Detail from cocaine toothache drops advertisement, 1885.
Published: August 16, 2013
At the beginning of August, Illinois legalized medical marijuana, becoming the 20th state to do so. And less than a year ago, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. But back in the early 20th century, both states were among the first to ban the drug. If that seems like a radical change, well – it’s hardly the first time a drug has undergone a major image overhaul in America. So in this episode of BackStory, we’re examining those shifts, tracing the changing face of drugs – and drug users – in the United States.
We start in the 19th century, when opium and cocaine were perfectly legal, and heroin was touted as a cure for morphine addiction, and trace the story of their criminalization – or in the case of pot, decriminalization. And we bring the story right on up through the 1970s, when Vietnam vets and suburban housewives triggered two very different drug panics. Throughout, we’ll trace the story of th criminalization – and in the case of pot, decriminalization— of those substances. Along the way, Brian, Ed, and Peter explore the influence of the medical establishment, as well as the role of popular culture, in shaping American attitudes about drugs.
Historian Isaac Campos traces the origins of the idea that marijuana causes violent madness…and finds the trail leads south, to Mexico.
Just Say No
When a dozen-odd states decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, one group of determined parents pushed back. Brian, Ed, and Peter chat with historian Emily Dufton about what that episode means for decriminalization today.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Peter talks with historian Anne Foster about how the Philippines – and some embarrassing international conferences – shamed the US into passing its first federal narcotics ban in 1914.
Mother's Little Helper
Historian David Herzberg and Brian discuss how feminists transformed Valium from a wonder drug to a symbol of medical sexism.
Watson, the Needle!
Peter, Ed, and Brian discuss doctors’ attempts to root out dodgy patent medicines in the early 20th century, and then producer Chioke Ianson tells the story of how Sherlock Holmes kicked his coke habit…with a little help from his American fans.
The Drugs They Carried
Historian Jeremy Kuzmarov and former Drug Czar Jeremy Jaffe take us inside one drug panic of the 1970s: the fear that troops in Vietnam were high on heroin. Turns out, almost everyone had misunderstood how addiction works.
Resources galore! Check out the list of books, articles, and links we’ve compiled — digging deeper into the history of drug use in the US, and consult a bibliography of sources used in the making of this episode.
This transcript is from an earlier broadcast of this episode, in January 2013.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American History Guys.
Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here with fellow History Guys, Peter Onuf–
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And we have a letter here written by a Colorado newspaper editor, dated September 4, 1936. Ed, why don’t you read it for us.
ED: Gentleman, two weeks ago, a sex mad degenerate, named Lee Fernandez, brutally attacked a young Alamosa girl. He was convicted of assault with intent to rape and sentenced to 10 to 14 years in the state penitentiary. Police officers here know definitely that Fernandez was under the influence of marijuana.
PETER: This letter was addressed to the US Bureau of Narcotics. A few months later, the Bureau submitted it as evidence to Congress, which was considering a new measure that would essentially outlaw marijuana. Now, a lot of congressman at this time had never heard of marijuana. But with stories like this on the table, they didn’t need much convincing. In August 1937, that law was soundly approved.
BRIAN: Today, a lot of people blame the head of the Narcotics Bureau, a guy named Harry Anslinger, for whipping up the marijuana panic of the 1930s and for forcing this legislation through. But while Anslinger may have trafficked in reefer madness, he didn’t invent it nor did those newspaper editors who fed him their stories. Nope, this panic had gotten its start decades earlier. And it began, of all places, in Mexico.
ISAAC CAMPOS: Let me give you an example.
BRIAN: This is Isaac Campos, an historian who’s written about early Mexican attitudes towards drugs.
ISAAC CAMPOS: There’s a newspaper article that– I’d have to look it up here to see. Look at the footnote here. I can’t remember them all.
BRIAN: Short term memory loss there, Isaac?
ISAAC CAMPOS: Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you study too much marijuana. So this article comes from a Mexico City newspaper called El Pais and was published in 1909. And this was absolutely typical for how marijuana was described in the late 19th and early 20th century Mexico.
Yesterday on Chapultepec Avenue, around 6:00 in the afternoon, there occurred a major scandal. The cause of the disorder was a cocky, tough guy, who was stoned, thanks to the influence of marijuana, and who insulted all the passers by. Two gendarmes attempted to reduce him to order, and he attacked them with his knife, causing them significant injuries.
The scandal then took on colossal proportions, for it became very difficult to disarm the marijuano. When they finally reduced him to order, they confined him to a cell, it being necessary to hold him down with a straitjacket.
BRIAN: These kind of stories had been appearing for decades in the Mexican press. But around the turn of the 20th century, they start trickling north.
ISAAC CAMPOS: You could think of it as like an ideological acid rain that starts arriving in the United States, very gradually, in the 1890s, and begins to build the foundation of these ideas that we would eventually call reefer madness, in the United States, and create this idea that marijuana was the most dangerous of all drugs, a drug that caused madness and violence and therefore had to be prohibited.
BRIAN: In 1920, the new, revolutionary government in Mexico did just that. It passed a law prohibiting the use of marijuana, beating the Americans to the punch by 17 years.
