12 Heroin and Cannabis
WHILE THE LEAGUE HAD BEEN WRESTLING WITH THE PROBLEM OF controlling the international drug traffic, its member States had been going their individual ways, some paying little attention to the League's requests. The nation which came closest to carrying out the League's recommendations was, ironically, not a member: the United States; and the consequences of the methods it chose to adopt to stamp out drug-taking were to prove even more disastrous, though on a smaller scale, than Prohibition.
The Harrison Act
The Harrison Narcotics Act, passed in 1914, was chiefly designed to restrict the use of opium and its derivatives to medical purposes, the doctor being permitted to prescribe them 'in the course of his professional practice only'. But the limits of what would constitute professional practice were left undefined. Was the doctor allowed to prescribe heroin to addicts — the maintenance dose, as it came to be known? Or did this fall outside his professional competence? The law enforcement officers took the view that it was no part of the profession's duty to indulge the addict with his drugs. Doctors who continued to provide patients with the maintenance dose found themselves liable to be arrested — which, even if they were not jailed, meant that they would face professional ruin. So the addict — as American Medicine commented soon after the Act came into effect — is 'deprived of the medical care he urgently needs; open, above-board sources from which he formerly obtained his drug supply are closed to him, and he is driven to the underworld where he can get his drug'. The underworld had no difficulty in supplying him. By the end of the First World War, an investigating committee found, the problem of addiction was more serious than ever in American cities. The illicit traffic in opiates had increased until it just about equalled the legal traffic, and the number of addicts had risen to around a million.
Predictably, the committee recommended tougher laws, and tougher enforcement: and in 1924 an Act was passed prohibiting the importation of heroin — this being the policy the United States delegates were trying to persuade the League of Nations Opium Conference to accept. The effect was rapid, and striking. Hitherto the profession had made little distinction 'between morphine and heroin addicts, the general assumption being that though heroin was the more addictive, the two drugs were not significantly different in their effects. But — according to Edward Brecher in his survey of the period in Licit and Illicit Drugs — hardly had the law been changed than morphine, though easier and cheaper to get, almost disappeared from the black market. So far from stopping the traffic, the Illinois Medical Journal complained in June 1926, the 'well-meaning blunderers' who had passed the Act had ensured that those who dealt in heroin could now 'make double the money from the poor unfortunates upon whom they prey'. All that the United States Government was doing was ensuring the prosperity of the bootleggers of narcotics, in the same way as they had ensured the prosperity of the bootleggers of alcohol, at enormous cost to the nation.
The Rolleston Committee
What would have happened — it was often asked — if the American Government, instead of denying addicts their maintenance dose, had allowed them to have it on prescription? The easiest comparison was with Britain, which had had a similar problem with addiction to opiates in the early part of the century, arising out of ill-advised prescribing habits and the boom in patent medicines; and which had also passed a law, the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, designed to bring them under control. When the issue came up whether the maintenance dose should be allowed, however, the decision lay not with the law officers, as in America, but with the Ministry of Health. The Ministry decided to appoint a committee, under Sir Humphrey Rolleston, to advise on it; and the committee sent one of its members, Dr Harry Campbell, to the United States to observe how the Harrison law was working.
As a consequence of the law, Dr Campbell reported,
a vast clandestine commerce has grown up in that country. The small bulk of these drugs renders the evasion of the law comparatively easy, and the country is overrun by an army of peddlers who extort exorbitant prices from their helpless victims It appears that not only has the Harrison law failed to diminish the number of drug-takers — some contend, indeed, that it has actually worsened it; for without curtailing the supply of the drug it has sent the price up tenfold, and this has had the effect of impoverishing the poorer class of addicts and reducing them to a condition of such abject misery as to render them incapable of gaining an honest livelihood.
The Rolleston Committee was exclusively medical in its composition. One of the most cherished tenets of the medical profession was that the doctor had a right to prescribe whatever he thought suitable for his patients, with or without the State's sanction. Dr Campbell had given the Committee just the kind of evidence they needed to justify the continuance of this policy. They recommended that doctors should be allowed to prescribe heroin not simply in the course of treatment, but also to the patient who, 'while capable of leading a useful and fairly normal life as long as he takes a certain non-progressive quantity, usually small, of the drug of addiction, ceases to be able to do so when the regular allowance is withdrawn'. The medical profession in Britain having more prestige and more influence than the American, the recommendation was accepted. As a result, though there was always a black market in the opiates between the wars, it remained very small. The addict who could get his heroin for a few pence on prescription was not going to pay ten times as much to a peddler.
