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Drugs and Class Conflict PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Drugs and Minority Oppression
Written by John Helmer   

The history may not be complete, nor the reader satisfied, if no place is made for the character of the individuals whose passing has been noted here, more often than not in the movement of large aggregate numbers responding to indexical shifts in the business cycle, labor supply, wages, unemployment, and so on.

In the days before psychological testing, drug users themselves were particularly mute or else their characteristic articulateness, with whatever clue that might have given to the question, Why did they become addicts? was typically arrested in a frozen moment of terror or grotesquerie or death. Hear them screaming, then:

About 11 o'clock Tuesday forenoon, David C. Hodge, a resident of Hardscrabble,' took a large dose of morphine which resulted in his death about 12 o'clock that night. . . . The deceased left a note saying that no one but himself was to blame for the act. He leaves a wife and 4 little girls in destitute circumstances. He was a sober and industrious workman, quite well known and generally respected.1

A young man, who has not been identified, went insane from cocaine poisoning in Battery Park last evening and ran about like a madman. He seized several women who were taking the air on the benches and soon the park resounded with their screams.2

He repeated the story he had told the Sidney Chief of Police regarding his addiction to marihuana saying that his supply of the weed had become exhausted several days before the killing and his nerves were unstrung.3

"The monkey's never dead, Fixer," Frankie told him knowing-

Louie glanced at Frankie slyly. "You know that already, Dealer? You know how he don't die? It's what they say awright, the monkey never dies. When you kick him off he just hops onto somebody else's back." Behind the film of glaze that always veiled Louie's eyes Frankie saw the twisted look. "You got my monkey, Dealer? You take my nice old monkey away from me? Is that my monkey ridin' your back these days, Dealer?"

The color had returned to Frankie's cheeks, he felt he could make it almost any minute now. "No more for me, Fixer," he assured Louis confidently. "Somebody else got to take your monkey. I had the Holy Jumped-up-Jesus Horrors for real this time—'n I'm one guy knows when he got enough. I learned my lesson but good. Fixer—you just give the boy with the golden arms his very lastest fix."4

One day a squad of guys was unloading a truck-load of mortar shells. It was in my first month, I think. Anyway, one of these things rolls out of someone's hand, hits the ground and blows up, setting off all the other shells. Thirty guys were killed. They gave me the job of collecting the body parts and putting the,—you know, two legs, two arms, into body bags. I spent the whole day doing it. I'd never seen death, then [in Vietnam] I'd seen it ten or fifteen times every day—nothing was worth all of that. It wasn't political—I began to get no sleep, had nightmares, and was afraid of flying. . . . They took me off flight duty, and sent me up to Xuan Loc to work as a corpsman but I couldn't take that, so they sent me to Tay Ninh to work in a morgue—tag the bodies, bag them, put them in the freezer—type out the death certificates. They gave me downs [barbiturates] but I was into dope so I didn't take it.5

To be sure, these were the extreme moments, extreme because they were the terminus to which narcotics use has been thought inevitably to lead; the moments when the monkey on the man's back drove him beyond all hope of recovery, and beyond reason and sanity as well. But although the desperation, irrationality and madness have always been, and remain still,6 standard elements of the image of the dope fiend or the junkie—they used to get a vigilance committee good and worked up for a raid on Chinatown, or a lynch mob after blacks—they hardly amount to a psychology of narcotics addiction. And if the drug user can be distinguished by his character, a connection which has been part of the legal philosophy of prohibition for almost the full century,7 or if the character can be interpreted to explain and predict who is headed for the perpetual oriental somnolence, or else who will end up choked to death on some stoop or washroom floor somewhere—then there must be such a psychology of addiction and no doubt or ambiguity to it either.

