issue 224 - October 1991
Popular fears of drug addiction have been exploited to maximum
political effect in the US, argues Edward Jay Epstein. He begins a
whistle-stop tour of folk history with ‘the most kissed man in America’,
Richard Pearson Hobson (right), and unearths both the origins of
populist scare-mongering and the issues it was designed to hide.
On June 3, 1898 Richmond Pearson Hobson, a newly graduated naval lieutenant, guided the USS Merrimac into the narrow mouth of Santiago Harbour in Cuba. The Spanish-American War had just broken out and the US Navy planned for Hobson to trap the Spanish fleet by scuttling his ship in the main channel. To this end he had heroically tied a string of homemade torpedoes to the hull of the ship.
But, owing to a failure in the ship’s steering mechanism, he was unable to get the tub into the blockading position before the charges exploded. The Merrimac sank in the wrong place. Hobson was captured by the Spanish and repatriated after the Spanish surrendered.
The US Navy, faced with the difficult choice of court-martialing Hobson or decorating him for his valor, chose the latter. President McKinley personally decorated him and the Navy arranged a national speaking tour. His popularity grew and he became known as ‘the most kissed man in America’. By 1906, the celebrated hero of Santiago Harbour had been elected to Congress.
He was a hero in search of a grand cause. His first thought was to call for America to build a vast navy to protect the world from the ‘yellow peril’ of Japan. When this failed and his speaking engagements dwindled, he switched his moral drumfire to a far more pervasive enemy – alcohol, which he termed ‘the great destroyer’.
In 1921 the National Prohibition legislation outlawing alcohol was passed. Neither the crime rate nor death rate was diminished: indeed, both rose during Prohibiton. But Captain Hobson was left without a cause once more. He found a new ‘greatest evil’, which could not only be held accountable for all crime and vice but had the added advantage over alcohol of being a foreign import. This new devil was a drug called heroin.
Heroin (from the German heroisch - ‘large, powerful’) was first developed by the A G Bayer Company of Germany in 1898 as a painkiller. Derived from morphine, and sometimes prescribed as a new means of treating morphine addiction, by the early 1900s heroin confronted the US with a growing number of addicts. In 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which attempted to control narcotics through licensing and taxation.
A spate of newspaper stories during the final days of World War I suggested that Germany was attempting to addict the entire American population to heroin by mixing the powder with cosmetics. And in New York City public officials increasingly attributed bank robberies and anarchist bombings to heroin-crazed fiends.
The living dead
Hobson quickly saw the potential of reorganizing the available bits of information and assertions about heroin into the specter of the vampire. In a frenzy of public appearances, lectures and writings he termed narcotics addicts ‘the living dead’: ‘The addict has an insane desire to make addicts of others,’ he added.
Hobson’s legend of the living dead lived after him. The apocalyptic battle he depicted between the forces of good and the army of addicts provided countless politicians, police officials and medical bureaucrats with a conceptual framework from which they could advance their particular interests.
It was brilliantly refined into a national political issue in the 1960s by Nelson Rockefeller. In projecting a nationwide ‘reign of terror’ he had at his disposal an unprecedented family fortune – which began with his great-grandfather, a nineteenth century dealer in ‘herbal remedies’ and other bottled medicines which often contained opium as an active ingredient.
Nelson first learned the techniques of propagating and controlling information when he was appointed co-ordinator of inter-American affairs at the age of 32 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was given the responsibility of running a $150 million propaganda agency in Latin America. In 1958 he decided to run for elective office as Governor of New York State and was easily elected. But he was decisively beaten to the Republican presidential nomination by the hard-line Senator Barry Goldwater at the 1964 convention.
After this defeat he developed an issue which seemed to appeal to both the hard-line and liberal-to-moderate elements – the drug issue. By proposing measures for oppressing drug users that were more draconian than anything ever proposed by Senator Goldwater, Rockefeller hoped to placate law-and-order Republicans. At the same time, polls showed that the more liberal elements would not object to measures that enhanced their personal safety. Rockefeller worked to establish in the popular imagination a connection between violent crimes and drugs.
During his campaign for re-election as governor in 1966 he demanded ‘an all-out war on drugs and addiction’. He rushed through a law providing for the involuntary confinement of drug addicts for up to five years for ‘treatment’, even if they were not convicted of any crime. There was, in 1966, no program of medical treatment for addiction in New York State, nor even a concept of what addiction was or how it could be treated.
