1920s Drug Fiends

Excerpted from Prohibition and the Crash, by J Henry Phillips

Chapter 18

Drug Fiends

            A five-to-four decision by the Supreme Court in Seattle’s “whispering wires” bootlegging case settled the 4th Amendment issue of wiretapping on June 4. Our highest Court on that day pronounced government skulking over phone lines legal, ethical and good.[1] The Court’s stated position in finishing the work begun with the Sullivan and Marron decisions was that the Bill of Rights was so important that only Congress—certainly not the Judicial branch—had the authority to attribute “an enlarged and unusual meaning to the Fourth Amendment.”[2]

Thirteen Coast Guards were suspended June 2, ostensibly for accepting bribes to overlook smuggling of “liquor” from ocean liners, but that story had been suppressed for over 2 months and had developed an odor.[3] In Buffalo, June 4 was opening day for a conference between U.S. and Canadian customs officials. The meeting was organized by Assistant Treasury Secretary Seymour Lowman. This is the same Lowman, who replaced Lincoln Andrews after Andrews was forced by Elmer Irey – the heavy-artillery agent – to resign. Placed in charge of customs, Lowman’s specialties included narcotics smuggling and dismissing “dirty” agents.[4] When newsmen finally found out about this meeting nearly 3 weeks later, Secretary Andrew Mellon assured them that no railroad men had been threatened and that it “had nothing to do with prohibition or enforcement of the Volstead act.” This naturally raised suspicions about drugs, suspicions reinforced when 6 persons were shot on the floor of the Yugoslav House of Representatives. Yugoslavia was a major exporter of medical-grade opium and was reeling from widespread riots. This news hit reporters even as they tried to pry a scoop on the secret meeting from Secretary Mellon.[5]

In April 1921, the Literary Digest had run an unsigned article “Is Prohibition Making Drug Fiends?” The article raised troubling questions. The State Department understood perfectly well by 1922 that war-fed output and prohibition-enhanced smuggling facilities were thwarting all efforts at narcotics control.[6]

Repeal advocate Franklin Fabian speculated in a 1922 book that prohibition might have something to do with U.S. narcotics consumption being 6 or 7 times as high as in most European nations.[7] The very suggestion was hotly denied by prohibitionist Herman Feldman, who also denied that figures describing the true situation could be had from any source. Feldman relied on the usual apocrypha and anecdotes to shore up his beliefs, and shrugged off any hard data on arrests and convictions as proving only that enforcement was improving. Feldman’s source, a Dr. Kolb, argued that alcohol was actually a sort of gateway drug which led to narcotics use.[8] Nowhere does Feldman explain why no narcotics planks figured in U.S. political party platforms before 1924. Yet that year the Democrats—eager, of course, to exclude Asian immigration—suddenly began railing in their platform against “the spreading of heroin addiction among the youth,” while the Prohibition Party merely blinked and stood mute on the issue.[9] The sight of prisons steadily filling up with “narcotics” convicts led the Democratic Platform Committee and Herman Feldman to diametrically opposite conclusions as to why.

At prohibition hearings held during April of 1926 Congressman William S. Vare of Pennsylvania had declared the “increased use” of narcotics throughout the nation “appalling.”[10] Then on May 14, 1928, Chairman Graham of the Judiciary Committee reported that 28% of federal inmates were “addicts” and pushed for the Porter bill to segregate the junkies on a Kentucky “narcotics farm.”[11]

Yet the wisdom of the Harrison Act stood unchallenged even after 537 pounds of heroin and morphine were discovered in Brooklyn by New York Deputy Chief Inspector Louis J. Valentine’s staff in 1927—the year of the recent “Tong War” on U.S. soil and civil turmoil on Chinese soil.[12] Not only had alcohol prohibition increased U.S. demand for heroin and morphine, but the well-developed channels for alcohol smuggling served even better as conduits for smuggling drugs. It was probably easier to bribe a customs agent to look the other way if the agent believed that rum, not heroin, was being smuggled in.

 

[1] (NY World Almanac 1929 91)

[2] (Olmstead et al. v. U.S. 06/04/28 [465])

[3] (NYT 8/15/28 23:4)

[4] (Merz 1931 248-249)

[5] (NYT 6/22/28 31; 6/23/28 34, 52)

[6] (Taylor 1969 150)

[7] (Fabian 1922 77-80)

[8] (Feldman 1927/30 109, 113-115, 111)

[9] (Johnson and Porter 1975 246; 249)

[10] (Feldman 1927/30 101-102)

[11] (NYT 5/15/28 10)

[12] (NYT 7/1/28 14; 1/13/27 4)

Does your company ever need to come to terms with pharmaceutical suppliers south of the border? Why not hire an interpreter familiar with the history and background of many foreign products?