation in the Far East. Known as the Towns-Boylan Act, the New York law, which became effective July 1, 1914, aimed at all nonmedicinal trafficking and use, with substantial criminal penalties. A New York Times editorial commended Mrs. Vanderbilt for her part in developing this legislation; but apparently her publicists had overplayed it, for Representative Boylan, the House cosponsor, thereupon announced that he gave full credit for initiating the bill to Dr. Charles B. Towns, stating that if Mrs. Vanderbilt had helped at all it had only been by acting as an "agitator."

Nonetheless the cause was carried on among her followers with zeal. Ladies as unfamiliar with opium as their counterparts today are with LSD joined her crusade to save lost souls and rack up society-page credits for sharing in the good work. More action committees were formed, more letter and telegram campaigns were organized, and delegations waited upon editors, ministers, and teachers. A permanent national organization, the White Cross, was launched to broaden the scope of the campaign.

However, these socialite crusaders, most of them New Yorkers, might have had less effect had it not been for other greater events shaping the nation's history in this era. The 1914 Harrison Tax Act was neglected, and even the drive for national prohibition and the suffragette movement were pushed into the background, as America drifted into her first Great War. Long before the United States actually entered the hostilities, Germany's goosestepping legions began to be depicted as Hun, Boche, and Antichrist. German cruelty, German immorality, and the terrifying reach of the German grand design for world conquest emerged as focal points for all of America's fears and fantasies.

Vague warnings of danger of national enslavement by drugs, blended with fuzzy notions about spies, saboteurs, and an imminent German invasion of the New World-and suddenly the harmless, pitied victim of the drug habit emerged as the menacing dope fiend, tool of German malevolence. The campaign to reduce trafficking in drugs rapidly picked up overtones of patriotic fervor.

In New York a minor war was waged under the Town-Boylan law against cocaine (the intoxicating and debilitating effects of heavy cocaine use being more obvious than those of the opiates). It was reported in the press that "cocaine poisoning" produced insanity and that the drug was being widely sold to school children. Harlem was supposed to be so full of dangerous child addicts that good citizens were urged to stay out of it. One 1916 estimate purported to establish that there were 200,000 highly dangerous drug fiends in the streets of New York City, not only lurking among marginal classes but ranging through the entire "upper world" as well.

Extra emphasis was given to such reports from a curious direction: opponents of Prohibition pointed to the suddenly discovered menace of drug enslavement as a foretaste of what would happen when the threatened curtailment of beverage alcohol took effect. By 1917 increasing numbers of civic leaders and responsible citizens were calling for federal intervention and strict federal controls to stop the drug traffic. In that year the first caches of illegal drugs were seized by Treasury agents (and Treasury then started the deceptive practice, continued ever since by drug-law enforcers, of announcing each seizure in terms of how many millions of dollars the contraband substances might have been worth if they had been sold at maximum prices in the illegal market).

Also in 1917 the first narcotic agent was caught and convicted for taking a large bribe.

Estimates of the addict population in New York City alone jumped to 300,000. Heart-rending details of addiction among women and young children were unfolded. Simultaneously it was revealed that drug peddlers were concentrating their efforts on military camps, producing many soldier addicts. In April 1918 The New York Times reported that a murder victim-who, they implied, paid with his life for the disclosure-had told the authorities how German agents were actively engaged in smuggling drugs on a large scale into army training centers. The Treasury Department announced officially that it had discovered addiction to be spreading all over the country, and that new addicts were being found in alarming numbers among young soldiers. In August 1918 the press reported details of another German plot to furnish drugs in the camps.

Again the good ladies moved in: it was rumored that the fiendish enemy had agents prowling around schoolyards offering candy to innocent tots; the candy was, of course, loaded with dope, so any child unfortunate enough to eat a piece would immediately return to its family as a confirmed and dangerous 'heroin maniac." This news prompted a committee of congressional wives in Washington to issue a series of national appeals to all mothers to teach their children never to eat anything tendered by a stranger and, if possible, to do their extra bit for the war effort by bringing their broods home from school. for lunch every day.

