“It was a Riot” – Berkeley, the FDA’s Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, and the Progressive Origins of Modern Drug Policing

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matt June. Enjoy!

From Telegraph Avenue to the steps of Sproul Hall, it was quite a scene in Berkeley, California in the spring of 1966. “That was right in the middle of the free speech movement,” recalled former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Inspector Frank Flaherty, “and the daily riots they had there, all the upset… real interesting time.” Another FDA man, Ed Wilkens remembered being immersed in “the hippie era.” He could still picture walking to lunch on “the main thoroughfare [and] there’d be, you know, ‘Legalize Abortion,’ ‘Legalize Marijuana.’” Joking, “it was Disney Land out there,” Wilkens concluded. “It was a riot.” Despite their own memories of this historic drama, Flaherty and Wilkens’ troupe of actors have often been forgotten or miscast. Nonetheless, their role in and around campus helped set the stage for the content and consequences of our contemporary drug policies.

Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)
Charter Day Protest against Vietnam War, Berkeley 1966 (copyright Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune)

In February 1966, the Food and Drug Administration prepared to launch its new Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) – designed to combat the problem of drug abuse with the first strict federal controls over amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens. Prepping their new agents to investigate the illegal manufacture and distribution of those “dangerous drugs,” officials chose the University of California’s School of Criminology as the location for their training programs. This was a natural choice, though not for the reasons one might first suspect.

Activities in the Bay Area and around the UC Berkeley campus are at the center of popular memories of drugs in the Sixties. Following that narrative from the students’ vantage point, BDAC “narcs” showed up on campus to police drugs and undermine the radical politics those drugs seemed to fuel. According to conservatives, on the other hand, campus drug use actually grew because liberals coddled abusers, failed to get tough on crime, and encouraged disdain for law and order. Neither perspective, however, accounts for the progressive reformers who pursued the power of BDAC well before the Sixties counterculture hit the headlines. Moreover, the progressive policing tradition enshrined in the curriculum of UC’s School of Criminology attracted FDA leaders building a new bureau steeped in the same values.

Although it historically depended on education and voluntary cooperation with industry, the Food and Drug Administration also flirted with more traditional police work. Focusing more and more on the growing illicit market in barbiturates and amphetamines, the FDA even trained a small group of investigators to go undercover, drive big rigs and investigate the underground pill trade flowing through Midwestern truck stops. Stopping that traffic and the many more millions of pills flowing into the black market proved impossible for a number of reasons. FDA efforts suffered from a shortage of personnel and insufficient legal jurisdiction as well as the lack of authority to carry firearms, seize counterfeiting equipment, or arrest suspects. All of this changed with the passage of the Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965. To enforce their new laws and wield their new policing power, FDA officials created the separate Bureau of Drug Abuse Control and chose UC’s criminology program to train the few hundred agents they planned to recruit for their Division of Investigations.

Undercover Drug Inspectors, William Hill (left) and Charles Eisenberg, ca. mid-1950s (FDA Photostream)
Undercover Drug Inspectors, William Hill (left) and Charles Eisenberg, ca. mid-1950s (FDA Photostream)

In a report for the Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, UC School of Criminology Dean Joseph Lohman and research criminologist Robert Carter highlighted the BDAC course’s unique aspects and progressive pedigree. To train its first 150 agents, the FDA initially contracted with the School for three eight-week courses offered to between 30 and 60 recruits. With the bulk of instruction provided by University staff, the program was “divided into nine principle components including criminology and corrections, law, techniques of enforcement, narcotics and dangerous drugs, physical evidence, accounting and auditing for law enforcement, and weapons, vehicle, and physical training.” According to Lohman and Carter, the agents’ instruction came “from a perspective which significantly departs from that of most traditional law enforcement agency training programs.” Unlike those other programs, the BDAC course was “academically oriented” and “designed to provide the student-agent with the widest possible understanding of the total problem of law enforcement and dangerous drugs.”

While Dean Lohman helped lead the BDAC training, the School of Criminology owed its reputation to one man – its founder, former Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer. Widely considered to be “America’s greatest cop,” Vollmer began developing his “Berkeley system” before World War I and, in the five decades since, “his program of professionalization had become the lodestar of American law enforcement.” According to historian Ken Alder, Vollmer “urged a managerial revolution in police work,” which included “the centralization of command and communication, specialization of tasks, and the deployment of scientific know-how.” Berkeley was thus a natural choice for the BDAC training program because of its ability to offer a comprehensive program focused on the medical, sociological, and legal aspects of drug control. The happenings around campus were simply an added benefit that could help agents better understand the social contexts of drug use and abuse.

