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5 Bumbling Architects of America's War on Drugs


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Have you ever wondered why America ended up with the awful system it has for dealing with drugs instead of the more moderate and effective systems used in places like the Netherlands? Here are five unscrupulous guys -- hucksters and opportunists, all of them -- who played a central role in making the American system happen.

5. Dr. Hamilton Wright

The first federal narcotics law ever passed in the United States was The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, approved in 1914, and the man who did the most to get this law passed was Dr. Hamilton Wright. As Mike Gray describes in his book Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out, Wright set the tone for contemporary drug warriors by being totally oblivious to empirical reality and willing to make up facts to support his agenda. Wright was convinced that opium addiction was ravaging America at the start of the 20th century, even though the rate of such addiction was actually dropping in the wake of the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Gray describes Wright as "a one-man Washington pressure group, pitching to Congress, threatening and cajoling foreign ambassadors, twisting arms, and drafting model narcotics laws for the people of the United States." At the Second International Conference on Opium in 1911, Wright promised the delegates from other nations that the U.S. would pass a national anti-narcotics law. Wright ended up getting fired because of his alcoholism before the Harrison Act passed, according to Gray, but by then the ball was already rolling.

4. Richmond Pearson Hobson

Richmond Pearson Hobson's main function in the development of American drug policy was as a propagandist for the expansion of federal control over drugs. As Richard Davenport-Hines describes in his book The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, Hobson specialized in writing books on drugs that were "bombastic and inaccurate." His greatest hits included:

articles such as 'One Million American Victims of Drug Habit' for the New York Times (9 November 1924) or his books Narcotic Peril (1925), The Modern Pirates--Exterminate Them ( 1931) and Drug Addiction: a Malignant Racial Cancer (1933).

Mike Gray writes that Hobson made up his own theory of how the brain functioned, claiming that it was "divided into various vertical layers like a building, with the baser instincts in the basement." Alcohol, according to Hobson, allowed those basement instincts to control the upper floors, especially when consumed by Indians and African-Americans, who would "degenerate . . . to the level of the cannibal."

3. Harry Anslinger

Of all the dubious figures in American drug policy history, nobody is described as having been quite as nasty, opportunistic and effective at self-promotion as Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was essentially America's first "drug czar" (although that title was not used at that time), and he tenaciously clung to that position for 32 years after being appointed in 1930.

Gray notes that Anslinger's position in the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics allowed him to act as the gatekeeper for anyone in the pharmaceutical industry who wanted to manufacture narcotics: "It was as if he had been accidentally positioned at the wheel of a gate valve that could direct the flow of money." As a result, he became extremely cozy with the industry, which would always support Anslinger when he wanted to get legislation passed or when he needed to fend off criticism.

Though Anslinger did not originate the drive to criminalize marijuana, he was the one who stepped up the rhetoric around it to the ridiculous levels we associate with "Reefer Madness" and other nonsense of the sort that continues to this day. As Judge James P. Gray notes in his book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, Anslinger "took an active role in spreading . . . fear and misinformation, with an eye toward convincing both the state and federal governments to pass marijuana prohibition." Davenport-Hines notes that the FBN kept no statistics at all under Anslinger's tenure, which made it easier for him to "manipulate the numbers to serve his changing needs: in some months he might wish to convince his Congressional allies that his policies were succeeding; at other times, that America was in crisis. His strategies were pursued in a fury of accumulated dishonesty."

The result of Anslinger's efforts, just like those of his contemporaries today, was to increase interest in and use of drugs. Davenport-Hines notes that

As late as 1937, [marijuana] was a little-used medicine in the United States, smoked by Mexican immigrants and other marginal groups as a way of coping with a hard life, and by the young people who frequented tea-pads. It was one of Anslinger's enduring accomplishments that a drug that few people had heard of in the mid 1930s, and fewer used, became so fashionable.

2. William Randolph Hearst

These days, when it's an everyday occurrence to read bafflingly shallow, fact-free, fear-mongering journalism about whatever the latest drug scourge might be, it's easy to imagine that drugs have always been covered in this manner. But in fact this type of hack journalism is simply a repetition of a type of story created around the turn of the 20th century by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who had an uncanny ability to use societal anxieties to sell papers.

Hearst is synonymous with so-called "yellow journalism" -- the wave of lurid, sensational, tabloid reporting that drove America into the Spanish-American war in 1898 on the basis of inaccurate allegations about the conduct of Spain. But Hearst was also a vehement opponent of marijuana. For that reason, Gray writes, "the 'Marijuana-Crazed madman' became a staple fixture in Hearst's fifty newspapers, magazines and radio stations." It didn't matter then that the empirical support for these stories was weak, just as it doesn't matter today when some journalist whips its readers into a lather over methamphetamine, crack or salvia divinorum.

Hearst's efforts helped pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. But more importantly, Hearst created the template for lazy, provocative reporting on drugs, and it's a template that reporters continue to use over and over again today. You can almost write these stories in your sleep: they're less likely these days to involve the demonization of some specific racial group, but they will always involve "more and more" users of some drug or other (with no number specified), some legislator or law enforcement officer "raising concerns" about this trend that may or may not exist, a two-bit academic making something up about the addictive potential and-or physical impact of the drug, and, of course, "the kids" who will be harmed by the latest tragedy as they or their strung-out parents fall prey to reefer madness, meth mouth, crack bugs, bad trips, dirty needles, roid rage and so on. Hearst's type of story has been with us for about 100 years, and we see a new one in the same style almost every single day as reporters mindlessly regurgitate what they are told.

1. Richard Nixon

Fast forward a couple decades. The early architects were real geniuses, but it took a true Einstein to declare "war" on something that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. That political prodigy, of course, was Richard Nixon, who decided we needed this war in 1971.

Gray writes that Nixon, above all else, was an opportunist on this issue:

People already suspected that marijuana and 420420420 were at the root of the youth rebellion, and they read in the papers that heroin was driving inner-city blacks to rape and pillage. On the nightly news, these two images began fusing together as heroin and marijuana merged into a single dreadful scourge in the public mind. Nixon's political genius was to spot these waves of public anxiety before anyone else and to ride them like a surfer.

Nixon's tenure came at the start of a sea change in law enforcement in this county, the change that would send our prison population skyrocketing (as the graph below shows) and turn America, the "land of the free," into the country that locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.

Many other bad ideas contributed to this sea change, but Nixon gets credit for declaring "war" on drugs, a delicious rhetorical choice that makes it extremely difficult for any of us today to suggest that perhaps our policy isn't working. Just as is the case in some other wars that come to mind, it's obvious that we're throwing resources down the drain and losing a lot of lives in the process, but the thought of "surrender" is so painful it can barely be contemplated.

On the other hand, maybe what's needed today is not surrender at all but a reclaiming of public policy from the blinkered architects who set this whole tragedy in motion. The five men who are discussed here were cynical liars who were interested first and foremost in manipulating public opinion to benefit themselves. Their contemporary counterparts, I'm afraid, are not much different.

News Hawk: Drboomhauer 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: Drug Law Blog
Author: Alex Coolman
Contact: druglawblog(at)gmail.com
Website: Drug Law Blog
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