PETER: This past November, voters in Colorado and Washington approved measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. In his first remarks on the news, Colorado’s governor made a joke about the munchies. And if all this seems like a radical shift from those early days of reefer madness, well, it’s hardly the first time the image of a drug has undergone such a major overhaul.
BRIAN: So today on the show, we’re going to trace some of these overhauls here in America. We’ve got stories about the changing face of opium, cocaine, heroin, even Valium. But first, let’s return to marijuana, because one of the most surprising things about what happened after its prohibition in Mexico was that people just didn’t seem to care.
ISAAC CAMPOS: There isn’t, as far as I know, a single newspaper article that references it.
ISAAC CAMPOS: There’s not one newspaper article, even in the proceedings. So if you read the minutes of the meetings leading up to this ban, there’s almost no debate about it. And this shows you one critical part of this story, which is that marijuana was not particularly, widely used in Mexico. It was only used in prisons and soldiers barracks, for the most part. And furthermore, it was used in these environments that were extremely violent in themselves. So it seemed quite reasonable that people in a prison would smoke this drug, that was thought to be extremely powerful and cause madness, and then go on violent rampages. Nobody really questioned that, because it just seemed logical.
BRIAN: Today, at least based on my viewing of Cheech and Chong movies, the associations with marijuana are kind of mellowness, the munchies, perhaps a little bit of laziness. It’s, in fact, often contrasted with the sometimes violent, aggressive behavior that’s something like alcohol leads to.
ISAAC CAMPOS: Yeah.
BRIAN: Are we talking about the same drug, here, Isaac?
ISAAC CAMPOS: Yes, we’re absolutely talking about the same drug. And this is the critical question that was at the center of my research. How could it be that marijuana was so overwhelmingly associated with these effects, 100 years ago, that today are now just laughed at?
A critical part of this story, and something that not enough people, I think, recognize, is that the effects that drugs have on us are dictated not simply by the pharmacology of the drug but also by something else that we generally refer to a set and setting. So that is by the psychology of the user and the setting of the drug use.
The simple way to think about this is what you think is going to happen when you take a drug is critical to what happens when you take a drug. And so it’s not that marijuana makes you violent, but in an environment where the stereotyped behavior related to this drug is to lash out against people nearby violently, it’s seems quite likely to me that, in fact, there were violent incidents that were related to marijuana.
Again, not because it necessarily makes you violent, but when you take set and setting and connect that to the drug itself, you wind up with these kinds of outcomes. There’s actually no laboratory evidence that suggests, today, for example, that marijuana makes you lazy, either. But everybody has that stereotype. And it’s quite likely that people smoke marijuana because they see this kind of romantic thing to become this sort of burned-out stoner. But there’s nothing about marijuana that should make you a burned out stoner, except for our culture, which suggests that’s what should happen.
BRIAN: How does your story change our understanding of the war against drugs, today?
ISAAC CAMPOS: Well, I think one thing that people have to recognize is that Mexico has long been an extremely anti-drug country. There’s a kind of stereotype out there that suggests that it’s the United States that’s the puritanical, anti-drug country, and that it forces its views on the rest of the world.
But in fact, it was Mexicans who showed people in the United States, really, how to despise marijuana. So Mexico consistently comes out against drug reform in the United States. Just recently, with these two new laws, in Colorado and Washington, representatives of the new President of Mexico came out, right afterward, and said that Mexico opposed these policies.
When California was looking to legalize marijuana, three or four years ago, whenever that was, 2008 or 2009, Mexico came out and complained that this was the United States shirking its drug war duties. In the 1970s, when many states were decriminalize marijuana, Mexico came out and complained and said that Mexico would no longer fight the war on heroin if the United States didn’t uphold its responsibilities fighting marijuana.
This is not simply an elite, diplomatic game. This is something that fits right into a much longer history in Mexico of drug prohibitionism and ideas about drugs. So that has contributed critically to the development of these prohibitionist policies and contributed to the anchoring of these prohibitionist policies that have now produced anywhere between 60 and 100,000 deaths in Mexico over the last six years.
BRIAN: Isaac, thank you so much for joining us on BackStory.
ISAAC CAMPOS: Well, thank you. It was my pleasure.
BRIAN: Isaac Campos is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. He’s the author of Homegrown, Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs.
Just Say No
ED: Towards the end of that interview, Isaac Campos mentioned that, by the 1970s, states had begun loosening marijuana laws. Well, this regulatory shift reflected a larger cultural one. Reefer madness was out. Cheech and Chong were in.
PETER: It was around this time, 1976 to be precise, that a woman in Atlanta named Marsha Schuchard made a little discovery.
EMILY DUFTON: So she discovered her 13-year-old daughter was smoking marijuana and was incredibly upset by it, very frightened by it, and was the first person to gather a group of parents together, and to take a stand.
PETER: This is Emily Dufton, an historian at George Washington University. We called her up to hear about her work on the stand that Schuchard took.
EMILY DUFTON: So one of the things that they did was set up a community group of rules for their children. They were not allowed to access magazines like High Times. They couldn’t go see the Cheech and Chong movie. They had curfews and all of this other stuff. They weren’t allowed to access drugs or drug culture.