The characteristic traits of users or addicts vary with the psychological theory involved, so there is overlapping and contradictoriness in enumeration, but the list will still be long. In the technical literature they have been described as introverted, sensitive, quiet, passive, submissive, and lacking in strong masculine identification.8 Also, emotionally limited, manipulative, irresponsible, unsociable, dependent, destructive and derogatory of self.9 Also, suspicious, paranoid, manic, depressive, psychotic.'° Also, defective in superego functioning, weak in ego structure, unrealistic in future orientation, and distrustful of major social institutions."

These characteristics reportedly develop from initial psychological abnormalities, including poor and distorted family experiences. The addict's mother, for instance, has been regarded in a number of studies as being unusually dominant, overpowering, overprotective, guilt ridden, aggressive or overambitious toward the child,12 with the effect that the scope and direction for psychological development are unusually limited and frustrated, and a predisposition to drug use exhibited as a result.13

There is one problem, though, with these psychological findings and with the character type which has been constructed out of them. This is simply that they are underspecific. They may describe narcotics users or addicts faithfully enough, but they also describe barbiturate users who never touch narcotics, car thieves and muggers who have no experience with any drugs, delinquents for any cause, youthful alcoholics, potential or actual suicides, other psychiatrically disturbed youth, or indeed most any contemporary urban-dwelling, working-class youth between the ages of 15 and 25.

Levine, for instance, discovered that if addicted adolescents were compared to nonaddicted ones of the same class, no differences were to be found at either the conscious or subconscious level in subjective identifications with either mother or father figure." Leeds found, in his own words, that "while the results obtained for the mothers of the addicted adolescent group are quite consistent with portions of the literature, these same personality factors and concomitant modes of behavior characterized the personality organization of the mothers of the delinquent nonaddicted adolescent group. The implication of this may be that the mothers of the two antisocial groups are basically the same in personality structure and organization. "15 Jackson compared drug-addicted prisoners with nonaddicted prisoners, and found that in personality traits they shared more in common as prisoners of working-class, particularly black origins, than they differed on account of their pattern of drug use.16 Finally, McGrath, in what is perhaps the most thorough-going research of all, compared heroin users with other boys brought to court (in the Newark, New Jersey, area) for assault offenses, auto theft and barbiturate use.

The findings were that the heroin users were not more introverted and withdrawn than the others, probably less; nor more passive. They scored higher on ego strength than the others. On most other psychological measures there was no difference at all between them, so long as social class remained the same. The problems of broken families and supposed mother dominance are disposed of as characteristic of delinquents in general, blacks in particular—not at all peculiar to heroin users.17 The conclusion: "no real evidence was found that psychological predisposition theories are any more correct than sociological theories as to why one becomes a drug addict."18 And again: "if any group's behavior is due more to psychological problems than to social location it is the assaulters."19

The message should be clear. At minimum, there is no clear outline to the character of the addict free of ambiguity or serious doubt. But in all likelihood, there is not and never has been such a character—certainly no psychological evidence to establish outright that for reasons other than the drug use per se, the addict is or was a danger to himself or to others, and no evidence that addiction by itself produces such dangers, psychologically conceived.

It is strange indeed that so much of the contrary evidence referred to is contained in unpublished form, buried it might almost be said, without any record or notice of its existence surviving except through the most exhaustive search, for the implications of the hidden literature are radical indeed.

By attacking the theory of an addiction-prone character, it undermines the notion that there are character disorders to be treated, which is the rationale, of course, of virtually all medically oriented, reformist policy. Not that the "dope fiend" does not or cannot have existed in the past. It is just that what the underground literature makes plain is that the drug-user wasn't the only one who fitted the psychological description. The description was nothing less than the image of a typical working-class man, perhaps militant, perhaps not, depending on the economic conditions, and the characterology which grew up around the drug problem was and continues to be no less of a trap to catch him than the more sociological myths already accounted for.

