Prohibition's Past and Present

Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs, by Jill Jonnes, New York: Scribner, 510 pages, $30.00

Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by Dan Baum, Boston: Little, Brown, 396 pages, $24.95

American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition, by Kenneth D. Rose, New York: New York University Press, 215 pages, $40.00

Although the repeal of drug prohibition is still opposed by the vast majority of Americans, during the past decade the idea has made noticeable inroads among intellectuals. Indeed, the critique of prohibition is so familiar (at least in vague outline) to journalists, academics, and legal thinkers that people are not only having second thoughts about the drug laws, they are having second thoughts about their second thoughts. Before she wrote Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams, says Jill Jonnes, she was inclined to believe that "the solution to the drug problem was some form of legalization." But "my own extensive research into the history of drug culture gradually convinced me that no society can afford to be conciliatory on drugs." This sort of conversion may cause consternation among reformers, but in a way it's encouraging, and perhaps it will help stimulate productive debate.

Jonnes's change of heart should not be lightly dismissed. Her research is indeed extensive, and the results often make for fascinating reading, especially when she explores drug use by film stars in the teens and '20s, by jazz musicians and Harlem hipsters in the '30s and '40s, by beatniks in the '50s, and by various counterculture types in the '60s. A journalist with a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins, she appreciates the importance of social and cultural context in defining the function and meaning of drug use, and she gracefully intertwines material from interviews, press reports, books, movies, and songs to re-create the textures of various drug scenes.

But there is a jarring disconnect between Jonnes's rich, often subtle narrative and her hackneyed, simplistic policy recommendations, which include such drug warrior standards as crop eradication, "more police and drug agents," coercive drug treatment, and "regaining true control of our borders." Impressive as the details of her account are, they do not make much of a case for her more-of-the-same prescriptions.

Indeed, Jonnes's history often gets in the way of her conclusions. To support her argument that the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was amply justified, she cites an "epidemic" of opiate and cocaine addiction that she says generated "[r]ising grassroots alarm over anti-social drug abuse." She estimates there were 350,000 cocaine and opiate addicts in the United States at the turn of the century, when the population was about 76 million. Later in the book, she estimates that 2.5 million Americans were addicted to heroin and cocaine in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. population had grown to about 260 million. In other words, at a time when these drugs were legal, inexpensive, and readily available over the counter or through the mail, about 0.5 percent of the population became addicted. After eight decades of prohibition, the proportion had doubled (even without taking into account addiction to prescription sedatives, narcotics other than heroin, and stimulants other than cocaine). On the face of it, these numbers do not say much for the necessity or effectiveness of the drug laws.

But the truth is that we don't really know how many "addicts" there are, let alone how many there were in 1900. Jonnes says we have about half a million heroin addicts. She doesn't cite a source, but this is a commonly used number. Whether it's accurate is another matter. During the '70s, recalls Drug Policy Foundation President Arnold Trebach in the 1993 book Legalize It?, various official sources offered estimates ranging from 215,000 to "more than 800,000." Jonnes also claims there are "two million cocaine addicts," including snorters and smokers. (Later she describes them as the "2 million who have taken to crack," leaving out users of cocaine powder, but I think this is a mistake.) Again, she does not cite a source.

According to the 1997 National Drug Control Strategy, there were 582,000 "frequent users" of cocaine in 1995, including 255,000 crack users. These numbers are based on the percentage of respondents in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse who said they had used the drug at least once a week in the previous year, so they are not necessarily "addicts" (unless we are prepared to call someone who drinks a beer every Saturday night an alcoholic). On the other hand, the Household Survey does not include the homeless, prisoners, or people in residential drug treatment centers. Jonnes's estimate implies that more than 70 percent of the nation's cocaine addicts--at least 1.4 million people, which is nearly the size of the total prison population--live on the streets, behind bars, or in treatment centers. This seems implausible, and she offers no evidence that it's so.

