Alcohol, Jurisprudence, Marijuana, Opium, Other Sources, Race

Mexican Opium: The Wordtrack (Disc 2)

This is the second installment of a series about books that I’ve read for this blog that are at least in part about early American drug law. I’ll give a few-line overview of what the book is about, and then three quotes I found pull-worthy (because they explain something about an early law, offer a thought-provoking perspective, or are simply well-written). I’ll give a page number for each quote, so in whatever edition you find, you can kind of approximate the area of the book it’s in.

David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control – A solidly comprehensive history of drug control, focusing a lot on the movements that pull the regulations in and out, whether they be administrative, trade associations, or just concerned moms. Very thorough, and gets cited a lot in other books.

“Cocaine is a good example of a drug whose dangers were widely accepted although at first it was immensely popular. It was pure, cheap, and widely distributed; its advocates distrusted not only the opinions of their opponents but also their motivation. Cocaine users were so impressed by its euphoric properties that they were unable to evaluate the drug objectively.” (Pg. 7)

“The Commissioner’s recommendation for the marihuana legislation was to follow the example of the Migratory Bird Act, which had been declared constitutional, although it intruded into the police powers of the states, because it had been enacted as a requirement of treaties with Canada and Mexico (Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416). Anslinger suggested a similar treaty requiring the control of marihuana.” (Pg. 224)

“Congress rarely heard any witness defend opiates or cocaine, but during the January 1911 hearings on the federal antinarcotics law before the January 1911 hearings on a federal antinarcotics law before the House Ways and Means Committee, the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association’s representative protested the inclusion of cannabis alongside opiates and cocaine. Charles A. West, chairman of the NWDA Legislative Committee, testified that cannabis was not what might be called a habit-forming drug. Albert Plaut, representing the New York City pharmaceutical firm of Lehn and Fink, objected to the inclusion of cannabis: he attributed its reputation more to literary fiction, such as the description of hashish in the Count of Monte Cristo, than to informed opinion. When questioned as to whether cannabis might be taken by those whose regular supply of opiates or cocaine is restricted, Plaut responded that the effects of cannabis were so different from those of opiates and cocaine that he would not expect an addict to find cannabis attractive.” (Pg. 217)

Henry Alan Johnston, What Rights Are Left This book is a bit of an odd one out for most of the books I read for this blog. It’s not really history-based, but rather a kind of advisory book written after the Volstead act passed and Prohibition went into effect – informing people how to exercise rights under the new law, and what to watch out for. Because this book is not quite the usual fare that I work with, I was only able to find two quotes that seemed appropriate for reprinting here. But they’re good quotes. I swear.

“Prohibitory laws, as a rule, are the embodiment of what people have learned from experience to be necessary or expedient for the public welfare and for the peace and dignity of the community. Most men living in a civilized state instinctively know that certain acts are bad and forbidden by law. They know that murder, robbery, arson, rape, perjury, counterfeiting, and other such acts (mala in se) are wrong. They know that such things are in all reason prohibited, and to this extent at least, “every one is presumed to know the law.” Such crimes are discovered, not made. National Prohibition, however, is a departure from this general rule, in that acts which have been recognized as innocent and which from the earliest beginnings of civilization have been habitual with mankind, having become with many a regular part of their daily routine, are suddenly, by legislative action, made criminal. Our fundamental ethical concepts are no guide.” (Pg. vii)

“If a law is intended to prevent murder, what would be the result if it were worded, ‘The manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of firearms, weapons, poisons and other articles for murderous purposes is hereby prohibited?” Obviously it would lead to an endless amount of litigation as to just what it does mean. You will immediately say that it would be a foolish way to phrase a law to prohibit murder. But that is a fair illustration of the way the Eighteenth Amendment has been phrased to prohibit drinking if that is its real purpose.” (Pg. 127)

Jill Jonnes, Hep Cats, Narcs, And Pipe Dreams –  Here’s the approach most academic books about drugs in America take to their subject: “Drug usage has proven to be a staple of American life. However, drug policy in America is problematic on many levels. Why is that? How did we get here? How can we make drugs less of a national issue?” Breaking this mold, Jonnes’ detailed history book takes this approach: “You sniffly, defeatist, elitist academic chumps. How dare you just accept that America has a drug culture! Drugs are awful, and they do awful things to human beings, you idiots. Remember? Why are we not focusing on how to undo awfulness, and instead letting you jackasses navel-gaze and theorize about laws?” This book vacillates between incredible depth and almost laughable shallowness, but is worth reading if for its uniquely heavy-handed last chapter on policy alone.  I’ll quote four sections from this one: first some interesting history Jonnes dug up, and then two dabbles into her policy, because it seems thought-provoking. Or, at the very least, provoking. (It should be clarified that Jonnes focuses on heroin and cocaine, and doesn’t much concern herself with the softer stuff.)

