Skip to comments.Lies our drug warriors told us
Posted on 08/25/2006 6:26:19 AM PDT by cryptical
The reporters made their way through the dim lights and small huts of Virginia City's Chinatown. In the huts, one of the reporters later wrote, "A lamp sits on the bed, the length of the long pipe-stem from the smoker's mouth; he puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke--and the stewing and frying of the drug and the gurgling of the juices in the stem would well nigh turn the stomach of a statue. John likes it, though; it soothes him, he takes about two dozen whiffs, and then rolls over to dream."
The reporter, Mark Twain, whose Victorian sensibilities made him uncomfortable when faced with the scenes in Chinatown, nevertheless was one reporter who did not use his coverage of opium use to demonize the Chinese. Others were less principled. They set the pattern of much of the news coverage of drug use that followed in the next century and a half.
The Comstock journalists produced racist and inaccurate news coverage that relied on uninformed sources (law enforcement instead of physicians), inflamed the people of the town, and produced the nation's first anti-drug law, an ordinance banning opium smoking within Virginia City, enacted on Sept. 12, 1876. The local politicians, discovering that fear of drugs and minorities sold, were just as irresponsible, blaming everything from poor sanitation to child molestation on Chinese drug "fiends." When the local prohibition ordinance failed, they pushed for a statewide law which failed (and, of course, would be followed by national laws that failed).
The entire ineffectual template of the drug war with which we live today was established there in Virginia City--journalists who gave short shrift to science and health-care professionals in favor of treating politicians and law enforcers as drug experts in lurid and exploitive news coverage; politicians who exploited legitimate concern to promote race hatred and reelection; law enforcers who confused cause with effect and exploited public anxiety to promote punitive laws; and all three who treated prohibition as a solution: "Let severe measures be adopted and the sale of the drug will soon be suppressed!" observed a Nye County newspaper. The nation has been chasing that siren's song ever since.
A century later, Reno physician Wesley Hall was the president-elect of the American Medical Association. On April 2, 1970, he used the forum provided by his new stature to announce that in June, the AMA would release a study showing that marijuana deadened the sex drive and caused birth defects. The statement caused a flap, but no such study was ever released. A few weeks later, Hall claimed he had been misquoted but also claimed that he had not bothered to correct the record because "it does some good." By then, correcting the record did no good--Hall's comments kept getting cited and quoted until experience and the passing years showed their falsity.
Over the course of the war on drugs that began in Virginia City and accelerated decade by decade, such lying became an indispensable weapon of that war. The lies sometimes took the form of outright falsehoods. At other times, they took the form of letting errors stand uncorrected or leaving out essential information. Drug warriors--whether journalists, politicians, police or public employees--need lies because the drug war can't be sustained without them. Lies are the foundation of the drug war, and the five listed here are the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many more, and they are relevant to a marijuana measure that will appear on this year's Nevada ballot.
1. Gateway drugs In the early 20th century, Dr. Charles Towns was a leading public figure and drug "expert," operator of the Towns Hospital in New York. He propounded a theory that would have a long life--that some drugs "lead" to harder drugs. "The tobacco user is in the wrong," he wrote. "It undermines his nervous strength. It blunts the edge of his mind. It gives him 'off-days,' when he doesn't feel up to his work. It always precedes alcoholism and drug addiction. I've never had a drug case or an alcoholic case (excepting a few women) that didn't have a history of excessive smoking. Inhaling tobacco is just as injurious as moderate opium smoking."
The gateway theory evolved until baby boomers raised in the 1950s on "marijuana leads to harder stuff" learned its falsity from personal experience in the 1960s. If that experience and the findings of science were not enough, there was practical evidence that some drugs actually functioned as barrier drugs, not gateway drugs. Whenever mild drugs were removed as a barrier, harder drugs came into use. In 1910, Congress received data showing that during a period of alcohol prohibition in New England, morphine use jumped by 150 percent. In 1968, a Johnson administration crackdown on marijuana in Vietnam reduced supply and provoked an upsurge in heroin use. In 1969 in California, a six-day Nixon administration crackdown on the Mexican border dried up marijuana supplies and filled heath-care facilities with a flood of heroin cases. California physician David Smith told Newsweek, "The government line is that the use of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs. The fact is that the lack of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs."
The gateway theory went into decline after such experiences but always made a comeback because drug war dogma requires it. Today it is back, alive and well.
And as it turned out, "Doctor" Towns was a quack--a failed insurance salesman who was not a physician and peddled a bogus "cure" for drug addiction.
2. Marijuanas not medicine. Today, we're accustomed to medical experts like Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick denying that marijuana is medicine (Gammick: "I didn't support medical marijuana because it doesn't exist."), but in 1937, it was a novel argument, since marijuana was universally acknowledged as a beneficial medicine. It was listed in the American Medical Association's Pharmacopeia (list of approved medications) and remained there even after being made illegal until federal officials brought pressure on the AMA. (It is still in the British Pharmacopeia.)