In the United States, heroin addiction grew progressively more serious; for reasons given in 1936 by August Vollmer, who had been Chief of Police in Berkeley, California, and subsequently a Professor of Police Administration in Chicago:
Stringent laws, spectacular police drives, vigorous prosecution and imprisonment of addicts and peddlers have proved not only useless and enormously expensive as means of correcting this evil, but they are also unjustifiably and unbelievably cruel in their application to the unfortunate drug victims. Repression has driven this vice underground and produced the narcotic smugglers and supply agents, who have grown wealthy out of this evil practice and who, by devious methods, have stimulated traffic in drugs. Finally, and not the least of the evils associated with repression, the helpless addict has been forced to resort to crime in order to get money for the drug.
Drug addiction, Vollmer went on to argue, was not a police problem — 'it never has been and never can be solved by policemen'; it was a medical problem. Instead of penal sanctions, 'there should be intelligent treatment of the incurables in outpatient clinics, hospitalisation of those not too far gond to respond to therapeutic measures, and application of the prophylactic principles which medicine applies to all scourges of mankind'.
Marihuana: Harry Anslinger
Vollmer was a respected figure — he was a former President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But how little attention was paid to his opinions could be gauged from the fact that the following year, Congress passed a law bringing yet another drug under federal prohibition: Indian hemp.
Before 1900, hemp had hardly rated as a drug in the United States. This was not because of any lack of availability; in the South, it had long been one of the main cash crops — grown by, among others, George Washington, and encouraged by later administrators, chiefly to provide fibres. It was no more regarded as a plant drug than the morning glory — at least by the whites; they preferred their tobacco and alcohol. Only the Southern black slaves took it; as Richard Burton, who liked to compare different types of hemp as other men like to compare different wines, observed when he visited the region. He was interested to discover that 'few of their owners had ever heard of it'. So little were its narcotic properties known, let alone worried about, that S. S. Boyce's treatise on hemp, published in New York in 1900, contained no reference to them; and that same year the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it had decided to import experimental quantities of 'superior varieties of hemp seed' from the East, for experiments to see how they would grow in America.
Drugs made from hemp were used to a small extent in medicines; and the Department, worried by the growing cost of imported drugs, and with a view to making the United States self-sufficient in her requirements, also embarked on a systematic survey over the next few years to find how much was needed of hemp and other plant drugs, and how and where they could best be grown. Experimental farms were established, at which tests could be made; and hemp was found to do very well in the Eastern and upper Southern States. Farms to produce it commercially were accordingly started in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. During the war, farmers were encouraged to produce still more, until they almost fulfilled the country's entire requirements; a feat which was held to be greatly to their credit by Henry Fuller in his survey of American
During the 1920s, however, marihuana — as it came to be described when taken for non-medical purposes — began to acquire a sinister reputation; partly owing to the stories coming out of Egypt, where hashish was still getting blamed for the addiction rate; partly because it began to spread north into States of the Union where it had not been known before. Some of them banned it; and at the time the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was set up under the wing of the Treasury Department in Washington in 1930, there was a move to get marihuana banned throughout the country. The Treasury was unimpressed. 'A great deal of public interest has been aroused by newspaper articles,' its report claimed in 1931, 'appearing from time to time on the evils of the abuse of
marihuana, or Indian hemp. This publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and lends color to the inference that there is an alarming spread of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in such use may not have been inordinately large.' The Chief of the new Narcotics Bureau, however, did not share the Treasury's view. Harry Anslinger had been Assistant. Commissioner of Prohibition, and was understandably anxious to wipe out the memory of his failure to make it work. He was young — still in his thirties — ambitious; and filled with a deep repugnance for drugs dating back, by his own account, to an episode in his childhood. He had been born in Pennsylvania, near a township in which one adult out of ten was reputed to be an opium addict; and as a twelve-year-old, he heard a woman screaming in agony for the drug, a sound he never forgot. He had come to feel the same horror of marihuana.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, however, was originally drawn into the campaign against marihuana less by Anslinger's antipathy to the drug than for administrative simplicity. It had become obvious that narcotics could not be adequately controlled so long as each State had a different set of regulations, and a national Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws had been considering how best to unify them. In 1932 they put forward a draft narcotics law which, it was hoped, all States would introduce, imposing prohibition except for medical purposes. At this stage, the decision whether or not to classify hemp as a narcotic within the meaning of the Act was left optional. Anslinger, regarding this as unsatisfactory, determined to arouse public opinion to the marihuana menace. His Bureau therefore prepared a brochure in which it was claimed that, 'those who are accustomed to habitual use of the drug are said eventually to develop a delirious rage after its administration during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible, and prone to commit violent crimes'; and that prolonged use was 'said to produce mental deterioration'.
