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.Read More »

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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.”

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.

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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!

straight-logo-300x300

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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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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Punishing Women

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Beavercreek, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina highlight the dangers of our current war on drugs and crime for young black men. Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, public and civic discourse still frequently turns to problematic discussions of the young black male. In teaching a course on the Crack Era as well as past courses on Mass Incarceration, I am struck by the consistent, seemingly invisible violence met upon women. Both physical and structural violence are disproportionately met upon poor nonwhite women. In both macro and micro moral panics surrounding drug abuse, civic disorder and crime, discussions typically circle the same terrain. What of the young black male? Somebody save the children! Absent in popular and policy discussions is substantive conversation regarding the plight of poor nonwhite women.

women in prisonWomen are the fastest growing prison population in the United States. As of 2010, more than 1 million women were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women. Perhaps most damning—trauma, sexual violence, drug dependence and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration. Despite more than 40 years of failed policy our nation elects to punish rather than heal. We lock women up instead of providing social services to help them cope with trauma, violence, addiction and poverty.

The preponderance of women in prison—roughly 85 to 90 percent—have a history of victimization prior to their incarceration. This often includes domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. As always color proves central to understanding our wars on drugs and crime: nonwhite women who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders. Women of means are more likely to be treated as victims, often referred to child welfare and mental health systems.

When we do talk about poor nonwhite women, we demonize them. In the burgeoning years of the law and order movement Negor Family. Moynihan ReportPatrick Moynihan sloppily applied sociological theory to label the black family—particularly black women heading single-parent households—a “tangle of pathology.” Black women were not headstrong, independent, and self-reliant because they had to be. This was simply a character flaw, one responsible for driving away potential suitors and fathers. Realities of poverty, previous childhood and ongoing trauma, as well as the daily specter of violence and coercion were not explanatory tools in this case.Read More »

The Father of the (Financial) War on Terror is the War on Drugs?

On May 31, 2014, the White House issued a cryptic press release, a brief letter from President Obama to Congress. The letter announced that the US government had decided to levy economic sanctions against Victor Cerrano, Jose Umana, and Francisco Barros, three foreign individuals from Colombia, El Savador, and Cape Verde, respectively.

Thomas Jefferson: Sanctions Pioneer?
Thomas Jefferson: Sanctions Pioneer

For some of us, it may be surprising to learn that the United States sometimes declares what amounts to an economic war [1] against individuals. If we survey the history of economic statecraft [2] from the Peloponnesian War, to Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo, [3] to the growing popularity of economic coercion since the 1970s, it’s clear that sanctions against non-states actors are a relatively new development (Baldwin 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, & Elliott 2007; Drezner 2003).

Today, such economic restrictions against individuals and entities (e.g. businesses, charities) are rapidly outpacing embargoes against states, and US non-sovereign targets currently number in the thousands. In the War on Terror, non-sovereign sanctions have also emerged as a critical instrument of non-military aggression in the form of the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list. [4] Those listed—either as SDNGT (global terror) or as a SDNK (global narcotics trafficker)– quickly find that they are essentially ‘locked out’ of the American economy and that their US assets are “frozen.” All US persons and organizations are prohibited from economically transacting with a SDN.

The concerted use of non-sovereign sanctions was pioneered in the War on Drugs, and not in the War on Terror. [5]

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