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.

There's a reason for that. As measured both by the long-term health consequences of heavy use and by its involvement in accidents and crime, alcohol is more dangerous than any popular illegal drug. As measured by the percentage of experimenters who become heavy users, it seems to be no less "addictive" than heroin or cocaine. Tellingly, Jonnes claims that the concept of drug addiction originated with the opiates. In fact, as the sociologist Harry G. Levine showed in a 1978 article published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, "the idea that drugs are inherently addicting was first systematically worked out for alcohol and then extended to other substances. Long before opium was popularly accepted as addicting, alcohol was so regarded."

In her effort to distinguish illegal substances from a familiar drug that we manage to live with despite its dangers, Jonnes resorts to the notion that "anyone who is using drugs is seeking strictly to get high," while people drink alcoholic beverages for other reasons: "to relax" and "for the pleasure of the taste." Even if this were true, so what? Is there something inherently wrong with trying to alter your state of consciousness? Isn't that what drinkers are doing when they seek "to relax" with a cocktail or beer? The distinction is specious in any case. Consider marijuana. As with alcohol, people use it for a variety of purposes: "to relax," to enhance social occasions, to stimulate creativity, to heighten their enjoyment of food, music, or movies. They even bake it into brownies "for the pleasure of the taste."

The alcohol double standard is also apparent in Jonnes's discussion of drug use during pregnancy. There is clear evidence that heavy drinking during pregnancy causes birth defects, including deformed features and mental retardation. This Jonnes mentions not at all. On the other hand, she endorses the notion, repudiated even by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that babies exposed to cocaine in the womb are damaged for life: born underweight and sick, retarded emotionally and intellectually even when no physical abnormalities are apparent.

But as former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum notes in Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by 1989 "researchers cautioned that the lives of poor, crack-using women were bad for babies in so many ways that there was no way to isolate crack as the primary cause of their infants' health problems." Observers who attributed babies' health or behavior at birth and subsequent developmental difficulties to cocaine exposure did not take into account factors such as prenatal care, nutrition, the use of other drugs, and the quality of the home environment. Trying to assess the impact of cocaine itself, researchers at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta injected monkeys with the drug throughout pregnancy. "Their babies were unaffected," Baum reports. "Researchers of human `crack babies' furthermore found that the effects of cocaine wore off within a few months and that such babies who were well fed, loved, and properly stimulated could recover completely."

Baum is not only more skeptical about the harm attributed to drugs, but also more sensitive to the harm caused by the war on them. Whereas Jonnes sees a worthy struggle marred by occasional exaggeration, corruption, and excessively harsh sentences, Baum sees a series of publicity stunts and political games that have wreaked havoc in the streets and the courtroom. "The War on Drugs is about a lot of things," he says, "but only rarely is it really about drugs." Tracing the development of U.S. drug policy from Nixon on, he skillfully tells a tale of demagoguery, cluelessness, and hysteria that is alternately amusing and depressing, alarming and infuriating.

For surreal comic relief, it's hard to beat Baum's account of Nixon's historic meeting with Elvis Presley, wherein the King of Rock 'n' Roll, "a dopehound of legendary excess," was dubbed a "special assistant" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Equally entertaining is the discussion of the ever-escalating estimates for the amount of property stolen by heroin addicts each year. In one memo, a Nixon administration official put the figure at $18 billion–15 times the FBI's estimate for all property crime. Baum also reminds us of the drug paraphernalia panic that led McDonald's to replace all of its coffee stirrers because of a false rumor that they were popular as cocaine spoons.

The war on drugs, of course, has also had far more serious consequences. Baum details how "the drug exception to the Bill of Rights" was carved out, one piece at a time, while attorneys who thought they knew the law were dumbfounded time and again by how far the Supreme Court was willing to go in the quest for a drug-free America. Among other things, the Court has endorsed the use of search warrants based on information from anonymous (and possibly nonexistent) tipsters; warrantless trespassing and surveillance from the air; a "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule; government-mandated, suspicionless drug testing; and detention of suspected drug couriers pending bowel movements. It's a measure of Jill Jonnes's blindness to prohibition's impact on individual rights that she alludes to this trend just once (in a discussion of drug testing), and then in an approving way. The index to her book has no entries for civil liberties, privacy, the Fourth Amendment, or the Constitution.