'Said to' was a favourite Bureau phrase when there was no evidence who had done the saying. Anslinger had other devices, too, to rouse fear of marihuana. It had dropped out of general medical usage, he claimed, because its effects were too unpredictable. This was true; doctors did not find it easy to prescribe the appropriate dosage, because individual reactions were so varied. But Anslinger's interpretation of 'unpredictability' was his own. A patient, he explained, might not react at all; but he might 'go beserk'. And the young were particularly at risk; much of the prevailing crime, vice and gang warfare were due to the drug.
The Bureau's report for 1933 promised a propaganda campaign against marihuana. For a while, it did not 'take'; The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Brecher was later to find, listed no article on the subject in the ten years 1925-35 — itself an indication of how little alarm the drug had been causing. Then, the flow began; and most of the articles either acknowledged the help of the Bureau, or showed internal evidence of having accepted it. Anslinger himself gave network radio broadcasts to arouse, as he put it, 'an intelligent and sympathetic public interest, helpful to the administration of the narcotic laws'. They emphasised marihuana's close relationship with hashish, and attributed to it 'a growing list of crimes, including murder'.
Anslinger's main aim was to shake Congress into action; and in this he succeeded. When in 1937 the Treasury introduced a Federal Marihuana Bill, putting the drug into the same category as the narcotics controlled by the Harrison Act, Congressmen were so little concerned to dispute the Bureau brief that the only serious opposition came from representatives of the bird seed industry. They managed, just in time, to put over their case that hemp seed, whatever it might do to humans, did only good to birds, upon whom it had no observable narcotic effects, and whose health — and plumage — suffered without it.
Having committed himself to prohibition of marihuana, Anslinger was aware he would need to justify himself by making a better job of enforcement than he had been able to do with either alcohol or heroin. The Bureau's campaign through the press intensified. In the same month — July — that the Act went through, an article by Anslinger appeared in the American Magazine purporting to recount some of the crimes committed under the influence of marihuana, which bore an interesting resemblance to those which had been described to an Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, including a murder in Florida:
When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze. . . . He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called `muggle' a childish name for marihuana.
Anslinger omitted to provide any evidence that the smoking of muggle had been in any way responsible for the crime; but with his authority for it, the incident was to be used again and again, in later articles, by journalists who had found it among the files.
In one respect, the campaign was a little too successful for Anslinger's peace of mind. He had secured a fervent supporter in Earle Albert Rowell, a hot-gospeller, who had been touring America lecturing audiences on marihuana's effects. The drug, according to Rowell's thesis:
1 Destroys willpower, making a jellyfish of the user. He cannot say no.
2 Eliminates the line between right and wrong . . .
3 Above all, causes crime, fills the victim with an irrepressible urge to violence.
4 Incites to revolting immoralities, including rape and murder.
5 Causes many accidents, both industrial and automobile.
6 Ruins careers for ever.
7 Causes insanity as its speciality.
8 Either in self-defence or as a means of revenue, users make smokers of others, thus perpetuating evil.
The italicised part of Rowell's creed was an embarrassment to the Narcotics Bureau, because it related to another of Rowell's beliefs; that in order to stamp out marihuana, it would be necessary also to ban tobacco, because smoking cigarettes led young people on to smoking marihuana. 'Slowly, insidiously', Rowell claimed,
for over three hundred years, Lady Nicotine was setting the stage for a grand climax. The long years of tobacco-using were but an introduction and training for marihuana use. Tobacco, which was first smoked in a pipe, then as a cigar, and at last as a cigarette, demanded more and more of itself until its supposed pleasures palled, and some of the tobacco victims looked about for something stronger. Tobacco was no longer potent enough.
It was no part of Anslinger's strategy to add to his difficulties with a campaign against tobacco: Rowell was repudiated.
Marihuana was now officially a 'black' or 'hard' drug. What this was going to mean was forecast by Dr Henry Smith Williams in 1938.
With the aid of newspaper propaganda already started, an interest will be created in the alleged allurements of marihuana smoking; and the army of inspectors sent out to explore the millions of fields in which the weed may be grown need only apply, with slight modifications, the methods learned in the conduct of the narcotics racket, in order to develop a marihuana industry that could eclipse the billion dollar illicit narcotics racket of today. Racketeers . . . should have no difficulty at all in developing a five billion dollar racket with marihuana — provided only that the press can be induced to stimulate curiosity by giving the drug publicity.
And the press, fed with more horror stories by Anslinger, duly did its worst.
The La Guardia Report
Up to this point, there had been no attempt seriously to investigate the effects of marihuana in the United States. But when the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, was urged to initiate a campaign against the drug, he recalled that many years before he had been impressed by a report on the subject by an army board in Panama, 'which had emphasised the relative harmlessness of the drug and the fact that it played a very little role, if any, in problems of delinquency and crime in the Canal Zone'. In 1939, with the help of the New York Academy of Medicine, La Guardia set up a committee consisting of twenty-eight doctors, pharmacologists, psychiatrists and sociologists, who were allowed the time and the facilities to do what half a century earlier the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, for all its thoroughness, had not attempted: scientific tests of the drug, in controlled conditions.