What may have been the first time this lie was told was a key moment in the drug wars. Congress was considering legislation that year to outlaw non-medicinal marijuana at the behest of the lumber and liquor lobbies and fueled by newspaper hysteria over marijuana. By continuing to protect physicians' use of the drug, Congress recognized its medical value.
Though there was an exception in the bill for physicians, the medical community was still concerned about the restrictions. There was apparently an effort to slip the ban through Congress quietly, but AMA lobbyist William C. Woodward found out about a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the bill and showed up to demand actual evidence of the danger of the drug instead of the anecdotal newspaper horror stories to which the committee had been listening: "It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marijuana addiction. We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point. You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children's Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children."
The committee members tore into Woodward spitefully, giving him the kind of grilling they did not give to drug warriors.
One member told Woodward, "We know that it is a habit that is spreading, particularly among youngsters. ... The number of victims is increasing each year." Woodward replied, "There is no evidence of that." He kept insisting on evidence instead of hearsay.
The committee ended Woodward's testimony without thanking him or even formally ending his testimony, brusquely calling the next witness.
One of those present at that hearing was U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia. When the marijuana ban reached the House floor on June 10, 1937, he was the floor manager. To give some idea of the care with which the bill was enacted and the depth of knowledge from which lawmakers were working, there was this exchange:
U.S. Rep. Bertrand Snell of New York: "What is the bill?"
U.S. Rep. Sam Rayburn of Texas: "It has something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind."
Vinson: "Marijuana is the same as hashish."
Snell: "Mr. Speaker, I am not going to object, but I think it is wrong to consider legislation of this character at this time of night."
U.S. drug czar John Walters came to Nevada to campaign against a medical marijuana measure and told a lurid tale of highly potent marijuana. Photo By D. Brian Burghart
Then came a question that led to the lie whose consequences are still with us. Snell asked, "Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?"
The response fell to Vinson. A truthful answer might well derail the bill. Future chief justice of the United States Vinson stood and lied: "Their Doctor Wentworth [sic] came down here. They support this bill one hundred percent."
The bill was approved.
3. Crack babies. The report went on the air at 5:34:50 p.m. on Sept. 11, 1985, with an on-screen headline of "Cocaine and pregnant mothers." In 1 minute and 50 seconds, Susan Spencer of CBS ignited an inflammatory national myth--the crack baby. Footage of a screaming and trembling baby going through withdrawal after supposedly being born to a mother who used cocaine was backed by interviews with physicians Ira Chasnoff and Sidney Schnoll. Chasnoff had just published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that had caught Spencer's eye and prompted the report. Spencer ended the report with the lines, "The message is clear. If you are pregnant and using cocaine, stop."
University of Michigan scholars Richard Campbell and Jimmie Reeves have tracked the events which followed. As other reporters and media chased the story, it evolved. Spencer's report was a health warning. By the time her CBS colleague Terry Drinkwater and others recycled the story, it was an attack on the mothers (Washington Post: "The Worst Threat Is Mom Herself"). As the firestorm built, politicians and others got involved, and the babies themselves were demonized. A judge called them "tomorrow's delinquents," and Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller of California said, "We are going to have these children, who are the most expensive babies ever born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives." Boston University President John Silber suggested the babies were soulless--"crack babies who won't ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God."
The drumbeat against the children became so fierce that a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association asked, "Why is there today such an urgency to label prenatally cocaine-exposed children as irremediably damaged?" And Emory University's Dr. Claire Coles said of the "crack baby" label, "If a child comes to kindergarten with that label, they're dead. They are very likely to fulfill the worst prophecies."
Hospitals started threatening to turn mothers over to police; prosecutors started charging mothers with child abuse. (The Nevada Legislature rejected a statute permitting such prosecutions, and when the Washoe sheriff tried to charge a mother anyway, the Nevada Supreme Court slapped it down.) One case--Ferguson v. City of Charleston--made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that hospitals had to stop testing for drugs without patient consent. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the drug habits of white women were more likely to be overlooked by physicians or hospitals, while African Americans were reported to police.
And it was all built on a pile of sand.
Spencer, like most reporters, did not know how to read a scientific study, and the Chasnoff study was flawed. The study involved just 23 women, and its author himself called it inadequate.
