Rumor and Libel: Regulating Cannabis in the Panama Canal Zone, 1914-1935.

Nelson Rounsevell

Nelson Rounsevell

On October 2, 1935, in the midst of Reefer Madness, Nelson Rounsevell was convicted of a single libel charge in a Panama Canal Zone District Court. Rounsevell, editor of the bilingual Panama American had published a series of editorials in the summer of 1935 alleging that Colonel James V. Heidt and Major General Harold B. Fiske were running a “suicide post” at Ft. Clayton, after reports surfaced of four suicides in six weeks at the fort. In one editorial, Rounsevell referred to Heidt as, “the Simon Legree of the zone, [relentlessly] driving his men by day and [ignoring] marihuana smoking by night.”

While the story seems have all the trappings of reefer madness discourse, his conviction on libel charges might seem curious. Surely, if Harry Anslinger had been involved, he may have led the charge against Heidt and Fiske himself. In fact, Rounsevell was indicted on five separate charges of libel during this episode and was only convicted on a single charge. I suggest that understanding the Rounsevell libel case involves understanding the evolution of marjiuana regulations in the Canal Zone that predate the conflicts of reefer madness in the U.S. Soldiers overworked, bored, and isolated had been using marijuana as a solution-seeking activity to pass time and cope with the tremendous stress and isolation of military life in the Canal Zone. Rounsevell’s error was not reporting marijuana use, it was misunderstanding the motivations for use. Marijuana use did not cause the suicides, but the factors that did were factors that also influenced an individuals use of marijuana. Continue reading →

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“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.”

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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.

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Why did the FBI stop their investigation of Straight, Incorporated?

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a post from Marcus Chatfield, who has spent years studying Straight, Inc. Chatfield is a recent graduate of Goddard College, where he received an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree in the prevention of institutional child abuse. His undergraduate thesis, Institutionalized Persuasion, was self-published in December, 2014. He is a prospective grad student living in Florida. Enjoy!

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The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) recently arranged for the release of documents from the FBI’s investigation of Straight, Inc., a controversial teen treatment program. An initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author in 2010 received no response and the collection was only released after subsequent requests and inquiries by the OGIS. After the FBI reviewed more than 1,224 pages in their possession, 970 were released with redactions and 254 pages were deleted, withheld by their Record/Information Dissemination Section. Almost all of these records were accumulated between 1992 and 1994 during a Grand Jury investigation that initiated in the Middle District of Florida. The investigation focused on fraudulent financial activities within the Straight, Inc. organization and the documents clearly state that federal authorities had evidence of criminal insurance fraud committed by Straight executives (p.55). Perhaps even more important, the documents seem to indicate that the FBI’s investigation was stopped before agents had a chance to review all of the evidence or explore all relevant leads (p.109-111).

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Howard Becker

Editor’s Note: In this, our last installment of the Points roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User, we are thrilled to welcome the author himself. Here, Becker responds to our previous contributors and offers some insights of his own. 

We’d also like to take this opportunity to once again thank Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart for their intriguing, thought-provoking and entertaining contributions. We are honored to count you as members of the Points family. 

AE-PROFILE-howie-pianoI have never been a “marijuana expert,” certainly never claimed to be such a thing. But I was, for quite a while, the only sociologist who had ever actually published anything about it. So, when it did become a legitimate topic of study and big shots and politicians convoked meetings to decide on scientific matters related to the subject, the attendees mostly consisted of physiologists and pharmacologists and psychologists. But, just to avoid troubles, the organizers of these events always thought they should have a social scientist and for quite a while I was the only one who had the slightest claim to be there. Eventually, of course, plenty of others joined me, including people like the anthropologist Mike Agar. Nancy Campbell talked with me about that phase of the thing and she did an excellent of getting me to tell about the politics of that period, which was pretty funny.

As a result of that phase of my “being an expert,” I became more expert than I had been by learning a lot from hanging around between meeting sessions with people like Mike and Andy Weil, who were doing research on the drug. A whole apparatus had been built up out of people who had met at such events and thus come to understand the politics involved at the level of science and research (also covered in my interview with Nancy Campbell). In addition, I was part of the informal information exchange created by Allen Ginsberg, who traveled constantly and kept his eye on who was doing research about what. He would call me when he came through Chicago to ask if I knew about so-and-so who had some interesting findings on this or that and wanting to know if I had anything new to tell him.

Well, I didn’t, not really, because my interests had moved on to other areas of activity, like art. But the basic ideas that I got out of making sense of the marijuana experience stayed with me because they traveled well and turned out to be useful in quite different areas. Most recently I devoted a chapter in What About Mozart? What About Murder?, to a sort of updating and generalizing of what I learned from the work I did fifty years ago, pointing out how it helps make sense out of a lot of other things, not just more recently invented substances but even what happens to people climbing Mt. Everest (where there isn’t a whole lot of oxygen in the air) and other situations where the ordinary inputs to our physical experiences take new values and produce novel feelings.

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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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Local vs. National Alcohol Policy: The UK Edition

Virginia Berridge, a professor of history and director of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently alerted Points to a new briefing her organization published earlier this year. “Local and National Alcohol Policy: How Do They Interact?” is a concise and useful treatise on the difficulties of integrating local and national alcohol policies in the United Kingdom, with resonance for American scholars and those doing transnational work.

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