ED: Dufton says that, over the next few years, these parents helped organized groups in other towns and cities. By 1983, there were 4,000 of these groups. They networked, built national organizations, and they were all devoted to protecting the nation’s youth.
It became known as the Parent movement. And it didn’t take long for their message to catch on.
PUPPET VOICE: Now what are you going to say if someone asks you to try drugs?
CHILD SPEAKER: My mom and dad tell me not to. And I wouldn’t lie to them.
PUPPET VOICE: Sensational.
CHILD SPEAKERS (SINGING): So don’t use drugs. Don’t use drugs.
EMILY DUFTON: The biggest contribution to, really, America’s drug war that the Parent Movement was able to accomplish was that they transformed a conversation about marijuana, that used to be about an adults right to access a drug that was seen as benign and innocuous, into a conversation that was almost exclusively about children.
So this is the first time that you’d really seen a campaign against any drug that had children at the center of it.
PETER: In the ’80s, Nancy Reagan got behind the Parent Movement. At the same time, her “just say no” message was getting off the ground. The anti-drug message had gone mainstream.
EMILY DUFTON: What ends up happening is that a lot of corporations, like McDonald’s and Proctor Gamble and things like that, they jump onto the bandwagon as well and see this as a really great way to start marketing things, like McDonald’s Happy Meals or Proctor Gamble products, to families with small children.
So Procter Gamble actually would say, hey, we’d love to use this message and send out mailers to all the families in America and have kids sign “just say no” pledges. And by the way, you get all these coupons for Proctor Gamble products. And isn’t this a wonderful, mutually beneficial organization, here.
BRIAN: Kind of like pushers.
EMILY DUFTON: Yeah, exactly. They’re pushers but of Duncan Hines Cake Mix as opposed to marijuana.
ED: The Parent Movement had its day in the sun, but, by the ’90s, it was starting to die out. Marijuana use among young people had fallen off, either because of the movement’s success or maybe because of the availability harder drugs. It’s hard to know for sure. But Dufton says the story may not be quite over just yet.
EMILY DUFTON: We’re always sort of moving back and forth between prohibition and acceptance. And each cycle births the next. So we went from being really opposed to marijuana, being really against drugs in 1980s, and then, by the 1990s, by 1996, you had California’s approval of medical marijuana. Now we have 18 states and the District of Columbia who approved medical marijuana. And now, we actually see the resurgence of outright legalization.
Now will this birth a brand new cycle of prohibitions? Will a new anti-drug, grassroots movement arise? Maybe. So that’s why I’m kind of suggesting that the Parent Movement offers us an historical understanding of how we’ve reacted to legalized or decriminalized marijuana in the past and maybe how we might react again.
PETER: That was Emily Dufton. We’ll link to the story she wrote about the Parent Movement on our website, backstoryradio.org.
BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break but don’t go away. When we get back, the surprising origins of America’s first narcotics ban.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about how Americans’ ideas about illicit drugs have evolved through time.
PETER: A little over a century ago, in the 1890s, you could buy cocaine for $1.50 in a Sears and Roebuck catalog. Opium was available from most corner pharmacies. There were no federal restrictions, at all, on the sale of either. 0 by 1914, both drugs were illegal. How did things change so fast?
ED: To answer that question, we have to take a detour, oddly enough, to the Philippines. In 1898, the United States emerged victorious from the Spanish American War and took control of the Philippines. For the first time, the US had an overseas empire, and empire in which opium use had been legal.
PETER: Spain hadn’t been the only imperial power that permitted opium use by its subjects. Other colonial governments in Southeast Asia, like the British and the Dutch, also allowed it. In fact, most of them made a tidy profit off the drug trade.
ANNE FOSTER: In the European colonies, most of them, between 15 and 50% of their tax revenues came from opium.
PETER: This is Anne Foster, an historian at Indiana State University.
ANNE FOSTER: So they were deeply embedded in this legal consumption of opium, on which tax revenue rested. So they could not just easily give that up and say, oh, well, this is increasingly seen as an addictive and problematic product. This is the basis of their governments.
ED: The US government stepped into this world and figured, why change the status quo? Opium use didn’t see like that big a deal. Under Spanish law, it had been limited to ethnic Chinese, so relatively few Filipinos used the drug anyway. So the US figured that if legal opium worked for everybody else in the region, it should work for them too.
PETER: The new administration did make a couple of changes. The Spanish had maintained a monopoly on the import of opium and restricted its sale to specific sellers. The US decided to get rid of that system and impose a steep import tax instead. They also rolled back the restrictions banning opium use by indigenous Filipinos. This way, the government could keep the revenues rolling in, but the tax would prevent opium use from getting out of hand within the Filipino population. At least, that was the idea.
ANNE FOSTER: It did not have that effect, actually. Not usually, with addictive substances, it doesn’t always work that way. So what happened was, actually, because they removed all the restrictions on who could purchase opium– and I have to say, statistics, of course, are very shaky at this time period. And especially, the Spanish government did not keep a lot of really strong statistics on this. And the US government did not keep a lot of strong statistics either.