And what of the prohibitionists? Public deception requires deceit, does it not, and lies liars to tell them? Perhaps there is a place for pathological character in this story among them. If the reader could only catch a glimpse of the personal diaries, were they to have existed and survived, of Dr. Hamilton Wright, the founding father of narcotics prohibition. Perhaps then it would be clear whether he was calculatedly lying about the prevalence of cocaine among Southern blacks, and would explain why if that were so. Set beside the pathological traits which have purportedly characterized and motivated the addict's behavior, what model of psychological health would such personal evidence about Wright testify to in his otherwise evident political ambition, his obsessiveness and fanaticism?

The first New York campaign for narcotics prohibition, which resulted in the passage of the Boylan Law, just a few months before the Harrison Bill was enacted in 1914, is said to have been initiated in the following way. Dr. Jackson Campbell, a physician employed at thé Department of Corrections, told a Mr. Coulter at Christmas 1913 that there were 15,000 cocaine and morphine addicts in the city, that one-third of all crime was due to them, and that at any one time 40 percent of all inmates in the Tombs, the city prison, were habitual cocaine users.

Coulter, it happened, was personal attorney for the leading New York socialite, Ann Vanderbilt, and what he had heard he passed on to her.20 This was early in January 1914, already, by that time, well into the city's social season. Some say that Mrs. Vanderbilt had been doing poorly for press notices thus far and was especially miffed by the relatively greater attention captured by Mrs. Astor and a number of others.21 The consequence was that she decided on Coulter's advice to make a personal cause out of the drug issue, and to that end launched an extensive campaign which returned her to the newspapers on January 21. Ten days later she was back again, on this occasion on page eight of the Times, following a city-wide conference she had called on drugs. Three months after this, the legislation which the conference had called for came into operation, to limit for the first time the illicit trade in opium and other drugs by confining them to medical prescription and the registered retail druggists.

To be sure, the chain of circumstances leading to this outcome was a highly anomalous one. Had Dr. Campbell's misinformation not reached the apparently egomaniacal, aggressive, and manipulative Mrs. Vanderbilt, or, to stretch the details some, had it reached her at the end of the season when she was on her way to Newport for the summer, it is unlikely that so effective a press campaign and mobilization of medicos, lawyers, and politicians on so objectively thin a case would have resulted in the prohibition edict of the Boylan Law. Or would it?

Similar was the case referred to in Chapter 5, of how Congressman Boggs of Louisiana came to initiate his (1951) act for dealing with the narcotics episode which had begun in 1949. "I just became interested in this legislation," he said, "when I received a letter from a member of a Federal grand jury." This had been interpreted for him by the Bureau of Narcotics, whose agent in charge in New Orleans adapted for Boggs' benefit a longtime city myth, that an Italian criminal syndicate was responsible for running narcotics from the Caribbean and Mexico into New Orleans, which served a vast hinterland as the Mafia's entrepôt and trading point.

This was quite false—disinformation, strictly speaking, since it was a falsehood which would be readily believed, coming, as it did, on the authority of the Bureau of Narcotics. Was Boggs the dupe, then, of the Bureau? Or was the truth immaterial, once the political possibilities of the drug issue in promoting Boggs' gubernatorial candidacy had become clear to him? His campaign required a diversionary issue for, to put his situation precisely, he needed a liberal, anti-Long, clean government, law and order policy to capture middle-class votes, but he depended and would still do so for election on appearing the pro-Long populist, and on maintaining his solid working-class backing. The congressional hearings catalyzed Boggs' political chances, as well as underwrote a further stage of narcotics prohibition. Shall the latter be explained in terms of the former as a public deception, practised on a grand' scale, for private gain? Boggs failed to get elected, but Senator Price Daniel, who launched a similar set of hearings years later as he prepared to run in the Texas gubernatorial race, was much more successful. Does the evidence of private manipulation and deceit in these cases warrant regarding them as psychologically deficient?

