Strategic Suicide: The Birth of the Modern American Drug War:
Charles B. Towns' cure, officially endorsed by the AMA, was famous
throughout the country in the teens and twenties. It almost certainly
would make anyone stop taking anything. It consisted of huge simultanous
doses of foxglove, belladonna, prickly ash bark and strong purgatives,
coupled with constant prayer. Foxglove and belladonna are two of the
most famous witchcraft herbs of Europe. Foxglove contains the cardiac
stimulent digitalis, and belladonna contains the powerfully psychoactive
scopolamine and hyoscyamine.
Towns claimed his cure was effective for opium, cocaine or alcohol
addiction. His New York sanitarium charged between $200-$350 for a private
room for the five-day course, and $75 for a double occupancy, big money
in those days. Towns' theoretical and commercial partner was Dr. Alexander
Lambert, chief of the AMA's Medicolegal Bureau during the fight to pass
Harrison, later head of the AMA. Together they profitably administered
the Towns-Lambert method.
Lambert's entry on cocaine addiction in Osler's prestigious 1925 medical
textbook, Modern Medicine, solemnly pronounced that "The most
effective treatment is the Towns treatment and the method is the same
as in dealing with an alcoholic, except that the cocaine should be cut
off immediately. Strychnine, with or without some form of digitalis
should be given from the beginning. The belladonna mixture and from
3 to 5 cathartic pills and 5 gr. of blue mass should be given simultanously
as the first dose. The belladonna mixture is continued every hour of
the day and night, and twelve hours after the initial dose the patients
are again given from 3 to 5 cathartic pills followed six hours later
by a saline, and at the twenty-fourth hour after the intial dose they
are again given cathartics and again at the thirty-sixth hour. After
these last cathartics the bilious stool appears, and by the forty-fifth
to forty-eighth hour castor oil is given."
That is, they pharmacologically kicked the shit out of their patients;
they "puked and purged" 'em. They divined their success ratio by counting
as cured all those who didn't return for further punishment.
Between 1893 and 1895 the Opium Royal Commission produced three
twelve hundred page volumes of expert notarized testimony concerning
the use of opium in India. It made no attempt to exclude negative witnesses.
Its only requirement was verifiable expertise on some aspect of the
subject. One English missionary, who knew of no "hardier, thriftier
or more careful people than the Punjabis," insisted regular opium use
"seems to interfere neither with their longevity nor with their health."
That was the overwhelming majority opinion of the hundreds of physicians,
civil servants, merchants, missionaries and working people recorded
by the Commission.
Small amounts of opium produce a pleasant and energetic bodily lightness
conducive to work and mental activity. Opium was used as a pre-battle
stimulant by the Punjabis, and no British soldier wanted to face them.
Larger amounts of opium produce a dreamy reverie, "an aid to music composers"
as one 1912 New York Times article had it.
Smoking opium sap is not analogous to injecting morphine or heroin.
Dr. Brecher in Licit & Illicit Drugs: “Only about 10% of the
morphine [5-15% of commercial opium by weight]...enters the vapor, and
only a portion of the morphine in the vapor enters the human bloodstream
when inhaled; there are no ‘tars’ or other carcinogens to cause cancer.
The so-called ‘opium-smoker’ is actually a vapor inhaler. At a very
rough estimate, a smoker would have to smoke 300 or 400 grains of opium
to get a dose equivalent to the intravenous injection of one grain of
Smoked, all 39 of opium’s alkaloids are delivered in concert, slowly
and in minuscule doses, CNS exciters right along with the depressants.
The most harm an opium smoker can do to himself is put himself to sleep.
An opium smoker’s tools; Scientific American, 11/1921
Morphine, on the other hand, opium's major alkaloid, is a powerful
CNS depressant, especially in conjunction with alcohol, and hypodermic
injection makes absorption immediate and irreversible. That has stopped
more than one heart - and sullied the reputation of opium sap, for those
that don't know the difference between herbs and alkaloids.
Morphine, about 5% of opium sap by weight, isolated in 1803, is
medically superior to the sap as a pain killer. And physicians are perfectly
justified in their contention that isolated alkaloids are too concentrated
for uncontrolled distribution. The human body did not evolve in relation
to isolated alkaloids.
But the 1909-1914 criminalization of the safe sap automatically popularized
the refined alkaloid, since it's far more profitable to smuggle. This
was the conclusion of the official USPHS study conducted by Kolb and
Du Mez in 1924. Prior to 1914 gum opium was favored by regular users,
after 1914 the gum had been almost totally replaced by heroin and morphine.