But it it appears, anecdotally, that the usage of opium spread to the entire population. And definitely, the quantity of opium being legally imported was going up. And there was a concern, even under the high tax system, that the quantity of opium being smuggled into the country was also high.
ED: This rise in opium consumption was a major problem for one group in the Philippines, American missionaries. A lot of them were deeply opposed to intoxicants in general. And opium was one of the most visible ones out there.
ANNE FOSTER: They said this is spreading to the indigenous population. They really used that argument of the duty of the United States to care for and sort of that paternalistic, benevolent assimilation policy of the United States, to take care of the Filipinos, that it was our duty.
And so they begin to agitate against this laissez faire approach to the opium imports that the United States had. They wanted to move away from this notion of just having an import tax, saying that that’s not sufficient amount of control and that the United States should indeed ban opium in the Philippines all together.
PETER: So the missionaries got to work. They wrote articles. They lobbied. They networked with colleagues back home. They swamped the White House with telegrams, each one demanding that the US government ban opium in the Philippines.
ANNE FOSTER: In the archives, I saw, just literally, three boxes full of these telegrams that had been sent to Teddy Roosevelt. They were sort of the precursors to the form letters, though. They’re really, always saying exactly the same thing. So I didn’t read all of them. But there’s hundreds if not thousands of these. One historian estimated about 2,000 of them were sent.
And so that really made an impact on Roosevelt. He did not want to be defending the use of opium under an official US government seal, by indigenous Filipinos. And soon after that, indeed, the government changed from the high tax policy to– in 1905 passed the law. And then by 1908, prohibition was complete in the Philippines.
ED: This was a huge victory for the anti-opium crusaders. But it also opened up a new problem. How do you enforce prohibition in a region that is awash with the drug? The Americans realized that unless they wanted every outlaw in Southeast Asia to start smuggling drugs into the Philippines, they needed to also tamp down the supply of opium in nearby countries.
PETER: So the US organized a series of international conferences with its neighbors in the region. And little by little, Americans worked the moral argument. Sure, opium was bringing in critical revenue, revenue these countries needed to run their governments. But it was also addictive, corrupting, a menace to society. How could these government’s claim to be decent and forward looking if they refused to protect their colonial subjects from the drug’s scourge.
ED: There was just one small problem, as the US began moralizing against opium, there was not a single federal law against the drug on the books back home. And that put American negotiators in an awkward position. So just before the final conference opened in 1914, Congress pushed through a face saving measure, sponsored by a congressman named Frances Burton Harrison. It was effectively the first federal narcotics ban in American history.
ANNE FOSTER: The Harrison Act, which is the act which does, in the end, put a prohibition on all forms of narcotics, except under doctor’s prescription, for specific medical purpose, that act is passed, directly, so that the United States will not go to the 1914 opium conference having no law against opium. It’s explicitly done for that purpose saying, we will be embarrassed if we come to this conference.
So when Harrison and the others who introduce this legislation talk about it, they’re actually saying we have been a moral leader in this regard. We have been out front in creating these conferences. We have the most restrictive law in the Philippines. And yet, here at home, w have no restrictions, effectively, at all. We can’t go to this conference with that circumstance. Pass this legislation.
PETER: And Congress did it, on December 14, 1914. For the US, it was the end of several embarrassing years of preaching one thing and practicing another. And it was also the moment when much of the drug trade was forced underground, the beginning of a new era of criminal addicts, increasing smuggling, and the black market.
ED: Helping us tell that story was Anne Foster. She’s an Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University.
Mother's Little Helper
PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about Americans’ changing attitudes about drugs and drug users.
BRIAN: We’re going to turn now to 1979, when high profile Senate hearings on drug abuse captured national headlines. But this time, the threat wasn’t heroin or cocaine or marijuana, it was Valium.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This is Valium, a so-called mood altering drug, which, according to a government study, is the most popular and one of the most abused prescription drugs in America today. Most of the abusers are women.
BRIAN: This NBC report, from 1978, outlined what had come to be seen as a national crisis, affluent, suburban wives turning into drug addicts. The report featured a young mother, Cindy McGinnis, who described her addiction as she ate dinner with her husband and children.
CINDY MCGINNIS: I was not coping with my family. I was sleeping a lot during the day. I was up at night. My body was completely out of whack by the time I tried to stop taking them.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Was there no warning? Why did you wait so long before you got hooked?
CINDY MCGINNIS: I thought I was taking medicine.
BRIAN: In the mid-1970s, Valium was the most commonly prescribed drug in America, with over 100 million prescriptions a year. Women used it at twice the rate of men. And this was nothing new, anti-anxiety drugs had been disproportionately prescribed to women for well over a decade. Advertisements in medical journals told doctors, in no uncertain terms, who these drugs were intended for.
DAVID HERZBERG: It might show a woman. It looks like she’s behind the bars of a jail cell. But, in fact, they’re the handles of brooms and mops. And it says, you can’t set her free, but at least you can help her feel better.
BRIAN: This is David Herzberg, an historian at the University of Buffalo. He says that drug companies also targeted women more directly. They got favorable articles placed in mainstream magazines, like Newsweek, Time, and Vogue.
