“From Whence It Came”: Rethinking the Federal Role When Discussing the War on Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew June, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. June’s current work studies the sources of federal power to prosecute national drug laws.

The United States has a massive prison problem. As more attention has been drawn to this stark reality, it has become equally clear that there are no simple solutions or easy explanations. Nonetheless, while many have cited the “war on drugs,” others have dismissed this as too small a part in the larger problem. Last summer a Washington Post Op-Ed argued, “ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration.” Taking these back of the envelope calculations a step further, Slate highlighted how reforming the federal system wouldn’t help the country’s 1.3 million state prisoners. This proposition has again come to the fore in debates over Hillary Clinton’s responsibility for the rise of mass incarceration. Arguing against such a conclusion, German Lopez of Vox recently insisted, “Federal policy is not the cause of mass incarceration” because “federal prisons house only 13 percent of the overall prison population.”

June 1

As there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” there are many ways to look at these numbers – especially the fact that over half of all federal prisoners are there for drug charges. While it is reasonable to note how this is only a small step for criminal justice reform, changes in federal drug sentencing could benefit nearly 1 out of 20 people under some form of local, state, or national supervision. Put another way, releasing every federal drug offender might not bring us out of the top spot for world incarceration rates, but even a five percent dent in our overall numbers cannot be dismissed. Just ask my students if they wouldn’t mind dropping from an “A-” to a “B+” and you will get a pretty good sense of how just a slim percent difference can seem mighty important to those directly affected. But this somewhat flippant re-examination of the statistics only belies a small sliver of the overall federal role in the “war on drugs” and its impact on mass incarceration. The 105,000 men and women behind bars for federal drug charges are just the most visible part of the federal role in the national “war on drugs.” And the causes and consequences of that role demand ongoing attention from scholars and others.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

***

Continue reading →

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

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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. 

heroinharrisonactnola Continue reading →