The outcome of the enquiry was remarkably similar to that of its predecessors. The behaviour of marihuana smokers — the Chairman of the Committee, Dr George B. Wallace, wrote in his summary of its conclusions — was ordinarily 'of a friendly, sociable character. Aggressiveness and belligerency are not commonly seen.' No direct relation had been found between marihuana and crimes of violence. There was no evidence that it was an aphrodisiac. Smoking could be stopped without any resulting mental or physical distress comparable with withdrawal symptoms after opiates; and there was no sign that smokers acquired tolerance of its effects, compelling them to take more. On the contrary, an excessive dose reversed the usually pleasant effects. 'Marihuana does not change the basic personality structure of the individual. It lessens inhibitions and this brings out what is latent in his thoughts and emotions, but it does not evoke responses which would otherwise be totally alien to him.' No mental or physical deterioration of a kind which could be attributed to it had been diagnosed even among those who had taken the drug for years. So far from its being a menace, 'the lessening of inhibitions and repression, the euphoric state, the feeling of adequacy, the freer expression of thoughts and ideas, and the increase in appetite
for food brought about by marihuana, suggest therapeutic siatio'n.e.t, possibilities'.
The American Medical Association reacted angrily to the implication that it had failed to recognise cannabis's potential. 'Public officials will do well to disregard this unscientific, uncritical study', the AMA Journal urged on April 28th, 1948, 'and continue to regard marihuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed'. The damage, it feared, had already been done — to judge by the account of some 'tearful parents' who had noticed a mental deterioration in their son, 'evident even to their lay minds' and found he had been smoking 'tea' (the then current slang); when taxed with it, he had cited the committee's report — which he had read about in a pop music magazine under the heading 'Light up! Report finds "tea" a Good Kick!' — as his justification. Anslinger was of the same mind. The report's 'giddy sociology and medical mumbo-jumbo', he was later to complain in one of his autobiographies, 'put extra millions in the pockets of the hoods'.
Marihuana: the second phase
Following the report of the La Guardia Committee, voices were heard periodically in the United States suggesting that even if its research had not been perfect, the results at least confirmed that there were no known serious hazards from marihuana to the individual or to society. Would it not be as well, then, to give up the apparently futile attempt to ban it, and to concentrate instead on the campaign against heroin and the other hard drugs?
Anslinger found the proposal intolerable. To block it, he began to advance a new argument, contradicting views he had himself held earlier. In 1937 he had assured Congress that marihuana did not lead on to hard drug addiction, because he wanted to prove that marihuana addicts were, as he put it to Congress, 'an entirely different class', who were made violent by the drug, rather than by the need to find money to pay for it. They knew nothing of heroin, he asserted, and 'did not go in that direction'. But by 1956, when new forms of drug control were being debated, Anslinger realised that he could no longer rely on Congressmen accepting his link between marihuana and violence, exploded by the La Guardia findings. He would have to find some fresh reason for maintaining prohibition of the drug. Marihuana, he now admitted, was not a 'controlling factor' in crime; the real danger was 'that marihuana, if used over a long period, does lead to heroin addiction'. His expert advice was accepted.
When it began to become obvious, later in the 1960s, that the campaign to stamp out marihuana was not succeeding, and that the habit was spreading rapidly throughout the country, particularly among the youth, State legislatures displayed the by now reflex action. They passed laws to intensify enforcement, and to increase penalties. Edward Brecher has since listed them in his Licit and Illicit Drugs, including:
Alabama: mandatory sentence for the possession of a marihuana cigarette: five years. Second offence, up to forty years. No suspended sentences or probation permitted.
Illinois: for first offence of selling marihuana, ten years to life. Louisiana: mandatory sentence for possession, first offence, five to fifteen years hard labour.
Missouri: life sentence for first offence of sale, second of possession.
Rhode Island: mandatory ten years for possession with intent to sell.
And in Massachusetts anybody found in a place where marihuana was kept, or in the company of anybody possessing it, could receive a five-year sentence. At the same time, the campaign was intensified on the federal level. In 1960 there had been 169 arrests in connection with marihuana; in 1965 there were 7,000, and the following year, 15,000.