DAVID HERZBERG: Now how it would work is that the pharmaceutical industry, as part of its very large public relations arms, during the ’50s, had a stable of science writers, who were technically freelancers, but who generally tended to write about pharmaceutical issues. And they were in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry.
And they would place articles about, say, tranquilizers in Good Housekeeping or in Redbook or Vogue. And so they would say, these things, they’ll cure you if you’re feeling sad. They’ll bring you down if you’re feeling too up. They’ll help you want to have sex with your husband, again. It’ll help you feel happy at work. It’ll make the dishes look great.
They would just, literally, grab from the culture whatever was in the headlines, right then, that you were worried about. Juvenile delinquency? Ah, right, these pills will cure juvenile delinquency.
And these articles, because they were written, technically, by some science journalist, didn’t have to deal with the regulations and limitations of an advertisement, which had to tell the truth and had to tell both sides.
BRIAN: That’s great. Advertising was more objective than journalism.
DAVID HERZBERG: Oh yeah, today’s direct-to-consumer ads, as awful as so many people find them, are way better guides to whether you should use a drug than a Good Housekeeping article from 1957.
DAVID HERZBERG: And so, on the one hand, these popular magazine articles really helped build the boom for the drugs, while, at the same time, in an unintended way, they helped spread the idea that women, in particular, were experiencing a lot of unhappiness and problems in their supposedly perfect world of suburbia.
BRIAN: And that idea was one that resonated with a very different group of people, feminists. They argued, that yes, many suburban women had come to depend on tranquilizers to get them through the day. But the problem wasn’t that they were sick. The problem was that these smart, capable women had abandoned their education and career goals in order to raise families. Their unhappiness was a natural response to their constrained circumstances.
DAVID HERZBERG: And throwing tranquilizers at them didn’t solve the problem. And because it didn’t solve the problem, they kept being prescribed the tranquilizers. And now, it’s produced widespread Valium addiction, which is a concrete sign that, to put it bluntly, sexism is bad for women. We’re not talking about hurt feelings. We’re not talking about stubbed toes. We’re talking about women becoming junkies.
BRIAN: These arguments first popped up in magazines that popularized feminism, magazines like Ms. But soon enough, they were finding spots in even more mainstream publications, the very ones that just a few years before had been publishing those glowing articles about Valium.
DAVID HERZBERG: I mean, one of the quotes says, just like the Puerto Rican junkie mainlining heroin in a rat infested tenement in Harlem, just to try to put every racially charged stereotype you could possibly pack into one sentence. And by conjuring up that kind of language, they’re able to remind people that addiction is a really exciting and titillating story. And then when you connect it to housewives, this is something that can move magazines.
BRIAN: Yet, I’m willing to bet that the housewives who did rally around this, and the feminists, were eager to distinguish themselves from those, another group that the media was really shining a lot of light on, people addicted to heroin, hard core drug addicts. My guess is that they really went to pains to distinguish themselves from that group.
ANNE FOSTER: Absolutely. And that’s one of the interesting things about this, that those kind of non-white or urban junkies were used as sensationalistic decoration in the articles. They were there to make it exciting. But it was also very clear that, in the language of some these articles and then some of the people who ended up testifying in Congress, these are very, quote, “different people” from us, who need very different kinds of treatment.
And so, in a way, an opportunity to broaden the critique of the politics of addiction. Basically, feminists were saying Valium addiction is a political issue, where women are being oppressed, and the result is Valium addiction. And so to treat Valium addiction, we don’t need to talk about the pathology of the women or what’s the matter with them and why they became addicts, because they’re essentially innocent. It is the forces that oppress that create the addiction.
They weren’t ready to make this argument about those Puerto Rican tenement dwellers mainlining heroin. And as a result, one of the ways that they were able to make this argument palatable, in a country that’s had all these racially charged drug wars for a century, is that they did, explicitly, say this is a unique situation, because it’s these sweet, innocent white women who are the victims. And that makes it unique.
BRIAN: So what’s the outcome? What’s the upshot of all of this, David? What happens after the hearings? What happens to Valium use, for instance?
DAVID HERZBERG: Valium use plummets. Now, it’s a little bit of a complicated story. The high point of Valium use seems to be 1973. And the addiction panic comes in the late ’70s. This is actually, strangely typical of drug addiction panics. They seem to happen after the problem has started to recede.
And so one thing that you can read from this is that the Valium addiction panic, you might say, was a successful public health response to overuse and potentially dangerous use of a tranquilizer, that it educated a large number of women, who then took steps to try to reduce their use of the drug. It educated physicians, who took steps to try to use it less. And the result was much less use of Valium.
And so, on the one hand, it can almost look like a success story, although there are a few caveats. A lot of medical experts, first off, they saw the Valium addiction panic as an overblown affair. While Valium became a symbol, a shorthand for medical sexism against suburban housewives, with the suburban housewives plight. In many medical circles, it became a shorthand for the medical system having lost a good drug by failing to navigate popular culture properly. This is a good drug. It can produce dependence, but it’s actually pretty hard to produce dependence with it.
