Anti-Narcotics as Social Critique: Earle Albert Rowell’s Crusade


Earle Albert Rowell

We are introduced to David Dare in Experiences of David Dare in Bible Research, a novel written by Earle Albert Rowell in 1933. Dare, presenting a series of lectures on biblical prophecy to a town of agnostics gradually wins over the Emersons, a local family who become convinced by Dare’s lectures and convert to Christianity. Four years later, Dare and the Emersons reappear as a team of anti-narcotics crusaders, saving a wealthy family, the Marvels, from the perils of addiction in Dope Adventures of David Dare.

Dare’s creator, Earle Albert Rowell had written several short books on religion and drugs through this period. One about the opium habit from 1929 Battling the Worlves of Socitey and another about the new scourge of marijuana in his 1939 book, On The Trail of Marihuana. Described by his publishers as a well traveled anti-narcotics crusader, a member of the White Cross International Anti-Narcotics Society. He and his son Robert, Earle’s opium pipe in hand, had criss-crossed the country educating the public about narcotics and writing about his work.

The White Cross Anti-Narcotic Society

What is interesting about Rowell’s work is that it offers a unique perspective on addiction that went beyond the contemporary debate of the time, a sharp rebuke to the failure of the U.S. government that created the drug problem in the nineteenth century and a vocal critique of the Progressive Era plan to combat the drug problem in the twentieth. The blend of religious and anti-narcotics proselytizing fits Rowell into the shifting conservative turn in the United States that marked the 1920s and the undercurrent of New Deal opposition in the 1930s. Rowell, along with many of his contemporaries began to question the inherent logic of Progressive Era reliance on government regulation and its tendency toward secularization.

The regulation of “dangerous” substances had undergone a profound transformation in the twentieth century. New regulations including the Pure food and Drug Act of 1906, The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the constitution, or Prohibition, in 1919. Though popular among Progressives, these laws all had severe limits; namely the widespread demand for psychoactive substances made restrictive laws virtually impossible to enforce.The motives and methods for circumventing drug laws was at the center of Battling the Wolves of Society, written in 1929. While actively involved in combating smuggling and peddling throughout the narrative, Rowell consistently blames the lure of profit as the ultimate source of these efforts.

Of course, this doesn’t seem all that unique in the discourse around drug control in the late twenties, what made his approach unique was his opinion on drug users. He strongly disagreed that drug use was a significant cause of crime, and was specific in asserting that the pains of withdrawal, and not the drug itself, was what caused crime among users. According to Rowell, the typical opium addict only became criminal when deprived of the drug, not while intoxicated by it. This distinction suggests that addiction, not the drug was the problem. Social characterizations (as criminals) and standard policy toward addicts (incarceration) were counterproductive. “Those afflicted deserve, above all other sick people, sympathy, pity, care and not hasty, unthinking criticism, unjust condemnation, and narrow intolerance.” He heaped praise on the administrators at the narcotic farm, opened in 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky as the first step toward productive treatment of addicts.

If users were the victims, according to Rowell, then everyone else was at fault. Drug control regimes like Harrison and Volstead failed to treat addicts appropriately, but also added to the problem thorough its deterioration of popular respect for authority. The lure of the illegal drug market corrupted elected officials, police officers, doctors, pharmacists, and of course it galvanized and enriched organized criminal syndicates. And he doesn’t stop there, he blames the public for its unwillingness to appreciate the threat and Rowell cites numerous examples (the Marvel family in Dope Adventures) where ignorance doomed entire families and communities to drug addiction.

But his most fascinating, and perhaps unexpected, critique offered by Rowell was a critique of modernity and the burgeoning consumer society that had emerged in the early twentieth century. Connected to his critiques above, the cause of an increase in the availability of drugs and incidents of drug addiction “lies wholly in the profit” of the drug trade. It is in this sense that drug peddlers, the bugaboo of orthodox drug enforcement policy, were not villains in Rowell’s stories, but portrayed as semi-innocent henchmen of addiction motivated by financial gain.

But it was not merely the profit of the illicit drug trade, but the licit and semi-licit global drug trade. He reserves specific blame for England’s perpetration of the opium wars, as well as the American medical community’s practice of over prescribing morphine, and the explosion of patent medicines and their continued existence and widespread use, despite regulations, in the twenties as popular home remedies. Advertised to cure everything from the common cold to alcohol addiction, patent medicines, many containing alcohol, morphine and cocaine were merely doping agents, and their potential to alleviate the pain associated with disease made these cures very popular.

But here too, Rowell goes further with his critique. He reserves particular concern beyond the medical community, into the emerging pleasure culture, embodied in the Hollywood films being produced throughout the 20s and 30s. The rapid proliferation of these films (and the profit resulting from their popularity) created a mentality, especially among youth, that “idleness and crime pay, that marriage is a farce…that drinking and smoking and all forms of immorality are normal.” For Rowell, under these conditions, it wasn’t a huge leap from drinking and smoking to shooting heroin.

And here is perhaps the most interesting contribution by Rowell, that of the gateway

On The Trail

theory. Seth Blumenthal has recently posted (here and here) on the emergence of the gateway theory with marijuana in the 50s. But Rowell’s contribution might be an overlooked predecessor of that theory. In his 1939 book, On The Trail of Marihuana, he suggests that marijuana was the “missing link” between cigarettes and heroin. But marijuana was not the gateway drug, here it was mass produced, and mass marketed cigarettes that were the first step.

American children were being educated in increasingly secularized schools that turned away from biblical teaching and toward a more secular education that questioning the existence of free-will that personal responsibility was deflected toward with nature or society. Freed from the traditional impulse control, and adhering to the principles of survival of the fittest, (“The Godless doctrine that makes cruelty, or hate – for that is all that the survival of the fittest means.“) young Americans consider the gratification of impulses to be the main purpose of life.

And they spent a lot of this time wasting away in movie theaters watching Hollywood films portraying adultery, overt sexuality, and the pursuit of bodily pleasures. And cigarettes and alcohol were the key props in this cultural milieu. This “education” inevitably leads to narcotic addiction and a life of crime among younger and younger people. He goes on to suggest that, ultimately, education should have the purpose to create moral beings, faithful to the teachings of God and submissive to the “majesty of our laws…obedience…means liberty.” And this is the purpose of his anti-drug work.

Rowell doesn’t offer a strict solution to the problem of addiction. He seeks to combine a compassionate, interdisciplinary approach to addicts and the investment in facilities like the narcotic farm in Kentucky. By quarantining addicts from the general population, the spread of addiction can be stanched. The only thing left was to educate children about the threat of drug addiction. This would require a rejection of what Rowell referred to as “evolutionary atheism” The belief, which became prominent during the 1920s, of the negative impact of modern industrial society on individual agency, subverting individuality to progressive elites and the secular state.

Beyond those methods, addiction was incurable through human means alone. One could essentially remove themselves from drug users and perhaps never use drugs again. But you would always remain an addict. The implication was that only belief in a higher power could keep a person away from drugs. And while the nod to emergent AA culture is clear, Rowell’s higher power was the Christian God. This implication was made clear in “Battling the Wolves of Society.” Rowell recounted the addiction and cure of Dr. Ethrode, a popular Protestant preacher and lifelong addict. After spending time and money on conventional cures, he turns to prayer:

“Seven godly men and women, close friends of Dr. Ethrode, who knew of his long struggle with narcotics, gathered in his home one evening. After reading several chapters in the New Testament telling of Christ’s healing, they anointed him with oil as directed and prayed earnestly, solemnly, for his healing and deliverance…And God heard their prayers. He was healed instantly and permanently. Never again from that day to the day of his death some fifteen years later did he ever have a single narcotic pain, or again touch opiates of any kind.”

This supernatural event was intended to be profoundly moving to readers. And indeed, it was supernatural. In his next book, Experiences of David Dare in Bible Research, Rowell invents his fictional alter-ego, David Dare, who converts the Emersons and enlists them in his anti-narcotics work. In a future post, likely in the new year, I will share my theory that David Dare is an early example (four years before Superman) of an early super hero.


Rowell, Earle Albert. Battling the Wolves of Society: The Narcotic Evil. Portland: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1929.

Rowell, Earle Albert. Experiences of David Dare in Bible Research. Peekskill NY: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1933.

Rowell, Earle Albert. Dope Adventures of David Dare. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1937.

Rowell, Earle Albert, and Robert Rowell. On The Trail of Marihuana: The Weed of Madness. Omaha: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1939.