And those who gained from drug prohibition—Wright, Vanderbilt, Boggs, or Dr. Lambert of the AMA, the editor of the Alamosa county newspaper, Dr. Fossier and his associates of New Orleans, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Wilbur, or Harry J. Anslinger, the first and model narcotics enforcer, or in the present episode, having initiated the most repressive system of deterrence yet enacted, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller—did they believe the reasons they offered in public for what they proposed to be done, and did? And what was their gain thereby?

It has to be said in their defense that the mythology of narcotics, once initiated and embodied in legislation, and integrated with that authority into the routine of enforcement, police administration, and court precedent, establishes the standards and limits of belief, so that if there is and was deception, it isn't necessarily explicable as conscious or motivated deceit. Just the same, each episode of the development of the mythology, and the public policy which it underwrote, has revealed particular innovations and individual initiatives. Not that well-meaning and honest people have not been reasonably persuaded that the drugs had the pernicious effects which were claimed, but it required, as I have illustrated in each chapter, a radical downturn in the business cycle, the operation of a split labor market, and a sharp deterioration of the expectations of all classes regarding their economic welfare, in order to make it urgent and likely that action on drugs would be taken, and that it was. In the event, the particular gains secured by narcotics prohibition have been so varied for those who initiated it that in themselves they add little to our interpretation of the fundamental causes of what happened.

Gains there had to be for the individuals involved to act—career, self-advertisement, election advantage, bureaucratic aggrandizement are evident ones. By arresting the history of the use of narcotics and prohibition policy at these moments of individual initiative, it is possible to see exactly what the initiative consisted of and the relationship it bore to the existing mythology. It is also possible to gauge something of the psychology of those responsible for public policy formation—these zealots for normalcy, Machiavellian manipulators, megalomaniacs, obsessives, neurotic liars. The labels are crudely impressionistic, for the subjects will hardly volunteer for psychiatric examination and cannot be compelled, as can drug offenders. But, then, if psychologically there is nothing in particular which predisposes the offender to narcotics use or addiction and indeed, if in general psychiatric terms, there is nothing at all to distinguish the user or addict from anyone else of his class, then there is nothing but his class to identify him, 22 and the psychological theory is no more useful to account for there being individuals who "need" the drugs than it can be to account for there being individuals, who no less idiosyncratically "need" to prohibit narcotics, and punish offenders with a maximum of violence and severity. Again the facts of class will identify who they have been, or rather whose interests have been served by their actions. For it is the dynamics of class conflict rather than the payoffs to a particular conspiracy or mental aberration which have determined the long-term course and character of narcotics policy.

There never was an episode, a time, or an agency for that matter, which could not command enough scientific or expert evidence to back or at the very same time reject particular policy proposals. The medical and epidemiological testimony given by Sir William Roberts to the British Parliamentary Royal Commission on Opium, 1895,23 would do almost as well as the protocol and technical papers supplied by the Vera Institute of Justice in proposing a trial legalization of heroin," just as the testimony of other witnesses before that inquiry eighty years ago differs scarcely at all from the modern advocacy of strict deterrence—concretely now, under the Rockefeller legislation, that of mandatory life sentences for offenders.

These happen to be current issues in the present policy debate; they change from episode to episode, more in technical detail than in consequence, and they are no more likely to be settled now than they were in 1949, at the beginning of the last cycle, or earlier, or than they are likely to be settled twenty years from now perhaps, at the beginning of the next cycle. To arrest the history of narcotics, then, at the level of scientific argument and the conflict of theory—let alone make it appear that the consequence of the history of drug prohibition has been progressive enlightenment—is just as misleading as it is to conceive of the course of events in individual or psychological terms.

Return again to class we must, where public policy is the stratagem of class conflict and law enforcement the weapon, as sharp as the exclusion campaigns against Chinese and Mexicans, or the repression of ghetto blacks and the American army in Vietnam. Not science but mythology potentiates this history and the social forces whose movement it records. If the monkey on the man's back were only the drug, he would still be a free man.


Our valuable member John Helmer has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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