BRIAN: So when something like Prozac comes along, does the Valium story affect the way Prozac is presented and marketed?
DAVID HERZBERG: I think it does, very much so. I’m not going to say it’s some conspiracy, where these guys study the Valium panic and figured out what language to use. But I would suggest that one of the reasons why Prozac is able to succeed is because the kinds of stories told about it respond to a lot of the critiques raised by the Valium panic. So that, for example, instead of being a sedative that makes women compliant and content with their current situation, it’s an energizing drug that’s often described as making them more assertive in the business world and more assertive in their personal life.
BRIAN: Empowering drug.
DAVID HERZBERG: An empowering drug. And Peter Kramer, who wrote the famous best seller, Listening to Prozac, even, at some point, calls it a feminist drug. Because of this quality it has of enabling women to seize control of their lives and do things that they haven’t been able to do before.
BRIAN: David Herzberg is a Professor of History At the University of Buffalo. His book is Happy Pills in America, from Milltown to Prozac.
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BRIAN: If you’d like to listen to more from my interview with David Herzberg, head on over to backstoryradio.org, where we’ve posted a longer version.
ED: And while you’re there, take a moment to help us out with next week’s show. To mark Barack Obama’s second inauguration, we’ll be looking back on some notable scenes from past inaugurations. Do you think these rituals really matter much, in the big scheme of things, or are they all just pomp and circumstance? Lead us comment on our website. Or if you really want to get old fashioned, give us a call. Our number is (888)257-8851.
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ED: It’s time for another short break. When we come back, how Sherlock Holmes kicked his coke habit, with a little help from his American fans.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
Watson, the Needle!
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: Today on the show, we’re taking a look at drugs, how have Americans drawn the line between use and abuse.
PETER: Before the break, we heard about the Valium addiction scare of the 1970s and want feminists made of it. And one of the most interesting points there was this growing feeling that doctors might not be all that reliable.
BRIAN: Which is especially interesting, because 100 years earlier, doctors established their authority by prescribing drugs, drugs that would raise eyebrows today, drugs like morphine and heroin. So guys, let’s take a couple minutes and talk this through. Where did doctors weigh in on this, Ed?
ED: Yeah, doctors are ambivalent about this, Brian. They prescribe opiates themselves. And what’s interesting to me, of course, from my parochial, 19th century perspective, is that doctors are being pulled in two directions by these opiates.
On one hand, they make you look great if you’re a doctor. Somebody comes in, they’re feeling terrible. And really, whatever ails them can be improved by giving them an opiate distillate. And so their claims of making you feel better–
PETER: Well, I guess.
ED: Were probably true. On the other hand, they kind of undermined doctors’ authority. Who needs a doctor, when you can open up any newspaper or magazine and order a patent medicine through the mail. It creates an environment in which doctors are saying, what kind of leverage do we have to get this under control?
PETER: Right, and that impulse to regulate is an impulse to establish a professional monopoly that is the expertise that doctors claim to have about the effects and the proper dosages of various medicines. That has to be something that regulates the entire industry. So in other words, it’s monopoly against free enterprise.
BRIAN: That’s right, Peter. And it undermines the real basis for what will become doctors’ authority in the 20th century, and that is the diagnosis. If you have these opiates that are cure-alls, then what do you need a diagnosis for, i.e., what do you need a doctor for?
PETER: It’s like the internet, isn’t it?
ED: Well, it’s not an accident that these patent medicines are pretty much killed by the medical profession, right, Brian?
BRIAN: Well, in the first decade of the 20th century, you have the American Medical Association. And as part of this campaign, they decide to take on patent medicines. Because, of course, as Ed pointed out, they’re completely unregulated.
ED: Well, in addition to opiates and alcohol, many patent medicines contained powerful stimulants, like cocaine. The drug was first isolated from the coca leaf in the mid-1800s and, in America, quickly moved from popularity to infamy.
And one of the witnesses of this transition was a certain British detective. Chioke Iansen has the story.
CHIOKE IANSEN: In 1890, readers of the American magazine, Lippencott’s Monthly, were introduced to Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Watson. The first story the magazine ran was called “A Sign of Four.” here’s how it began.
MIKE JAY: Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers, he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt cuff. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
CHIOKE IANSEN: Cocaine use may not be the first thing people today associate with the world’s greatest detective. But would readers, at the time, have also found it strange. To find out, I called Mike Jay.
MIKE JAY: I’m an author and historian. And I’ve written a lot about the history of drug use.
CHIOKE IANSEN: Jay says that while Americans might have raised an eyebrow at the needle, they would not have been surprised by the drug itself. To understand why, we have to look at the public perception of cocaine around the turn of the century.
The drug became available in American drugstores six years before Sherlock Holmes’ debut. It was touted as a cure-all and even added to soft drinks, especially as localities started cracking down on alcohol. The most famous of these drinks, of course, was Coca Cola, which sold itself as quote, “the temperance drink.”
MIKE JAY: The idea would be that while everybody else was kind of getting sozzled in taverns, then the smart, urbane Coca Cola drinker was staying sharp and taking care of business.