When Frank O’Connor, his Democratic party rival in the election, opposed the new law Rockefeller told a rally in Brooklyn: ‘Frank O’Connor’s election would mean narcotic addicts would continue free to roam the street – to mug, snatch purses, to steal, even to murder, or to spread the deadly infection that afflicts them possibly to your own son or daughter. Half the crime in New York City is committed by narcotic addicts.’
He never gave a source for this assertion. And the size of the addict population proved to be conveniently flexible. To demonstrate the need for greater police measures or more judges Rockefeller and his staff expanded the number of putative addicts from 25,000 in 1966 to 200,000 in 1973. When he wanted to show the efficacy of his program, the army of addicts was conveniently contracted to under 100,000.
President Nixon found his own use for the heroin epidemic. Police, doctors, judges, social workers, community leaders, politicians, just about everyone, were rightly concerned with the spread of heroin addiction. It touched on the rawest nerve in middle-class America: anxiety over the alienation of children from their parents, the deterioration of urban life, the increase in crime and violence and the corruption of the police.
By playing on these fears and exciting them to fever pitch, Nixon’s men laid the basis for a massive war on drugs: a war that would permit the administration to create new agencies with strange-sounding acronyms like ONNI, ODALE and DEA; to shuffle personnel around in the FBI, CIA, Justice Department and even the army; and effectively to rewire the chain of command so that these agencies reported directly to the Administration. The new opiate war provided the perfect cover for a seizure of power.
But before Nixon could take advantage of and consolidate his new agency of fear, the Watergate scandal unraveled. The putative ‘heroin epidemic’ was over – in fact, the increase in addiction had peaked and began to subside years before Nixon’s drug war had even begun.
But the drop in heroin addiction did not solve the problems of urban crime or social disorganization. Left behind in the wake of the hype and excitement of Nixon’s heroin war was a legacy of fundamental misconceptions about the nature of the drug problem – misconceptions that persist in guiding US policy and politics today.
The most serious confusion was of cause and effect. It was conveniently assumed for the purpose of public policy that the appalling living conditions in inner cities were caused by drug abuse, instead of vice versa. The result has been the search for a magic-bullet solution in faraway lands for the endemic race, social and economic problems in the United States. Not since Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has there been such an organized flight from reality by a nation.
The folly of attempting to fight the most recent war, this time on cocaine, is suggested by a single statistic: the entire cocaine market in the US can be supplied by just one cargo plane. There are approximately 20,000 cargo planes available on the cocaine route, not to mention 17,000 ships. High profile moves which look good before the TV cameras often result in making the cocaine business more efficient. Both Congress and the media have been fed sensational statistics on the value of captured narcotics – the so-called ‘street value’, which allows government officials to multiply what they have bought or found by up to 2,000 per cent.
Not everyone is fooled by the flimflam. I asked John Ehrlichman, who supervised Nixon’s heroin war before he himself went to prison on Watergate cover-up charges, why the Reagan-Bush war on cocaine was producing such meagre results. He answered, ‘They didn’t try to learn from our mistakes… They went right back to square zero.’
Now George Bush has made the drug war his number-one priority. As did his predecessors, Bush opted to internationalize what was essentially an American problem. Again the war on drugs turned into a military exercise against foreign devils. By decimating one or another supplier – like the dreaded Colombian cartels – the US Government did not eliminate drug consumption. It merely made room for a new set of smugglers. As long as Americans want to buy a product, someone will sell it to them – usually with tacit police co-operation.
If the past is any guide, the present diversion from reality may be even more damaging to the fabric of American society than Nixon’s power grab. Even if the Bush administration built a ten-foot-high wall of barbed wire, sealed off US airspace with a Star Wars defence system and barred all industrial imports in which drugs might be concealed, the problems of the inner city would not go away. Nor would unemployment, crime and racism. If anything, narcotics wars themselves have become the opiate of the politicians. So long as their fascination continues, and the narcocracy grows, little progress can be expected elsewhere. And so long as this escapism ignores the possibility that drug abuse may be the result, not the cause, of the permanent state of disorder and despair in the inner cities, the war on drugs can be expected to produce nothing more than intermittent diversions for the media.
Edward Jay Epstein is the author of Agency of Fear (Verso, 1990) and lives in New York.