Baum, by contrast, is clearly disturbed by the consequences of drug war fever. One of his sadder stories concerns the calmer, more rational approach to drug policy that emerged in the mid-to-late '70s, during the Ford and Carter administrations. This was a time when public officials (including Carter) were not afraid to advocate decriminalization of marijuana, when they were prepared to make distinctions among illegal drugs, between use and abuse, and between adults and children. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was a major player in Washington policy circles: The president's drug czar consulted the group and went to its parties. (The latter habit, as Baum explains, turned out to be a big mistake.) For a variety of reasons–including a scandal over drug use by White House officials and parental alarm about rising pot smoking by teenagers–that brief era of relative enlightenment came to an end, replaced by the mindlessness of "Just Say No" and "zero tolerance."

And now even an otherwise sophisticated writer like Jonnes wants us to abandon our critical faculties when it comes to illegal drugs. Her discussion of legalization is filled with tendentious assertions like, "when discussing legalization what we're really talking about is crack cocaine." It's understandable that a prohibitionist would prefer to focus on crack, currently the drug with the most fearsome reputation. And certainly it's true that crack has to be part of the debate over legalization. But marijuana is by far the most popular illegal drug, used in the past year by 8.4 percent of the respondents in the 1995 Household Survey, compared to 0.5 percent for crack. In terms of arrests, pot is the most significant drug, accounting for about two-fifths of the total. "[I]f anything is clear from the past twenty-five years of drug warfare," writes Baum, "it is that marijuana–not crack, cocaine, or heroin–is politically the most important illegal drug. Precisely because it doesn't kill people who use it, spawn gun battles in city streets, enrich foreign drug lords, or inspire women to abandon their babies, marijuana separates drug policy for public welfare from drug policy for public relations. Without the marijuana ban, the country's `drug problem' would be tiny."

Yet Jonnes never makes a case for marijuana prohibition, beyond trotting out "amotivational syndrome" and warning us that it's bad for teenagers to get high every day. Nor does she address the legal status of the psychedelics, even though she devotes considerable space to Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and other famous "psychonauts." Instead she offers us crackheads and heroin addicts, implying that this small minority represents everyone who uses illegal drugs.

As Kenneth D. Rose, a historian at California State University, Chico, shows in American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition, the people who supported a ban on alcohol were also fond of extreme examples. A 19th-century poster depicted "The Drunkard's Progress" as steps up and down a bridge, beginning with "Step 1: A glass with a Friend" and ending with "Step 6: Poverty and Disease," "Step 7: Forsaken by Friends," "Step 8: Desperation and crime," and "Step 9: Death by suicide." Under the bridge were the drunkard's abandoned wife and child. This sort of propaganda–based on real, though atypical, experiences–might shake Jonnes's confidence in her premise that "drugs are very different from alcohol."

Indeed, the rhetoric of temperance campaigners, and the fears underlying it, would be familiar to anyone following the contemporary drug policy debate. This is how the American Temperance Society described alcohol use in the early 19th century: "If some fatal plague, of a contagious character, were imported into our country, and had commenced its ravages in our cities, we should see the most prompt and vigorous measures at once adopted to repress and extinguish it: but what are the most fearful plagues that ever carried death and havoc in their train through the eastern countries compared with this? They are only occasional; this is perennial."