CHIOKE IANSEN: As Coca Cola was coming into its own in America, Sherlock Holmes was on his way out. In 1893, readers were shocked to find the detective killed in a fight with his nemesis Moriarty. At the height of Holmes’ popularity, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had lost interest.
Meanwhile, over the next few years, Americans’ perception of cocaine would continue to shift. By the mid 1890s, doctors were warning that the use of cocaine was habit forming. By the turn of the century, there was a new image, the image of the coke fiend, which was often associated with the veterans who are coming back from the Spanish American War.
MIKE JAY: Specifically, in the southern states, the idea that this is something that’s spreading like wildfire through that negro population.
CHIOKE IANSEN: A New York Times headline read, “Negro Cocaine Fiends are a New Southern Menace,” and said that cocaine made black gun wielding criminals better marksman. There’s no evidence that African Americans used cocaine disproportionately more than whites. What’s clear is that this Jim Crow narrative had lasting effects on the perception of cocaine throughout America.
But let’s get back to Sherlock Holmes. Years after his literary demise, Americans were still clamoring for more. A popular American magazine, Collier’s Weekly, offered Doyle a hefty financial incentive for the detective’s resurrection. Doyle accepted, and, by 1903, Sherlock Holmes was back. But there was one crucial difference, as Watson explains, in a story called “The Missing Three-Quarter.”
MIKE JAY: For years, I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania, which had threatened once to check his remarkable career.
CHIOKE IANSEN: Doyle had given the world a Sherlock Holmes who was clean. Again, Mike Jay.
MIKE JAY: I mean, I think the reason that Doyle started easing back on it was, once it started selling into Collier’s, he realized that it just this wasn’t going to fit for an American audience.
CHIOKE IANSEN: An audience that, in less than 20 years, had gone from ambivalence or even enthusiasm for cocaine, to deep anxiety about it, an anxiety articulated by Watson.
MIKE JAY: Now I knew that under ordinary conditions, he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus. But I was well aware that the fiend was not dead but sleeping.
CHIOKE IANSEN: Doyle hadn’t simply made cocaine go away. The drug was, for Sherlock Holmes, the same thing that it had become for America, a threat that needed to be watch.
It’s appropriate that Americans learned of Holmes’ sobriety in the pages of Collier’s Weekly. The magazine was partnered with the American Medical Association. And it would go on to campaign against the unregulated use patent medicines.
MIKE JAY: A campaign that eventually led to the establishment of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
CHIOKE IANSEN: The act resulted in Coca Cola removing the drug from its soda. Sales of cocaine would finally be criminalized in 1914, with the Harrison Act. Of course, cocaine didn’t go away and neither did Sherlock Holmes.
Today, Holmes is as popular as ever, while different movies and TV shows depict the detective differently.
MIKE JAY: They all have the same problem, which is, what do we do with the drugs thing? So there’ve been various– I mean, you’ve got Elementary running in the States. They all have this problem. And they all, basically, come up with the same solution, which is, one way and another, to turn this into a recovery narrative.
So in Elementary, Sherlock Holmes is in rehab. And that kind of allows you to have it both ways, because you can have the sort of arch, slightly snickery drug culture references, but also your hero isn’t actually tainted. In fact, this becomes a kind of tragic bit of his back story, something he has struggle against, something that gives him depth.
CHIOKE IANSEN: For BackStory, I’m Chioke I’Ansen.
The Drugs They Carried
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. Today, we’re devoting the hour to exploring Americans’ changing attitudes toward drugs. We’re going to focus now on one group associated with drug abuse throughout American history, military veterans. That goes all the way back to the Civil War, which spawned a generation of young men hooked on alcohol and morphine.
ED: But it was during a more recent war, when a lot of people started demanding that something be done about the problem of drug addicted veterans. And that war, of course, was Vietnam.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: There were some claims that upwards of 60 to 70% of soldiers were using drugs in Vietnam.
BRIAN: This is Jeremy Kuzmarov, an historian at the University of Tulsa.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: Some news articles were claiming that drugs were hindering the effectiveness of the armed forces, causing indiscipline in the army, even linking it to atrocities within the army.
MALE SPEAKER: Our army in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse. Where not near mutinous, the soldiers are dispirited and drug ridden.
MALE SPEAKER: If you’re going to get killed, you might as well be high while you’re getting killed. That’s how I felt.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: One piece reported that a group of Americans became so stoned on super-strength Vietnamese marijuana that they fired on their own helicopters, which supposedly struck back, killing these men.
ED: The fears began with marijuana, in the late ’60s. But by the ’70s, heroin was the bigger concern. With all these young men getting hooked on drugs overseas, there was a real fear about what would happen when they returned home.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: The inner cities were really starting to deteriorate in this period. And there was real concern that addicted soldiers would come home and really exacerbate urban problems gripping the country, including escalating crime rates and violence within the country.
BRIAN: In 1971, two congressman came out with a report that said 15% of all US troops in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. So on June 17–
RICHARD NIXON: Want to join me here? Why don’t you be seated, please, ladies and gentleman.
BRIAN: 1971, President Richard Nixon decided enough is enough.
RICHARD NIXON: America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.
BRIAN: Nixon called for a new offensive on drugs, necessitated by the situation in Vietnam.