Worse, according to former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum, who wrote an influential account of the drug war, physicians noticed something about video reports by Spencer and others that ordinary viewers--and the reporters themselves--missed. The trembling babies were exhibiting behavior that is not produced by cocaine. Being withdrawn from coke produces sleep, not the trembling and screaming shown in the sensational reports. Baum wrote, "It dawned on [Dr. Claire] Coles that the TV crews were either mixed up or lying. They were filming infants suffering heroin withdrawal and calling them 'cocaine babies.' "
Moreover, the physicians also felt that drugs were not the cause of the problems being attributed to the babies. Lack of nutrition and health care during pregnancy were. A Florida report noted, "In the end, it is safer for the baby to be born to a drug-using, anemic, or diabetic mother who visits the doctor throughout her pregnancy than to be born to a normal woman who does not."
The controversy arose at a time when both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and President Reagan had sliced apart the "safety net" that had long existed for poor families. By 1985, prenatal care and nutrition were less accessible. Federal deregulation of the insurance industry had cut low-income families loose from health insurance. Federally funded medical care had been slashed. While journalism had raced off after the mock cause of unhealthy babies, the real causes had received far less press scrutiny.
It was a case study of journalism taking a complex story and simplifying it into inflammatory and irresponsible coverage that made the problem worse. It is now pretty clear to experts and insiders what happened. But the damage is done. Today, there are 103,000 hits on Google for crack baby and 107,000 for crack babies.
4. Instant addiction. The March 17, 1986, issue of Newsweek hit the newsstands on March 10. Newsweek has long served as the unofficial house organ of the drug war. That alliance has often suspended the critical faculties of its staff members. Never was that failing more dangerous than in that 1986 issue with its "Kids and Cocaine" cover story. Inside was an interview with Arnold Washton, operator of a drug hotline who was known for hyperbole--he had once told NBC that crack was a form of Russian roulette. In the Newsweek article he said, "There is no such thing as recreational use of crack. It is almost instantaneous addiction."
Newsweek did not bother checking the accuracy of the incendiary claim before publishing it. Instead, acting as stenographers instead of journalists, the magazine's editors printed it without a competing viewpoint.
The assertion shot through newsrooms around the nation with the speed of sound, and those newsrooms passed it along like carriers of a disease. And it was untrue. Dr. Herbert Kleber, perhaps the leading cocaine expert in the United States has said, "No drug is instantly addictive."
The claim was as potent in its effect as crack. Laws, fueled by the frenzy created by "instantly addicting" crack, were enacted. One of them, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, imposed lower penalties on powder cocaine (used mostly by whites) than on crack cocaine (used mostly by African Americans). In practice, whites tended to be diverted into treatment more than blacks. All four members of Congress from Nevada voted for the bill.
There were those who tried to brake the inflammatory news coverage. The Washington Journalism Review eventually ran a cover story quoting Peter Jennings saying that using crack "even once can make a person crave cocaine as long as they live." Existing research, the Review said, disproves that statement. But the piece didn't appear until 1990. The Columbia Journalism Review did not directly challenge the claim but did urge greater skepticism toward drug war claims.
It did little good. The belief in the instantly addicting qualities of cocaine has entered popular culture. "The crack cocaine of ..." joined "If we can put a man on the moon ..." as an indispensable phrase. There are 47,800 Google hits for it--"the crack cocaine of junk food," "the crack cocaine of gambling addiction," "the crack cocaine of sexaholics," and so on.
5. Marijuanas rising potency That distinguished medical expert, Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick, said on Sam Shad's television program, "This is not the marijuana that people used to roll and do a little doobie back at Haight-Ashbury and some of the other things that went on back 30, 40 years ago. This is 10 times stronger in THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] content."
This has become one of the most common new myths about marijuana. White House drug czar John Walters loves it and used it when he came to Reno and Las Vegas to campaign against a 2002 marijuana ballot measure. "What many people don't understand is that this is not your father's marijuana," he told the Washington Post in a story about the Nevada initiative. "What we're seeing now is much more potent." In fact, no reliable evidence substantiates Gammick's 10-times-stronger claim, much less Walters' 30-times-stronger claim.
What they leave out of their sales pitch are these little nuggets of information:
The claims of higher potency are based on a 1960s study that used unusually low-potency marijuana for testing purposes.
The Bush administration itself will not substantiate the Walters/Gammick-style claims about potency. The federal Potency Monitoring Project reports negligible fluctuations in potency over the years. The U.S. Department of Justice's "National Drug Threat Assessment" for 2005 said that higher potency marijuana is not marketable because it makes tokers sick--"more intense--and often unpleasant--effects of the drug leading them to seek medical intervention."
Potency is a so-what issue--when marijuana is more potent, tokers smoke less.
Walters managed to combine two of the lies we listed here into a single sentence when, on one occasion, he talked about border smuggling of pot that he claimed was highly potent: "Canada is exporting to us the crack of marijuana." It's the kind of false statement that would have fit right into 1870s Virginia City.