As Professor Trebach pointed out, this substitution process repeated
itself after WW II when American drug law was foisted on a supine world.
Hong Kong, North Europe, Japan, Germany, Singapore, Thailand, Borneo
and Turkey all found their opium smokers using the only available substitute
- heroin. Professor McCoy repeatedly makes the same point.
As Professor Alfred Lindesmith put it in the introduction to his 1947
classic Addiction and Opiates: "alcohol is addicting in approximately
the same sense that heroin is...the fact that marijuana, cocaine, and
heroin and other opiate-type drugs are covered in the same anti-narcotics
legislation is a fertile source of confused thinking because it obscures
the facts that the use of marijuana is totally unlike heroin or morphine
addiction and that alcoholism...actually has very much in common with
Alcohol, heroin and cocaine all show approximately the same ratio of
addicts or abusers to users, 5% or less, hardly a proportion requiring
mass hysteria. Cigarettes produce a rate of addiction higher than 50%
in occassional users.
Coca leaf and opium sap would be preferred by many to cocaine and heroin,
were they available, but their legend is so terrifying, like Dracula's
fangs, the mere mention of their phantasm brings shudders of fear, as
if Dracula were real. In fact, neither opium sap nor coca leaf are a
problem in their native cultures, where they're both religious and social
In 970 CE Su Che, in his poem "The Cultivation of the Medicinal Plant
Poppy," sang that opium's "seeds are like autumn millet; when ground
they yield a sap like cow's milk; when boiled they become a drink fit
for Buddha." In 1057, Su Sung noted that the opium "poppy is found everywhere."
Throughout China, for more than a millenium, honored guests were greeted
with drinks or pipes full of opium.
Of course, coolies under the lash in the turn-of-the-century colonial
slave states, in intense pain, could be expected to become addicted
to opium, the most effective herbal pain killer known, especially when
it was substituted for their wages. It was literally the only escape
they had. "Insufficient food, harsh work schedules, and beatings made
most of the plantations slave labor camps with annual death rates higher
than 20 percent."
The European colonialists, and the Chinese Imperial slave states,
then pointed to this large-scale addiction they themselves had fostered
as justification for their politically selective enforcement - and for
their need to monopolize the trade.
A British opium inspector in India, 1905. Scoring the seed capsules
in Yunnan, Asia, 1/1931
The Chinese Opium Wars were about control of the trade, that is, control
of China. Opium smoking was demonized as treason by the Chinese monarchy,
and its American ally, only after the British cornered the global trade
by conquering opium-producing India and taking control of major Chinese
ports. Until that time, Chinese poets sang opium's praises. Under conditions
of foreign monopoly, however, to smoke imported opium was to finance
the British rape of China. It is finance and the attendant geopolitical
power that Chinese Emperors worried about, not the health of their subjects.
Before the European attack on China's sovereignty, opium was a commonly
accepted social sacrament and aid to meditation with a very long
history as the most important painkiller, soporific, anti-spasmodic
and febrifuge known. This medical respect for opium was accepted
worldwide. As the 1918 U.S. Dispensatory put it: "It is at present
more frequently prescribed than perhaps any other article of the
Above, the raw sap drying in the Persian sun, 1925. Below, opium and
sweet tea, Shiraz, Persia, 1925; Asia
Nearly all the empirical research supports the conclusions of Dr. Marie
Nyswander, the inventor of methadone maintenance: "There is a pattern
of self-limitation or restraint in opium smoking in countries where
it is socially acceptable. It is common for natives in these countries
to indulge in opium smoking one night a week much as Americans may indulge
in alcoholic beverages at a Saturday night party....families who accept
opium smoking as part of their culture are mindful of its dangers much
as we are mindful of the dangers of overindulgence in alcohol."
Describing the high rate of opium or heroin addiction in Hong Kong
in 1970, Professor McCoy stresses that "Most of the addicts were poor
wage laborers who lived in cramped tenements and sprawling slums, which
many social workers considered ideal breeding grounds for addiction."
That is, it is the pain that causes the addiction, not the pain killer.
People who are not in intense pain are no more likely to become addicted
to opiates than to any other pain killer. But of course, to acknowledge
that politically would mean that public funds would start to flow out
of police programs and into social programs.
Police Commissioner Roosevelt’s friend, the influential journalist Jacob
Riis, took this shot on New York’s Lower East Side, 1887