The campaign was a humiliating failure, for two main reasons. One was that it proved impossible to stop smuggling. The long border with Mexico, in particular, was easily breached — often by the owners of the 80,000 cars which, by the late 1960s, were passing into Mexico and back into California every weekend (at one checkpoint there were eighteen lanes, which did not make for secure customs enforcement). But the main reason was the same as under Prohibition forty years earlier: that enforcement lacked solid support from public opinion. The young were often on marihuana's side; and parents were gradually learning to live with the knowledge that their children were not going to be stopped from breaking the law.
It was also becoming apparent that none of the terrible consequences Anslinger had forecast were manifesting themselves. Marihuana caused no deaths, and no addiction of the kind which afflicted takers of the opiates or of alcohol; nor were its takers more frone to mania, to violence, or to crime than the rest of the community. By the time President Nixon, whose views reflected Anslinger's, set up his own enquiry — which he took care to 'load', appointing nine of the thirteen members himself, and leaving them and the public in no doubt as to what he expected of them — the campaign against marihuana was disintegrating. 'There is increasing evidence,' Dr James Carey of the University of California told them, 'that we are approaching a situation similar to that at the time when the Volstead Act was repealed.' On the one hand, there were the savage penalties; on the other, a breakdown of enforcement. The police, though willing enough to make raids on hippy camps, did not relish the idea of making sweeps through the massed ranks of fans at pop festivals; still less, of raiding the homes of the G.I.s — sometimes officers — who had brought the habit back with them from Vietnam.
Politicians, too, could no longer be so sure that a hard line on drugs would win them electoral support. In some States, tacit agreements were reached to leave University campuses to discipline themselves over marihuana; fines for possession become nominal. In the winter of 1972 the Consumers' Union pronounced 'marihuana is here to stay. No conceivable law enforcement programme can curb its availability', and called for a new Act to introduce orderly controls on cultivation, production and distribution. In 1973 Oregon took a tentative step towards legislation, by converting possession of small quantities of marihuana into a 'violation' — comparable to a parking offence — rather than a crime. And when the Shafer Committee reported, to Nixon's disgust it recommended that possession of small quantities of cannabis should cease to be a criminal offence.
Britain and cannabis
It might have been expected that the British, aware of the good fortune in escaping the consequences of the United States' heroin policy, would have taken care not to ban cannabis themselves. But the drug was rarely used socially in Britain, and as the plant had continued to resist conversion into a standardised potion, or pill, it had been falling out of medical use. When it was introduced by the West Indian immigrants after the Second World War, it was known only through the lingering legends of the Arabian nights, and the Assassins. And for a time, it was allowed to circulate in what became semi-ghettoes where the immigrants lived.
Around 1950, it began to spread out through much the same channels as it had in the United States, chiefly through musicians and their fans; and stories about the way the drug was corrupting the nation's youth began to appear in the newspapers. They were loaded with menace: readers were reminded that cannabis was really hashish, the drug of the Assassins, and told that it was being pushed by coloured dope peddlers. Britain had no Narcotics Squad, and no Harry Anslinger ; but it had Dr Donald McIntosh Johnson, later to be Conservative M.P. for Carlisle, whose Indian Hemp: a Social Menace sounded the alarm in 1952. In it he described how the respectable 'Mr A' had been slipped a 'Mickey Finn', which had driven him into so manic a mental condition that he had had to be certified, and incarcerated for a few days in a mental hospital. The drug used, Dr Johnson claimed, was cannabis; and he went on to explain that it had also been responsible for the outbreak of hysteria which had afflicted the citizens of the Provençal town of Pont St. Esprit, not long before.
The Pont St. Esprit outbreak was soon traced to ergot poisoning; but the explanation of 'Mr A's' disorder did not come until several years later, when Dr Johnson revealed in an autobiography that he was 'Mr A' himself (thus qualifying, perhaps, as the only man to have been elected an M.P. after having been certified). He was unable to show that cannabis had been responsible. By then, however, the combination of the press campaign and the propaganda of the Society for the Study of Addiction (whose Hon. Secretary's views were given in the introduction to Johnson's book; distinguishing between drunkards and cannabis users, he claimed that 'alcoholism, for all its attendant degradation, does not usually poison one's nature; drug addiction does') had led the Government to determine to ban sales of the drug. As the medical profession disclaimed any desire to use it, it ceased to be available even on prescription.
What followed was a repetition of what had been happening in the United States, though with the additional complication that the police activity was initially directed against the West Indians. A number of respectable citizens, who had taken cannabis all their adult lives in much the same way as their white neighbours took beer, found themselves given long prison sentences, coupled with judicial homilies on their wickedness in corrupting British youth. The effect the campaign had was greatly to increase the demand. By driving it underground, the authorities succeeded in making 'pot' a secular cult, combining the attractions of a rebel conspiracy against parental and civil authority, and a secret society. White teenagers took to the drug in rapidly growing numbers, so that by 1964 more whites than coloureds were being convicted of cannabis offences. Inevitably, the demand grew for tougher enforcement, and higher penalties. But cabinet ministers or stockbrokers who applauded the searches of a pop singer's suitcases by the Customs, or his flat by the police, became less enthusiastic when they found that most of the white malefactors were from the aristocracy and the professional classes — including their own sons and daughters.