Estimates of addiction at the turn of the century are even less reliable. Jonnes seems to get her estimate of 250,000 opiate addicts in 1900 from Yale psychiatrist David F. Musto, author of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control, an influential history originally published in 1973. Musto's estimate, in turn, is based on contemporaneous reports, which were often impressionistic and contradictory, and extrapolations by other scholars, which depend on questionable assumptions. Trebach warns that "estimates of addiction rates then and now varied so widely that no responsible scholar could rely upon them, except in very general terms." Jonnes also uses an estimate of 200,000 "cocaine addicts" in 1902 (which she cuts in half to account for "some overlap in these two groups of addicts"). She attributes the figure to the American Pharmaceutical Association. Yet according to Trebach, the APA's number referred to "users" (not just addicts) of various "habit-forming drugs" (not just cocaine).

Which raises the question of who Jonnes has in mind when she talks about "addicts." Are these people who perceive their own drug use as a problem? Apparently not. "It is well known in the drug world that most addicts will not seek treatment except under some sort of duress," she writes. "Nor, for the most part, will they stick with it unless forced." Are they criminals and troublemakers? Not necessarily. Early in this century, Jonnes says, most addicts were "genteel, middle-class women" hooked on patent medicines or doctor-prescribed painkillers. Are they unproductive burdens on society? As Jonnes notes, the turn-of-the-century surgeon Dr. William Halsted, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins, led a brilliant career while secretly addicted to morphine.

Since not everyone who uses drugs frequently enough to be called an addict fits the stereotype of an unemployed, down-and-out junkie breaking into your car to steal the radio, perhaps we should distinguish among addicts based on their behavior. In other words, perhaps we should treat them as individuals instead of numbers. Jonnes seems reluctant to take this approach, perhaps because it implies that addiction per se is not a problem crying out for a government solution. She is willing to throw addicts in jail. She is eager to force them into "treatment." One thing she is not prepared to do is leave them alone.

Jonnes not only assumes that every addict is a menace, she implies that every drug user is an addict in the making. Once in a while she alludes to people who have managed to use illegal drugs without suffering significant harm, but the overall impression is one of disrupted relationships, ruined careers, and shortened lives. She presents the worst cases--Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Len Bias--as if they were typical. Without comment or qualification, she quotes other people's reckless exaggerations about the consequences of drug use, such as, "Squalor, poverty, starvation, theft, prostitution and murder: these are the inevitable concomitants of cocaine." Jonnes herself calls cocaine "thoroughly addicting." Yet later she tells us, "While the middle-class cocaine epidemic proved to many a boomer that even they could get into deep trouble with drugs, the majority emerged unscathed." Even that concession is an understatement. In the 1995 Household Survey, 10.3 percent of the respondents had tried cocaine (including crack), 1.7 percent had used it in the previous year, 0.7 percent had done so in the past month, and 0.3 percent were using it weekly or more often. In other words, about 3 percent of the people who had tried cocaine were using it as often as once a week. How "thoroughly addicting" is that?

Jonnes wants to have it both ways. She chastises affluent baby boomers for enjoying cocaine with impunity and then abandoning the inner-city poor to the depredations of crack addiction. Yet she rebels at the idea that anyone, even a spoiled yuppie, could use illegal drugs and still be OK. She tries to square the circle with formulations like, "Potentially anyone can become caught up in drugs, and yet the reality is that some are more vulnerable than others."

The reality is that a small minority of illegal drug users "get into deep trouble," causing serious harm to themselves or others. In this respect, controlled substances resemble alcohol. Depending upon who is doing the estimating, 5 to 10 percent of drinkers are said to be alcoholics. Yet that fact does not prevent us from distinguishing between responsible drinkers and abusers, between the alcoholic who holds down a job and the rummy in the gutter, between the drunk who hurts only himself and the one who runs down pedestrians or beats his wife. Recognizing the appeal of the alcohol analogy, Jonnes resists it mightily. At the beginning of the book, at the end, and several times in between, she insists that the currently illegal drugs should not, on any account, be compared to alcohol. "The fact is that drugs are very different from alcohol--and far more dangerous," she asserts in the preface, yet she never substantiates this claim.

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