Modern authors usually suggest that widespread opium use was a major health problem during the 19th century. However, the use of opiates must be kept in proper perspective with other contemporary health problems. Mortality from cholera, malaria, and dysentery was very high, and opiates provided some relief from these illnesses (Opiates remain the most effective treatment for dysentery.). Some authors have suggested that the easy availability of opiate-based medicines saved more lives than it took. As the deleterious effects of chronic opiate use became increasingly recognized during the late 19th century, several factors helped ease the need for opiates: the improvements in sanitation diminished cholera and dysentery, the drainage of swamp lands decreased malaria, and the introduction of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin; 1899) provided an alternative medicine for moderate pain relief.
Show me the successful societies that tolerate legal and widespread recreational drug use.
How about the United States of America. Read: Alcohol.
That's a single drug. That's not what I had in mind by widespread.
Most people, I think, would interpret the word widespread, as used in this context, to mean "used by a lot of people", "pervasive", or something like that.
That you wish to exclude alcohol from being included in your definition of "widespread drug use" very much diminishes your point. I don't think it is helpful in these discussions to pretend that alcohol is not the most abused drug in America.
They want their guns, too.
Oh freedom, terrible freedom !
Another swing an a miss, my friend. At least three of us here answered the question you posed correctly---you just don't like the answer.
They want their guns, too.
Oh freedom, terrible freedom !
Nope, it's pot. Lots of other people want guns and freedom. Libertarians want pot.
Blah, blah, blah.
Two notes: Heroin was only made a controlled substance in England because Physicians were upset that Chemists (Pharmacists) were making all the money...so it was controled and they got their cut.
In one of our studies we found that babies of mothers using cocaine (you can't tell the difference in form when its in the body)were less likely to have problems than mothers of smokers.
See, THEY ARE ALL DRUGS. Now, just because they are the drugs YOU like....well, they don't count.
Man I hate hypocrisy.
At least you're consistent; you're against everything, eh?
Unfortunately, corrupt politicians and beholding judges have twisted things around.
My only question is...what if they had been drinking alcool or even coffee?? If you condone or accept that, you condone drug use. Then, it becomes a matter of preference. And, if you want to rank them by a "danger index" - pot falls WAAAAY below alchohol, and is MUCH less addictive than nicotine. So..it's probably just misinformed hypocrisy that you believe in (re-read article...or read it for the first time). Funny, you would put a black mark on your sons record in order to uphold the views of the corrupt politicians.
Same as all good fascists. Nazi's did the EXACT same thing.
I truly don't understand why we think lying is an effective drug policy. Marijuana can impair some memory functions, make you sluggish, get fat, etc. But that isn't "scary" enough for some folks. So we embellish, and we lose the trust of the kids when we tell them what long term heroin, ecstacy use can do to them because they know already that we lie.
How about the United States prior to the 1930 anti-drug hysteria. Coca-cola had cocaine in it (hence the name) back then.
We always laugh when a 'don't do drugs' commercial is followed by a 'get this drug' commercial.
Banning pot wasn't about drugs. "It was about power", -- as libertarians put it.
How can you have a drug war history paper without mentioning the lies spewed by Anslinger and promoted by Hearst?
Those nigger jazz musicians are going to have sex with your little white girls using the evil weed!
Absolutely. If you take a look at the most horrible, freedom supressing supreme court rulings over the past 50 years, most of them have drugs at their nexus.
Interestingly, when you start tracing back precident cited in these rulings, most of them ultimately go back to prohibition. As most folks know, prohibition was eventually repealed. Unfortunately, supreme court rulings based on the existance of an unrepealed 18th amendment. In a sane world where the government wasn't so bloddy-minded about the continual increase of its power, those rulings would have been declared null and void in 1933 following the passage of the 21st amendment.
I'm not upholding the views of corrupt politicians. These are my views, formed from seeing 1st hand the destructive nature of drugs. Each one of the family and friends that I saw destroy themselves started on pot.
As for putting a black mark on my son's record, he did it to himself, he knew the rules, and he knew the consequences he would face if he brought that crap into my house. He also learned a valuble lesson in the process. He is now an E-4 Specialist in the Army, is married and has a little girl. He has told me that what I did in that situation was the best thing that happened to him. He was 19 at the time, half a$$ing his way through Community College, bouncing from one dead end fast food job to another, and hanging out with complete douchebags. He cleaned his act up after this incident, and is better for it. You won't change my mind, and I probably won't change yours, but I'm going to keep doing what I do.
Ha! What an interesting juxtapositon!
Kids, this is your brain on drugs:
Do you have ED?
You havin' problems crashing out at night?
Cholesterol got you down?
Maybe you have a "going" problem:
Surely you can no longer get it up . . .
Do your feet itch?
Oh, and remember, kids, drugs are evil. Especially marijuana.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.