On the editorial page of The New York Times for December 18, 1918, a bare month after the end of hostilities, there was offered the following "blood-curdling story of German fiendishness," purportedly relayed to the Times from a reputable source in Iceland:

Into well-known German brands of toothpaste and patent medicines -naturally for export only habit-forming drugs were to be introduced; at first a little, then more, as the habit grew on the nonGerman victim and his system craved ever-greater quantities. Already the test had been made on natives in Africa, who responded readily; if the German Staff had not been in such a hurry German scientists would have made their task an easy one, for in a few years Germany would have fallen upon a world which cried for its German toothpaste and soothing syrup-a world of "cokeys" and "hop fiends" which would have been absolutely helpless when a German embargo shut off the supply of its pet poison.

In this period (1918-19) it was authoritatively reported and widely believed that drug abuse had shifted its point of incidence and overnight had become a great threat to young people; 70 per cent of known addicts were discovered to be under twenty-five years of age; children in the New York public school system were allegedly turning up in their classrooms completely stoned.

And still the interlinking coincidences go on: even the full blown drug hysteria which had developed by the end of the war might have subsided and been forgotten along with other wartime excesses had it not fitted perfectly into the empirebuilding ambitions of a brand-new Washington agency, the ill famed Prohibition Unit. Created in the Treasury Department to enforce the Volstead Act against the liquor traffic, it naturally also received the task of enforcing the tax provisions of the Harrison Act.

Cop-and-robber law enforcement was a new field for the federal government in 1919. Wartime security had been assured by the military services, revenue collection had been primarily the responsibility of the Coast Guard, and only a small handful of federal officers policed federal enclaves and saw to the enforcement of federal laws in such special areas as counterfeiting. Even in the case of out-and-out criminal prohibitions like the Mann Act (outlawing interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes), the detecting and apprehending of offenders was left mainly to local authorities, who then turned the culprits over to the Department of justice for prosecution. Treasury's Internal Revenue Service was newborn: though an emergency federal income tax had been imposed briefly at the time of the Civil War, the first regular federal levy on incomes dated only from the law which followed ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913.

So now the U.S. Treasury took up where Mrs. Vanderbilt and the wartime Cassandras had left off. A fanatical crusade was launched against drug users by the T-men. While some Prohibition Unit agents began shaking up the populace with roughneck searches, catch-all roadblocks, and end-to-end inspections of passenger trains in search of contraband liquor, others set out to badger everyone connected with narcotic drug use. In 1918 the Narcotics Division reported that it had dropped charges against (that is, instituted and then terminated-or, in other words threatened) 14,701 persons registered under the Act. In 1919 the figure was 22,595, and in 1920 it jumped to 47,835.

Press rumors about addicts in the armed forces and 'dope fiends' coming home from the services to menace their communities now took on the dignity of official Treasury pronouncement. At the same time, dirty work formerly credited to German agents began being attributed to Orientals working out of sinister opium dens and organized in "tongs." Japan was officially accused of fostering the trade in morphine with China (which her government was indeed permitting, mostly via transshipments) for the supposedly quite realizable purpose of conquering that mass of humanity in short order when the drug had sapped China of her will to resist. It was agents of the Yellow Peril who now reportedly prowled about American schoolyards handing out dope to children. Arrests of drug offenders with heavy epicanthic folds were pushed for first-page coverage. T-men even took to malting raids on foreign ships lying at dockside in New York.

In April 1919 a special committee appointed by Prohibition Commissioner Roy A. Haynes and headed by G. C. Keith, his deputy in charge of narcotics enforcement, made its own official assessment of the situation. It reported that there were 1.5 million .victims of the drug habit" in the United States, that no part of the country was without its quota of addicts, and that the problem was ballooning everywhere. It also noted that since only three states-New York, Massachusetts, and Texas-had followed the federal lead in enacting drug-control legislation at the state level, the full burden of the anti-drug campaign would have to be borne by federal authorities.

According to this Treasury group, heroin costing $12 to $15 per ounce at wholesale through legal channels brought five times that price on the black market, and it was claimed that the addict population was now younger because of the large numbers of young men returning from military service enslaved to the habit. It was also disclosed that 80,000 potential draftees had been rejected because they were drug addicts during the brief period of wartime conscription, and that an alarming number of medical doctors, commissioned directly into the services, had themselves turned out to be "drug fiends."