This was an embarrassment, because by the Dangerous Drug Act of 1965, designed to implement United Nations' policy, penalties had been raised. In theory, anybody found in possession of cannabis could receive as long a sentence as a convicted murderer. In 1967 the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, sought a way out of the difficulty by appointing a committee of enquiry into the whole subject under Lady Wootton, the leading British authority in the area where sociology, criminology and psychiatry overlap. Its report, published in 1969, followed those of earlier enquiries. There was nothing to suggest that cannabis was responsible for aggressive social behaviour, or crime, or ill-health. Physically-speaking it was 'very much less dangerous than the opiates, amphetamines, and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol'. Nor was there any evidence that cannabis-takers were led on to take heroin; 'it is the personality of the user, rather than the properties of the drug, that is likely to cause progression to other drugs'.
James Callaghan, Jenkins' successor as Home Secretary, was no more disposed than Nixon to accept the committee's verdict. He excused himself from taking action by claiming — as Nixon was to do — that the committee had allowed itself to be bamboozled by the cannabis lobby. But whatever the disagreements on the committee's findings there was no disputing one of its assertions; that in spite of campaigns to stamp it out, cannabis use was on the increase. Doubtless encouraged by the report, the users continued to multiply, as an investigation undertaken by the Sunday Telegraph, revealed in 1972. Previously, the cannabis had entered the country chiefly in small consignments, often amateurishly brought in. But the demand had now put up the price to the point where it attracted a smuggling network of the sophisticated kind hitherto associated with the heroin traffic:
Ingenuity shown in disguising cannabis in freight is endless. It has been found concealed in crates of foodstuff, the handles of badminton racquets, padded ice-hockey gloves, sub-aqua air bottles, surf boards, hippie beads, sculptured busts, contraceptives, antiques, Moroccan pouffes and ornamental bricks.
Other expedients employed by the traffickers included the use of radio-controlled model aircraft, launched from motor-boats in the English Channel, and — most serious of all of the diplomatic bags addressed to members of the Embassies of the poorer countries, who had learned how they could enjoy high living in London with no trouble, and rarely any risk. A senior member of the staff of the Indian High Commission had been detected, the Sunday Telegraph report claimed, smuggling 50,000 grains of cannabis into Britain in a consignment of chutney.
Faced with such evidence, the reaction of the Customs was to boast that larger quantities of cannabis were being intercepted. But this, as Timothy Green explained in his book about international smuggling, must be regarded as the measure of prohibition's failure. No large scale smuggling operation could afford to lose more than a small proportion of its consignments — around five per cent, Green estimated. It followed that if more cannabis was being intercepted, this could only mean that more was finding its way in. Only if interceptions began to fall, should the Customs claim they were succeeding. In much the same way, the rise in the number of convictions, which the police used to justify themselves — from around fifty in 1957 to over 10,000 in 1972— could more sensibly be regarded as a reflection of a great increase in drug taking. The estimates of the number of cannabis users supplied to the Wootton Committee in 1968 had ranged between 30,000 and 300,000. The Sunday Telegraph's investigators came to the conclusion that in 1972 'although the United Kingdom is in general a law-abiding country, anything up to two millions of its citizens use the drug'.
If the authorities in Britain and the United States could not suppress the use of cannabis by banning it, the chances of the traffic in heroin, easier and vastly more profitable to smuggle, being effectively stopped by prohibition were remote. The British, realising this, held on to their policy of allowing doctors to prescribe a maintenance dose; and it worked — though they had some uneasy moments in the 1960s, when it was found that the number of new cases of addiction, though negligible by American standards, was rising with disconcerting rapidity. An investigation revealed the reason; a handful of doctors were prescribing heroin so lavishly that they were feeding the small black market in the drug. There had always been the risk that leaving it up to the individual doctor to decide who needed heroin might lead to trouble. The biggest category of morphinists in the world, Lewin claimed, were doctors; and there were ninety doctors among Britain's 300 known heroin addicts in the early 1950s. There were also a few who were concerned only to increase their incomes. Reluctantly, the medical profession had to agree to abrogate its members traditional right, and confine the prescribing of heroin to designated clinics. The expedient worked; the rise in the addiction rate was halted.