“Few of us know we had a serious heroin and cocaine problem in the early decades of (the 20th) century. Otherwise well-informed friends are amazed when told that city youth used heroin back in 1910 and called it ‘happy dust’; or how in that same year President William Howard Taft identified cocaine as ‘more appalling in its effects than any other habit-forming drug in the United States’ and urged Congress to restrict its availability; or that empty cocaine vials littered city street in the early years of this century. The original ‘war’ on drugs . . . was so successful that we have no collective memory of that era.” (Pg. 10)

“Americans called the gooey black opium ‘dope,’ a generic term of the time – derived from the dutch word ‘doop’ for sauce – that applied to anything thick and viscous.” (Pg. 30)

“[M]any [elite] boomers feel that that they enjoyed their flings with certain drugs, and even gained some insight into themselves and the world along the way. They are not certain why such interesting experiences should be illegal. What they fail to appreciate is that they represent a privileged and disciplined elite with a great many attractive options in life beyond drugs . . . One thinks of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ where the careless rich indulged their pleasures, leaving behind the wreckage as they moved on. The upper middle class can mess around with drugs and think they’re cute because experience and research show that the more well-to-do one is, the better educated, and the older, the less vulnerable one is to abuse and addiction . . . Leaders for the poor, the less privileged, and the very young rarely talk about drugs in that smart-alecky way and consistently have rejected legalization or decriminalization for a simple reason – they know their constituencies would be hit the hardest.” (Pg. 413-414)

“It’s really a shame that virtually all public debate about the drug problem is dominated by the phony issue of drug legalization or decriminalization. I say that because there is not the remotest political prospect that such a thing will ever come to pass. The reality is that the great mass of Americans rightly fear illegal drugs and want them kept as far away as possible. If that means violent drug markets are confined to (and ruining) inner-city neighborhoods and prisons are filled to bursting, middle-class Americans accept that price. All they know is heroin and cocaine are not available at the local mall. The highly public energy devoted to half-baked legalization proposals should be focused on shrinking the drug culture, especially the big hard-core drug population whose habits have become a major factor in the spread of AIDS.” (Pg. 426)

Lester Grinspoon, M.D., Marihuana Reconsidered –  When I first wrote about marijuana policy in California, this book was a great source. Written in the 1960s, it is an impressive intellectual undertaking, exploring marijuana’s political, social and legal history, and its chemistry, pharmocology, effects on users, medicinal values, and its then standing in America.

“Perhaps some of the fury aroused by marihuana can be attributed to the fear of that which is alien and un-American, which would make the drug seem a particularly dangerous and degenerate intoxicant. An especially blatant example of this sort of prejusdice was published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in 1931: ‘The debasing and baneful influence of hashish and opium is not restricted to individuals but has manifested itself in nations and races as well. The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic, whilst the races and nations addicted to hemp and opium, some of which once attained to heights of culture and civilization and have deteriorated both mentally and physically.'” (Pg. 16)

“The heyday of the medical application of cannabis occurred in the Western world in the period from 1840 to 1900. During this time more than 100 articles were published recommending it for various ailments and discomforts. Physicians of a century ago knew far more about it and were much more interested in exploring its therapeutic potential than are physicians today.” (Pg. 219)

“At the end of the nineteenth century in Ireland, there was an attempt to suppress the use of hard liquor through temperance campaigns, heavy taxation, and (attempted) strict enforcement of the tax laws. The campaign was a success in that the Irish greatly reduced their intake of hard liquor; instead, they switched to the substitute ethyl ether, which provided a short-lived intoxication involving a ‘hot all the way down’ sensation, followed by thunderous flatus,, and, within ten minutes, a high, which could be repeated and which let no hangover. The use of ether became so widespread that in one area of Ulster, and eighth of the population were labeled ‘etheromaniacs.’ The subsequent alarm over the ether ‘epidemic’ became so great that the various pressure groups which had promoted the campaign reversed their field, and the Irishman happily returned to other psychoactive substances, notably back to his whiskey.” (Pg. 345)



3 thoughts on “Mexican Opium: The Wordtrack (Disc 2)

  1. Mikelis, I like this series. I’ve commented a bit further on the Points blog, here

    The gist of my blog comment–consider adding Alfred Lindesmith’s The Addict and the Law (1965) to your reading list, if you haven’t already. Less a source on the origins of drug laws than on their operational effects, it remains an intriguing study after more than four decades.

    Posted by jspillane | April 8, 2011, 10:28 am
  2. Professor – Thanks for the suggestion. Sounds like a great read, and it’ll be next up on my list. Thanks also for continuing to check in with the blog – your support is appreciated.

    Posted by beitiks | April 13, 2011, 8:33 pm


  1. Pingback: American Drug History, The Box Set | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society - April 8, 2011

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