RICHARD NIXON: Which has brought to our attention the fact that a number of young Americans have become addicts as they serve abroad.
BRIAN: The problem, Nixon said, would not end with the war. So–
RICHARD NIXON: With regard to this offensive–
BRIAN: He started a new organization.
RICHARD NIXON: The new organization will be within the White House. Dr. Jaffe, who will be one of the briefers here today, will be the man directly responsible. He will report directly to me.
JEROME JAFFE: You know, I was not asked to run the program. I was told I would run the program by the President. I was recruited by ambush.
ED: Jerome Jaffe was a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago in the ’70s. He was a pioneer in the drug treatment world and was asked to consult with the White House on how to fix this problem of soldiers returning as addicts. The day before Nixon made the announcement, Jaffe thought he was consulting for a one or two day gig. But the President had other plans.
JEROME JAFFE: He was talking about his new program, the Special Action Office. And then I was sitting in a chair, on the periphery of the cabinet room, and he pointed to me, and he said, that man, Dr. Jaffe, is going to run the program.
BRIAN: Jaffe, Nixon, and others went to meet the press. That’s the announcement you just heard a minute ago. And from the pictures, you can kind of tell just how much Jaffe was caught off guard.
JEROME JAFFE: I hadn’t brought any clothes with me. And somebody went out to buy me a new shirt, which was too big. And so the pictures show me wearing an oversized shirt, talking to the White House press.
BRIAN: The hope was that you would grow into the job, Dr. Jaffe.
JEROME JAFFE: That or maybe everybody got fat working in Washington. I don’t know.
ED: Despite the media accounts and the report from the two congressman, Jaffe had his doubts about the extent of the problem. No serious testing had been done. So Jaffe developed a plan of attack.
JEROME JAFFE: A urine testing program. We test people, at the time they’re about to leave, and those who are still using opiates, still positive for opiates, particularly heroin, I assumed, would be invited to stay longer in Vietnam, while we detoxified them and then transferred them to the United States for treatment. It was called Operation Golden Flow.
BRIAN: Operation Golden Flow, get it? At any rate, the program was big, and it was complicated. There were 1,000 soldiers leaving Vietnam every day. And remember, the thought was that 15% of them were addicted to heroin.
After a couple of weeks of testing and retesting, they were satisfied that they had a good sample. And what they found was very surprising. Again, historian Jeremy Kuzmarov.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: The numbers were much lower than a lot of the media reports. They found that approximately 5% tested positive with heroin in there urine system.
JEROME JAFFE: So the 5% was a lot lower than the 15%.
BRIAN: How do you explain that?
JEROME JAFFE: Well, some people who had been using, but not dependent, stopped using. There were some people, even who were dependent, who would probably stop using for three or four days, which is often sufficient to come up with a negative.
And so once the word got out– and it got out very, very quickly– that you don’t get on the plane to leave Vietnam if you have heroin in your urine.
JEREMY KUZMAROV: If they knew the test was coming, they would quit and clean out their system. It showed that heroin was perhaps less of an addictive drug than many had thought, because soldiers could stop on a whim.
JEROME JAFFE: This was a major conclusion that, if you have a consequence that is immediate and absolutely predictable, it can be far more likely to affect behavior than one which is far more severe but remote and less certain.
ED: So the soldiers could kick the drugs for the test, but could they stay clean? To answer this, a psychiatrist named Lee Robins did a follow up study of veterans a year after they returned home. Of the vets who had originally tested positive for heroin, back in Vietnam–
JEREMY KUZMAROV: Only 1.3% of those samples were drug dependent and less than 1% addicted to opiates.
JEROME JAFFE: Nobody believed it. I mean it was so contrary to all of our beliefs. People thought Lee was twisting the data, making up the data, distorting it.
BRIAN: In the first year back, only 5% of veterans even used drugs again, compared to a relapse rate of 65% for non-military addicts. They found that soldiers who were psychologically addicted to heroin, under the stress of combat and where heroin was so cheap and plentiful, didn’t necessarily stay addicted when that stress disappeared. Coming home seemed to be a game changer.
JEROME JAFFE: So the major legacy was, we can’t just continue to treat this as a group of people who are predatory, miscreants, and lawbreakers, and we’ll just lock them all up. People get better. There is recovery.
BRIAN: A lot of people were afraid that bringing drug addicted veterans back home would make things worse, for the veterans, for the cities, for everyone. But what studies found was just the opposite. Coming back home was actually part of the cure.
ED: Thanks to Jerome Jaffe, who currently works with the University of Maryland and the Friends Research Institute in Baltimore.
BRIAN: And to Jeremy Kuzmarov, at the University of Tulsa. His book is called The Myth of the Addicted Army.
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BRIAN: And that, my friends, is all the time we have for today. Now it’s your turn to tell us what you think. You can find us at backstoryradio.org.
PETER: We’ll be back again next week. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Chioki Iansen, Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Our senior producer is Tony Field. And our executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Special thanks today to Dessa Bergen-Cico, David Cortright, Curtis Mares, Adam Rathge, and the Points blog of the Alcohol and Drug History society.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
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