Dr. Royal S. Copeland, New York City Health Commissioner, made headlines by estimating that there were some 8,000 young addicts loose on the streets of his city and warning that with legitimate supplies of drugs cut off, this small army would be 'likely to break out violently when the narcotic hunger becomes stronger,' since "if the victims are permitted to roam about without the drugs they become dangerous."

In a statement released on June 12, 1919, the Secretary of the Treasury reported that the United States was consuming ten to sixty times as much opium per capita as any other nation; that the number of opium users was somewhere between 200,000 and 4 million, and "probably more than" a million; and that dope peddlers had set up their own elaborate national organizations to procure and distribute their illicit wares. He warned that the drug problem would inevitably grow more acute as the enforcement of Prohibition compelled persons who had been dependent on alcohol to comfort themselves with dope.

Commissioner Copeland chimed in again, observing to the press that drug addiction "is born in the underworld and is the twin brother of every crime in the great categories of violence " this time evoking a mild rejoinder from Deputy Police Commissioner Carlton Simon, who asserted that of the 250,000 addicts known by his Department to be currently using drugs in New York City, no more than 15 per cent were to be found in the "criminal class."

Schoolchildren were once more reported to be nodding at their desks under the influence of drugs. There were press accounts of very young tots being turned into fiends by dope peddlers so that they could then be used as agents to induce other kindergartners to take up $5- or $10-dollar-a-day drug habits.

A substantial increase in the number of arrests for general crimes in New York City in 1919-20 was labeled a "crime wave" and attributed to the drug problem, and the latter was described in every reference as "growing" and "increasing." The Knights of Columbus launched a national crusade with the announcement that they had discovered there were indeed at least 4 million addicts in the country. A sharp increase in addiction was announced in Brooklyn; the campaign waged by Scotland Yard to combat London's drug traffic, centering of course in Limehouse, was luridly described; drugs were said to have been distributed on a large scale to high school girls in Denver; and Pennsylvania reported in, with an addict population estimated to be 30,000it was said that in Pittsburgh alone some 5,000 addicts were spending $25,000 per day for heroin. Alarming stories of sales of drugs to young schoolchildren came from El Paso and Rochester, and someone made headlines with a new estimate, that 30 per cent of all residents in the New York metropolitan area were addicted.

Meanwhile, raids in Chinatown and spectacular disclosures about sinister Oriental peddlers went on apace. Meanwhile, also, patterns of corruption kept unfolding, as the temptingly greater and greater profits of drug trafficking took their toll: one Treasury agent caught taking hefty bribes in 1917 has already been mentioned; scandal hit the Chicago Narcotics Division office in 1919, and several Treasury officials were indicted there as a result; a former Deputy Collector was charged with extortion and diverting cocaine into illegal channels in 1920. Other police officials and local officers were accused of taking bribes, or of active participation in the traffic as partners in peddling rings, and even the Canadian Mounties caught two of their famous Redcoats directly involved in drug trafficking.

Early in 1923 it was estimated-on the basis of an alleged addict population of a million, 85 per cent of whom were stated to be confirmed criminals-that the drug traffic was costing the nation more than $1.8 billion per year.

But even in these early days, a few counterforces began to appear. The Narcotics Division was reorganized within the Bureau of Internal Revenue to make it an independent subagency distinct from the free-swinging Prohibition Unit, and as we shall see in the next chapter, it turned from broadside attacks to narrower assaults on the so-called clinics, and particularly on the medical profession. Since the T-men had now been in the field for several years, moreover, it no longer looked good to let the problem continue to appear to be completely out of control, as their valiant efforts had had no effect. So Treasury sponsored one of the most careful and responsible analyses ever made of the situation, the Kolb-DuMez study of 1923-24, carried out by the Public Health Service, which officially shrank the nation's addict population to no more than 110,000.

In April 1923 Governor Al Smith tried to help calm the situation:

Agitating the community and increasingly forcing itself upon our attention is the narcotic drug evil. I am convinced that part of the agitation on this subject is due to the sensationalism of certain types of newspapers and magazines. Lurid, sensational articles, intended to inflame the imagination of young people and to make the whole subject mysteriously and morbidly attractive, have led to the prevalence of a belief that the use of narcotic drugs is much more general than it really is.

