Pubdate: Tue, 16 Jun 2017
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Los Angeles Times
Author: Johann Hari


In the early 1930s, the federal government cracked down on
California's legal drug programs, leading to numerous arrests. Above,
a California jail in 1930, occupying the third floor of Ventura City

In the early 1930s, the federal government cracked down on
California's legal drug programs, leading to numerous arrests. Above,
a California jail in 1930, occupying the third floor of Ventura City
Hall. (Los Angeles Times)

For one bright and flickering moment last year, it looked like the
global war on drugs was about to die. California -- the sixth largest
economy in the world -- voted to fully legalize cannabis, while a
smorgasbord of countries including Uruguay, Canada and Jamaica were
also moving toward more sensible policies. But like Freddie Krueger
after the nubile teenagers believe he is finally slain, the drug war
is suddenly back with even sharper claws. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions is
reviving the worst of the old policies that led to mass incarceration,
while President Trump has said that the Philippines is doing "a great
job" on the drug war under a President, Rodriguo Duterte, who publicly
boasts: "There's 3 million drug addicts. There are. I'd be happy to
slaughter them."

To understand the likely consequences of this grim renaissance, we
could wheel out the familiar arguments that have been around for
decades now -- but, buried in the forgotten history of California,
there is a story that explains the situation better than any abstract

For most of the history of the United States, drugs were legal. People
could buy opiates and cocaine-based products from their local
pharmacy. An opiate-laced brew called Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup,
for example, was particularly popular with housewives. One person who
viewed this legal system with skepticism was a Los Angeles doctor
named Henry Smith Williams. When a small number of his patients became
addicted, he was disgusted, and he came to see them as despicable
"weaklings." So when opiates and cocaine were banned in 1914, he
welcomed this first birth-pang of the drug war with glee.Policies
based on punishment and stigma will only make our drug problems spiral.

But then he noticed what happened to his addicted patients. They
didn't stop using. Instead, "here were tens of thousands of people, in
every walk of life, frantically craving drugs that they could in no
legal way secure," he wrote in one of his books. "They craved the
drugs, as a man dying of thirst craves water. They must have the drugs
at any hazard, at any cost."

At the same time, Smith Williams realized that the drug war was "in
effect ordering a company of drug smugglers into existence." Because
pharmacists could no longer sell these drugs, the Mafia and other
criminal organizations stepped in, selling a vastly inferior product
at extortionate prices. In the pharmacies, morphine had cost two or
three cents a grain, but the criminal gangs charged a dollar.

The death rate among addicts rose, and those who survived began to
behave very differently. An official government study had found that,
before the drug war kicked in, three-quarters of self-described
addicts had steady and respectable jobs: some 22% were wealthy, while
only 6% were poor. They were more sedate as a result of their
addiction, but they were rarely out of control or criminal. Yet faced
with the need to meet these extortionate new prices, many of the men
started to commit property crimes, and many of the women started to
steal or prostitute themselves.

So Smith Williams watched as the drug war created two waves of crime:
first a wave of violent criminal drug-dealers, and then a wave of
criminality among addicts. "The United States government," Henry wrote
in shock, had become "the greatest and most potent maker of criminals
in any recent century."

Because so many people noticed these effects, there was actually
significant resistance to the early drug war across the United States.
And some began to take advantage of a loophole in the legislation
banning these drugs: Any doctor was free to prescribe heroin or
cocaine to anyone who was addicted. Smith Williams' brother, Edward,
was one of the people who pioneered this approach in Los Angeles.

Henry described what he saw: When an addict came in, "the man is a
wreck, at the verge of collapse," Henry wrote. "He is deathly pale.
Sweat pours from his skin. He is all a tremor. His life seems
threatened." But when he was given a legal prescription to meet his
addiction, it would "restore him miraculously to a semblance of
normality." With help and support, they could then get back to a
decent life.

Narcotics police began to shut down this loophole, state by state,
actually rounding up 17,000 doctors nationally between the mid-1920s
and the mid-1930s. In California, the success of the legal drugs
program was so clear that many people fought back; the mayor of Los
Angeles was one of its strongest defenders. But the feds came for
California's legal drug program too, and in the early 1930s Edward
Smith Williams was arrested.

The reasons for this crackdown only became public years later, when
they were established in a trial.

The head of the Narcotics Bureau in California in the 1930s, Chris
Hanson, was approached one day by a local drug lord called Woo Sing.
He pointed out that in states like Nevada, where the legal clinics had
already been closed, addicts were forced to go to dealers; and he was
furious that in California, the gangs couldn't find customers because
users and addicts could buy their drugs legally. So Woo bribed Hanson
to introduce the drug war into California. Hanson was convicted of
taking bribes -- but the war on drugs he brought to California continues.

After learning all this, Henry Smith Williams realized he had been
terribly wrong to demand a war on drugs, and he wrote a prophetic book
called "Drug Addicts Are Human Beings" in which he opened his heart,
and argued for a return to the system that had prevailed for most of
U.S. history -- a limited, licensed trade. He also predicted in the
1930s that if the drug war continued for another 50 years, there would
be a $5-billion smuggling industry in the United States -- and the
journalist Larry Sloman later calculated that his prediction was
eerily accurate.

Everywhere the drug war has been tried, it has had the effects that
Henry Smith Williams witnessed at its birth. To resist the renewed
push by Sessions and President Trump, we only need to remember what
the people of California knew almost a century ago: Policies based on
punishment and stigma will only make our drug problems spiral. The
path back to sanity can only come through love, compassion -- and a
regulated trade.

Johann Hari is the author of "Chasing The Scream: The First and Last 
Days of the War on Drugs."
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