Why, then, was the British system not introduced in the United States? Partly because it would have meant passing control to the Department of Health and Welfare. It was Anslinger's boast that he blocked this proposal, because he preferred to work in liaison with the Coast Guard, the Customs, the Secret Service and the Department of Justice. When it was pointed out to him that control by the Department of Health in Britain had largely made it unnecessary for the Coast Guard, the Customs, the Secret Service and the Department of Justice to concern themselves with the heroin traffic, he insinuated that the British must be hiding the real addiction figures. Anyway, he added, Britain was a small island, which made it easier to prevent smuggling.
This was an unfortunate choice of argument, because it revealed why his policies had been foredoomed to failure — the smuggling of heroin into the United States could not be prevented. Neither stricter enforcement nor severer penalties were reducing it. Any standard textbook on drugs showed why. Many heroin takers acquired 'tolerance', needing larger amounts to enjoy the same effects. The more they took, the more difficult it was to stop taking the drug, because of the agonising nature of the withdrawal symptoms — even worse with heroin than with the other opiates: yawning, restlessness, irritability, tremor, insomnia, depression, nausea, vomiting, intestinal spasm, diarrhoea, chilliness alternating with sweatiness, gooseflesh, cramps, pains in the bones, muscle spasms. While undergoing these tortures, the addict knew — as a textbook listing them put it — that 'at any point in the course of withdrawal, the administration of a suitable narcotic will completely and dramatically suppress the symptoms'. To purchase this relief, he would pay any price, and risk any penalty. As a result, heroin became a profitable enough commodity for the traffickers to be able to afford to conduct their smuggling operations on a highly organised and efficient level.
The blackest irony
So, by a savage paradox, the more determined the campaign by the United States Government to stamp out the drug traffic, the better it suited the traffickers. By the late 1960s, it was possible for a syndicate to offer $35 a kilo for raw opium — enough to ensure an abundant supply from impoverished peasants in Eastern and Middle Eastern countries, and to encourage them to cultivate land which had not been tilled before. The heroin manufactured from that kilo could be sold for $20,000; sometimes considerably more. Out of so spectacular a profit rate, the syndicate were able to afford to perfect their chain of operations so that at each stage, the carriers of the heroin could not betray the man who had consigned it to them, because they would not know who he was: nor could they be betrayed by the man they handed it over too, except through carelessness or bad management (a technique which Timothy Green likened in his study of smuggling to a system of electrical fuses so arranged that if one blew it could be replaced, and the rest could continue to function normally). The larger the difference between cost price and selling price, too, the better the syndicates were able to afford to bribe Customs Officers and policemen, and the greater the incentive for the 'pusher' to extend his market by attracting new customers. And they were thrown into his path by the Vietnam war, which introduced tens of thousands of G.I.s to heroin. In Vietnam they could buy the pure product at one-twentieth of its cost back home, where it was often heavily adulterated. What happened — as described by Frances Fitzgerald in her Fire in the Lake — reads like mimicry of what had happened to so many earlier efforts at prohibition.
The traffic in heroin was the final and perhaps the blackest irony of the war. The heroin came largely from Burma and Laos. Much of it was processed in or near Vientiane by those people for whose sake (it was to be supposed) the U.S. Government was demolishing the rest of Laos. It came to Vietnam either by air drop from Vietnamese or Lao military planes, paid for by the U.S. Government, or through the Customs at Tan Son Hut airfield. The Vietnamese Customs Inspectors earned several dozen times as much for not inspecting the bags and bundles as for inspecting them. When the American Customs advisers attempted to crack down on their 'counterparts', they discovered that the two key customs posts were held by the brothers of Thieu's Premier . . . As this 'freely elected Government' would not prosecute the Customs Officials (heroin, the Vietnamese said, was 'an American problem'), the heroin continued to enter the country unimpeded. Once in Vietnam it was sold openly in the streets and around the American bases by young war widows and children orphaned by the American War.
The United States might leave Vietnam — Frances Fitzgerald remarked — but the Vietnam war would never leave the United States; 'the soldiers would bring it back with them like an addiction'. They did. The demand for heroin continued to rise until, as Frederick Forsyth unkindly noted in a survey of the heroin traffic in 1973, it became 'America's largest single consumer import', worth $4,000,000,000 a year.
The fact that the prohibition policy led to an increase in drug-taking, though, was less demoralising than its social side-effects; particularly crimes of violence. This was not because drugs unleashed criminal tendencies, as Anslinger had claimed; the criminal activity was largely the result not of the drugs, but of the prohibition policy. As the Le Dain Committee of enquiry into drug use in Canada put it, in their interim report,
Because of the illegal nature of the drug the cost of a heavy heroin habit may run anywhere from $15.00 to $50.00 a day and higher, in spite of the fact that the medical cost of the drugs involved would be just a few cents. There are very few legitimate ways in which most individuals can afford to meet that kind of expense. Consequently, when tolerance pushes the cost of drug use above what the user can afford legitimately, he is forced into a decision — either to quit the drug and go through withdrawal, or turn to easier, criminal, methods of acquiring the necessary money. 53-6
In 1972 the New York Health Department estimated that there were around 400,000 heroin addicts in the city; 15,000 of them in jails, 25,000 under treatment, the rest on the streets — where, according to the police commissioner Patrick Murphy, they were connected with seventy per cent of the city's crimes. In Washington that year, the city's Narcotics Treatment Organisation put the count of heroin addicts at 15,000; its head, Dr Robert du Pont, estimated that 'the annual value of property and services transferred because of addiction, through robbery, theft, prostitution, drug sales and so on, was $328,000,000.' And at the same time, prohibition was creating new criminals out of men and women who would not ordinarily have become law breakers — as the Le Dain Committee noted in its final report in 1973. The fact of a drug being unobtainable legally 'will often drive a person to seek support and reinforcement in a deviant or criminal sub-culture'; and a prison sentence tended to reinforce this bond, because there was 'a considerable circulation of drugs within penal institutions'.
With heroin, as with marihuana, enforcement officials were ready with what appeared to be evidence that they were doing their job — figures showing that they were improving the interception rate. The U.N. narcotics committee were told that seizures of heroin in the United States were up from 160 kg in 1969, to 221 kg in 1970. But in the same period, the United States narcotic authorities' own estimates for the illicit import of heroin, assuming they were correct, showed that the proportion which was being seized had actually fallen. And there was sufficient evidence of the involvement of Customs and police by 1966 to lead John M. Murtagh, a judge of the New York Criminal Court, to comment that the narcotics law 'corrupts more than it corrects'; a warning borne out three years later when, within twelve months, no fewer than thirty-nine New York narcotics agents who were under investigation for drug offences resigned,
Control at source
Although the attempt to stop drugs coming into the United States was not succeeding, there were hopes for a time that it might be possible to introduce an alternative method of control. In 1959 an American fact-finding mission was despatched to visit the countries of the Near East to investigate the drug traffic. It reported that the chief source of illicit heroin were the Turkish poppy fields. The opium was being smuggled through the Lebanon to Italy and France, where it was converted into heroin and exported to the United States. There was little prospect of interception, as the people involved were untouchables; the Mafia, in Italy, and unknown but evidently influential figures in France. But why wait until the opium was on its way? Why not cut off the supply at its sources?
The idea had the attraction of simplicity. The United States Government was paying huge sums annually in a futile effort to beat the smugglers; part of the expenditure could be diverted, in the form of aid, to induce the Governments of the countries where the poppy — or any other drug-producing plant — was cultivated, to prevent cultivators from growing crops to supply the illicit market. The problem would then solve itself, for there would be no raw material for the traffickers to work on. All that was needed was some new international agreement, of the kind that had been mooted in the old League days, but which the U.N. should be better able to enforce. Anslinger had himself appointed as the United States delegate to the U.N. Commission to promote the policy, and in 1961 agreement was reached on what became known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
It proved to be as unworkable as the Hague and Geneva conventions, and for the same reasons; chief among them, the fact that some of the nations involved had promised more than they could perform, and others had never any intention of implementing their pledges. Typical of the unreality was the Convention's decision that 'the use of cannabis (hemp) for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible, but in any case within twenty-five years'; a 'rather optimistic time-table', as Dr Norman Taylor — Curator of the New York Botanical Gardens, and author of a couple of refreshingly sane books on drugs — remarked, when 'matched against three thousand years of use by untold millions'. Taylor's scepticism was justified. Visiting Morocco eleven years later, a Guardian correspondent found that though the Government had pledged its support to the campaign to phase out kif, it had carefully refrained from interfering with the cultivation of hemp. The farmers were earning twice as much from it as they had earned from growing corn; so, as a tribesman explained, 'now we've all switched'.
The attempt to deprive the heroin traffickers of their main source, the poppy fields of Turkey, also failed. Tempted by the promise of American aid, the Turkish Government agreed to try to stop poppy cultivation for the black market; and for a while the production of opium was restricted. But as the illicit marketeers were able to offer higher prices, this only meant that it was the supply of legitimate — medical — opium which dwindled. By 1972 some nations were running short; the Japanese representative complained at the U.N. that his country could only get half its legitimate requirements. At the same time the Turkish peasants, who had been instructed to stop growing poppies, were becoming restive. The payments they had received out of the American funds, they felt, were insufficient to compensate them for the loss of so lucrative a crop. As their votes were at stake, the Turkish Minister for Agriculture in the Ecevit Government began, in 1974, to dismantle the controls his predecessors had introduced.