After the temperance movement achieved its ultimate goal with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, critics troubled by the unintended consequences were not treated kindly. A dry Kansas City physician was outraged by Pauline Sabin, a prominent Republican who led the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform: "Mrs. Sabin doesn't know what she's talking about. She didn't see the children I saw. In the winter the children of drunkards froze. The parents weren't low and depraved. They were drunk and they forgot their children." Opponents of repeal were also fond of the class argument much prized by Jonnes–that rich people who can afford intoxication don't care what will happen to the poor. In a letter to Sabin, the head of the National Democratic Law Enforcement League asked, "Are we not right in saying that it is not the protected woman of wealth but the women who toil who will suffer should the old conditions return–the wives of laboring men, the mothers of little children who have no millions to separate them from the devastation that liquor brings to the home?"

In truth, as Rose shows, women of all classes (and various political orientations) were involved in the repeal movement. They included many former supporters of Prohibition, Sabin among them, who were dismayed when the liquor-free world they'd been promised did not materialize. Like the drys, the women who advocated repeal said they wanted to protect the home, but they argued that now it was threatened by Prohibition rather than alcohol. Gangsters attracted to the new black market were shooting at each other in neighborhoods that were once considered safe, sometimes in broad daylight. Illicit suppliers were not particular about their customers, and many mothers believed their children had easier access to alcohol under Prohibition than they'd had when the stuff was legal. They also felt that Prohibition had glamorized drinking, and they worried that rampant official corruption and widespread disobedience were combining to undermine respect for the law.

Reformers recognized, too, that zealous enforcement of Prohibition could lead to a literal invasion of the home. Rose tells the story of a 1924 raid that turned up a tiny quantity of liquor in the home of a prominent Portland, Oregon, businessman who was holding a charity ball. The search warrant, based on an anonymous tip, was subsequently ruled invalid, and it turned out that state Prohibition agents were routinely conducting searches on slight pretext. Oregon Gov. Walter M. Pierce was untroubled, averring that "time has modified the old adage that every man's home is his castle and sanctuary."

So far this sounds like business as usual in the war on drugs. But in 1924, people took the sanctity of the home seriously, even in a town as committed to Prohibition as Portland. Wets and drys alike were outraged. The local newspapers, which had long supported Prohibition, unanimously condemned Pierce and the agents who conducted the raid. The city's chief of police and the local district attorney also repudiated Pierce's comments, as did federal Prohibition director J.A. Linville, who said, "A man's home is his castle and we don't deviate from the constitution in that regard in any manner." Sadly, as Baum's account suggests, such a scenario is unlikely today.

Just as they adopted the rhetoric of home protection favored by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the wets also claimed the banner of "true temperance." They argued that the concept–which, after all, refers to moderation, not abstinence–had been perverted by the prohibitionists.

There is a lesson here for today's reformers. Baum argues that conservatives confronted by crime, poverty, and social disorder used the war on drugs to switch the focus from "root causes" to individual misbehavior. But what they actually did was switch the focus from people to inanimate objects. They literally demonized psychoactive substances, depicting them as evil spirits that take possession of people and compel them to act in depraved and anti-social ways. This is the very opposite of personal responsibility.

Rose concludes that libertarian appeals asserting a right to drink were far less effective in winning repeal of the 18th Amendment than the language of temperance, duty, and home protection. The trick was to explain how these values would be served better in a country where the government did not try to eliminate temptation. As wives and mothers, Sabin and her allies were especially effective proponents of this view, and one wonders how a similar organization–Mothers Against Prohibition, say–would fare today.

The wets also had an advantage in that their audience was familiar with the drug they proposed to legalize, so the concept of "true temperance" resonated. Today, by contrast, it is difficult for most Americans to picture a society that tolerates opium dens, marijuana bars, or even real Coca-Cola. They cannot imagine the customs, institutions, and social forces that would help tame these exotic substances.

Then again, they can see the sort of corruption, disorder, and violence that so troubled the opponents of Prohibition. They can, perhaps, be made to recognize the misuse of law enforcement resources, the infringement of civil liberties, the unnecessary hazards of black-market drugs. And they certainly should know by now that the hucksters touting a drug-free America, like the millenarians who championed a liquor-free world, have made promises they can't keep.