Saturday, October 04, 2014

A spoonful of opium helps the medicine go down; or, Nineteenth century over-the-counter addictions; or, Passing laws that make drug problems worse.

They Laughed When I Sat Down by Frank Rowsome, Jr came out in 1959 and was a best seller. The book is a look back at advertising in America, especially the early advertising of the prior century. Chapter Four, “Shake Well Before Using,” is the story of patent medicines and their excesses, both in advertising claims and contents. The inevitable result was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Selling concoctions of flavored water, herbs, alcohol and opium will at some point cause major concerns.

Scans are from the McGraw-Hill first edition. Copyright © 1959 Frank Rowsome, Jr

Stories of children in day care (and yes, the 19th century did have day care centers; but they were probably informal and not regulated) being dosed with Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to keep them calm and sedated during the day lead me to speculation as to how patent medicines caused addiction that lasted after the products were taken off the market.

This 1999 comic, Brave Old World, has a frank view of an era many view as nostalgic, but on examination was far from the rosy images of later generations. This sequence of panels illustrates what I'm talking about:

Suddenly having the supply of cheap narcotics bought at the local drug store yanked away caused people to ask doctors to prescribe. Many then got their drugs legally. However, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 brought a stop to that. It stated that addiction is not a disease, therefore not a medical problem and could not be treated by a doctor. So, no more prescription pad relief for addicts.

We are a society geared to punishment. We believe that weaknesses by others should be listed as crimes and handled through the prison system rather than medically. Even modern era painkillers, which have a definite purpose but can be abused, are controlled by the Feds through intimidation of physicians. Trying to cut off the supply of drugs by making them illegal has only led to criminals stepping in as the suppliers.

The War on Drugs, which is one of the most miserable failures of the past forty-plus years, has been like Prohibition of the twenties and thirties. It does not work. Yet for the billions spent trying to stop the flow of illegal drugs only a small portion is spent on treatment for addiction.

According to the online article, “History of Drug Use and Drug Users in the United States” by Elaine Casey, in the 1920s “addiction became a federal crime . . . the [Supreme] court thus lowered narcotics use into the underworld, forcing addicts to migrate to the urban centers of illicit supply. It also forced formerly decent and responsible citizens who had acquired an unfortunate habit to become aggressive and violent criminals. It made addicts conform to the image of nonscience, as they robbed or cheated or prostituted themselves to support the illicit price, they did indeed become debauched, corrupt and depraved. In 1923, as many of 75 percent of the women in federal penitentiaries were Harrison Act prisoners (Clark, 1976).”

In 1918, a Congressional committee released findings that showed that the underground traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic. Instead of opting for lessening of the laws to allow treatment or handling of addictions by physicians the Harrison Act was tightened. As the article says, “. . . the nation was finding that ridding itself of heroin would require considerably more than legislation.”

 Caution on the bottom of the label: “May be habit forming.”

I have heard recently that cracking down on doctors prescribing the heavy-duty painkillers has just turned prescription pain pill addicts to that old standby, heroin. It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. The Feds put the squeeze in one area, and it opens up more business for the traffic in illicit drugs.

The past century has seen various attempts to control narcotics and illicit drugs and nothing seems to work. In many ways, by just putting the stuff on store shelves as was done in the 19th century, seems almost better than what has happened since then with the attempts to turn people away from illicit drugs.

No comments: