The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts (Washington, D.C., 1919)

In 1918, the Treasury Department established a Special Narcotic Committee, tasked with reviewing the scope of the drug problem in the United States. The Committee issued its final report, Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, in June of 1919. The product of a year’s worth of work by a committee which included reputable figures in the drug field, the report covered many aspects of the drug problem—but no part of the report drew more attention than the conclusion that the nation’s addict population numbered one million. To understand how that figure was obtained, we need to briefly review some very poor statistical analysis. And that’s part of the story. But the bigger story is that “one million addicts” took on a life of its own, a mythical number that long outlived the federal government’s own interest in its promulgation.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Unknown Malaria Victim (New Orleans, 1932)

“The real war will never get in the books”–Walt Whitman, 1875

On October 31, 1932, Charity Hospital in New Orleans admitted a comatose man, diagnosed with malaria and thought to be an opiate addict. The patient deserted the hospital after being revived. Two days later, he was once again brought to Charity hospital, again in a coma. He died the following day. Over the course of the next month, five more Charity Hospital patients, all injecting drug users, died of malaria. Over the course of the following year, a total of 48 injecting drug users were admitted to the same hospital with diagnoses of malaria, 10 of whom died.

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The Forgotten Drug War: Christobal Silvas Sierra (Los Angeles, 1929)

“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875

 

As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war. Continue reading →

The Films of Adrian Cowell: Opium stories from the Shan State to Hong Kong to Washington, DC (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome Hannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!

In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received  6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords,
Part Two of The Opium Series

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Drugs, Demons, and Fiends: “I Can’t Breathe” (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is by Suzanna Reiss, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i and author of the recently published book, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (University of California Press, 2014). Reiss offers a timely meditation on the legacy of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which turned one hundred yesterday. 

As we confront the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the first US federal drug control law, it is difficult not to be haunted by current events. What is happening today in contemporary policing reflects the legacies produced by drug control and its origins in the deep racial animosities and inequities that contributed to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914. This centennial commemoration should provoke national soul-searching about the drug war’s contribution to racialized policing and its ties to economic inequality in American society. It certainly is not cause for celebration.

Listen to two accounts – separated by a hundred years, sharing too much.

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100 Words on the Harrison Act at 100

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 turns 100 years old tomorrow. The new federal law regulated traffic in opiates and cocaine and produced lasting effects for US and international drug policy (you can read the full text here). Today, four celebrated scholars offer 100-word reflections on first 100 years of the Harrison Act. 

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Road to Prohibition: Marijuana, the Long Story – Part One

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is the first in a two-part series by contributing editor Adam Rathge. The series is drawn from Rathge’s dissertation, which examines the century-long road to federal marijuana prohibition in the United States by analyzing the development and transformation of medical discourse, regulatory processes, and social concerns surrounding cannabis between 1840 and 1940.

Robocalls. Partisan attack ads. Pundit punditry. It’s midterm election time in America! As this post goes live, Nate Silver’s projections over at FiveThirtyEight suggest the GOP will take back the Senate. But that’s not the only measure of intrigue to be settled on November 4th. In Alaska and Oregon, voters will decide whether to implement legislation modeled on the laws passed by Colorado and Washington in 2012, making marijuana sales legal for adults in those states. Voters in Washington, D.C. will also decide on marijuana legalization (with a ballot measure that will make it legal to possess or grow small amounts, but not buy or sell it). Meanwhile, Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana. And if we take a quick look ahead to 2016, we find a half-dozen additional states considering marijuana legalization initiatives.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this recent turn toward medicalization and legalization are the contradictions it inspires. For example, if “soft legalization” passes in Washington, D.C. next month, and Congress allows it to stand, marijuana possession would be legal throughout the city, but acquiring it would still require a series of acts that remain illegal. In fact, according to federal law, none of these ballot initiatives are legal. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is “considered among the most dangerous drugs” with “potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” and has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Despite this, twenty three states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. Moreover, following the implementation of recreational legalization in Colorado this year, the state now allows the sale of marijuana to any adult over the age of twenty one while doctors continue to write marijuana prescriptions for patients. Cannabis is both medicine and intoxicant. All this has led the Justice Department to recently clarify its policies as the nation lurches forward toward what many consider a tipping point for widespread marijuana legalization. As such, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at how we got here in the first place. And I mean way back. A hundred and fifty years back.

Cannabis products were commonly sold and used in the United States throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but were also subject to state regulations and restrictions.

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