In October President Coolidge told a federal law-enforcement conference:

The national laws and the laws of most of the States regulate the sale of narcotic drugs. . . . Their use is, in part, perhaps, due to physical disease, and, in part, to lack of moral stamina, but their abuse is almost wholly a result of violations of the law. If the law can be enforced, medical science would very soon rid the country of this menace.

On the same occasion Attorney General Daugherty, of Teapot Dome fame, told the gathering, with respect to enforcement of the Volstead Act, "All questions of 'individual liberty,' 'inalienable rights,' and states rights are foreclosed. There is no guarantee of any liberty except the law."

Prohibition Commissioner Haynes, no longer concerned with the Harrison Act (the new Narcotics Division was headed by Colonel L. G. Nutt) took a moderate tone:

While I am most appreciative of the great arousal of the people on the question of narcotics, I am at the same time thoroughly convinced that there is no great increase in the use of narcotics in America. Nothing can be gained by magnifying real conditions (neither would it be right to do so), nor by hiding real conditions. Conditions are bad enough as they are, but not as bad as some try to depict.

It is a little surprising, looking back now at the excesses and disruptions of the early 1920's and the strains of the Great Depression, that drug addiction did not more closely match the inflated figures of the day. Terrible as the problem has been during succeeding years, conceivably it could have been much worse. Moreover, though it must be clear to anyone who has read this far that I have little use for the hard-fisted repressive policies which were grafted onto the Harrison Act in this period, there is not much question that repression worked effectively for some, maybe for many, Americans. As with the Eighteenth Amendment, when Uncle Sam threw his full authority into the balance, a significant number of dabblers with drugs, like many topers, must have simply renounced their indulgences.

I might not be offering so forthright a concession, softening some of my own arguments, were it not for a critically important related problem of our times: What are we going to do ultimately about tobacco? Federal repression of the cigarette traffic would doubtless commit us to running much of this same painful course over again. But it might save many Americans, including imperiled youth, from afflictions no opiate ever caused-carcinoma, cardiac failure, and fatal pulmonary susceptibility to our polluted atmosphere.

The two related dogma which have characterized the 'official line" on drugs, espoused by federal authorities for more than half a century, are that everyone connected with the drug traffic should be clapped into prison for maximum terms, on the one hand, and that anyone who cannot cure himself of his addiction must be permanently isolated from society in a sort of leper colony, on the other. Both these viewpoints were strongly expressed by nonfederal spokesmen as early as 1923, and, curiously, it was a policeman who held forth on the merits of the life-quarantine measure and a doctor who called for Draconian criminal sentences. Dr. John W. Pern, a prominent New York physician and trustee of Bellevue Hospital, stated his convictions as follows:

I believe we should handle the drug problem from a practical viewpoint and in a drastic manner. If the nations of the world agree to limit the supply of drugs, and if Great Britain places a ban on opium, or at least limits the supply to a minimum, I am sure great gains in the fight on the evil will be made. Licensing the manufacturers of drugs will also help in the war on narcotics. It will prevent illicit vendors from gaining a plentiful supply, and will keep out of the field manufacturers whose sole aim is to furnish dope for addicts and, at the same time reap a harvest. I am confident that if a Federal statute were enacted, and if that is not feasible, State laws, giving the drug vendors a sentence, as habitual criminals, of from forty years to life, that there would be mighty little dope peddling.

Deputy Police Commissioner Simon, of New York City, expressed the other view:

We believe that if the narcotic problem could be attacked by the establishment all over the United States of correctional hospitals, with a long period of after treatment in camps or colonies, with outdoor work and vocational training, that within a few years narcotic addiction would be entirely eliminated as a public menace.

Commissioner Simon advocated that those who might not be cured in such a program should be "isolated indefinitely in institutions similar to those provided for mental defectives or inebriates."

Yet as early as 1919, four years before these statements and at the height of the hysteria, a number of more humane medical men had begun concerning themselves with the plight of the addict who had been able to obtain drugs at trifling cost and without difficulty but suddenly found his sources of supply blocked by the police. These men proposed the establishment of so-called narcotic clinics, manned by public-health authorities or private doctors, where addicts could-apply for drugs to tide them over until the anticipated chaos of transition had subsided, when either the addict could be withdrawn and cured, or some sensible provision could be made to take care of his drug dependency. A pioneer in this program was Commissioner Copeland, some of whose comments have already been noted. His first clinic, in New York City, was opened in April 1919.