Not surprisingly, some students and other interested observers were not as comfortable with the new cohort on campus. The prototypical Sixties underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb reported on the “Undercover Men” taking classes on campus. Warning of infiltration by these government agents, the Barb argued, “Contrary to popular notions, it is not easy to recognize an agent,” they were younger, most “between 27 and 35 years old,” and “there are some men with beards, some with moustaches.” Moreover, the trainees seemed to “know the language of the ‘hippies’” and appeared to be learning it with the young people of the area as their guinea pigs. As the Barb insisted, “They learn this language from observations around Berkeley… They frequent [Telegraph] Avenue, observing the behavior of people who, they imagine, use drugs.” Most problematic, “they are taught this language by instructors from the Criminology Department,” who, the article maintained, only gleaned such information from the willing cooperation of those now facing prosecution by BDAC agents. Unaware that recruits were also being trained in firearms, the Barb still concluded, “these agents are dangerous” and warned, “they know Judo, Karate, and boxing [and] will use these techniques against dangerous drug users, such as people with suspicious sugar-cubes or home-rolled cigarettes.”

First issue of the Berkeley Barb, August 13, 1965 (Google Images)
First issue of the Berkeley Barb, August 13, 1965 (Google Images)

Despite their protestations, the Barb doubted “that these revelations will cause the University to terminate the FDA agent-training contract.” As the author reasoned, even after similar “publicity the University continues to buy DiGiorgio products, allows the Armed Services to recruit men for the war in Vietnam, and has not terminated its defense contracts.” This was the context in which student opponents understood the BDAC training program. They were aware this was a liberal project, no different than the tracking system that sent some young people to class and others to the front lines or the Defense funds that paid for weapons research in their campus laboratories. Seeking to avoid such opposition and needing to save budgetary resources, the FDA relented and relocated all future training programs to Arlington, Virginia, where they had a more exclusive focus on the policing practices of drug control.

Further making this program into a traditional law enforcement function, less than two years later Congress merged BDAC with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics and moved the new Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to the Justice Department. Of course, this move also brought all drug policing into the same Department as the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Director J. Edgar Hoover, who cooperated with Governor Ronald Reagan in subverting campus radicalism. Realizing the worst fears of UC students concerned about the BDAC program, Hoover oversaw the COINTELPRO domestic spying program, which sought to undermine New Left groups with a variety of tactics including drug arrests.

Though they often disagreed on tactics and could be blinded by distrust, liberal FDA administrators and New Left radicals both sought in their own ways to understand the complexity of drug experiences and the contexts for experimentation. However, conflicts about the former undermined respect for the latter and both sides lost out to more simplistic solutions. When Ed Wilkens walked through campus and spotted, for example, the first modern topless dancer, Carol Doda, on a platform “out in the middle of the college,” advocating for free speech, he might have learned much from “the atmosphere out there” or just wondered, “What the hell is this?” But he certainly recognized this as one of many sites for the potential misuse of pharmaceuticals, which spanned all socioeconomic categories. This particular “atmosphere” was, however, an important cause of the conservative backlash that rejected both the countercultural ethos of drug taking and mainstream liberal experiments with drug regulating.

Carol Doda in front of the Condor Club, North Beach, ca. May 1965 (Google Images)
Carol Doda in front of the Condor Club, North Beach, ca. May 1965 (Google Images)

In May 1966, as the second BDAC class concluded its coursework, Ronald Reagan launched his Gubernatorial campaign with a vociferous promise to “clean up that mess in Berkeley,” warning his growing crowds about “sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you.” Leading the conservative backlash, Reagan challenged both the lawlessness on campus and the seemingly lax policies of liberals like Democratic Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown and UC President Clark Kerr. Riding that wave to office, Reagan then claimed policies, like Brown’s strict laws against LSD possession, as his own and used them to crack down on social groups he opposed. With the authority that BDAC carried to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and its successor, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Reagan followed a similar strategy when elected president. While denouncing the failed policies of big government liberals, he expanded power first enshrined in BDAC and escalated the federal war on drugs.

In other words, progressive politics inspired the expansion of drug control at the state and national levels, but New Left opposition to managerial liberalism undermined the resulting programs and the true opponents of both progressives and radicals secured the long-term benefits. That story may sound all too familiar for historians of American involvement in Vietnam, but the same dynamics in the formation of our modern drug policy have yet to be fully examined. Those complex dynamics, however, are certainly on display in the story of the BDAC training programs at Berkeley in the spring of 1966.

Ronald Reagan after winning the 1968 election for Governor of California (SFGate.com)
Ronald Reagan after winning the 1968 election for Governor of California (SFGate.com)