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The Forgotten Drug War: One Million Drug Addicts, Part II

Updated: Aug 29

In the first part of this post, I described the manner in which the Treasury Department and its Special Narcotic Committee produced the “mythical number” of one million opiate addicts residing in the United States in 1919. The methods (if that word can be applied here) to arrive at the one million figure involved a laughable mixture of bad statistics and lazy guesswork. Moreover, historian David Courtwright has subsequently marshaled enough empirical evidence to show that the estimate was at least three times larger than the actual figure. As I mentioned in part one, the one million addicts are a classic example of what Max Singer had called in 1971 the “vitality of mythical numbers,” an observation reiterated by economist Peter Reuter in 1987 in his own discussion of the “continued” vitality of mythical numbers. The Treasury Department arrived at a figure that served their organizational interest in maximizing the need for drug control efforts, and they and their political allies worked to disseminate that figure. But that wasn’t the point of my post. Today, in part two, I’d like to consider what happened to the “one million addict” figure, after it was first promoted by the federal government.

Early in 1919, still some months before the publication of the Special Narcotic Committee’s final report, the leaked “one million” number was being reported by a wide range of media outlets. One, the Scripps Newspaper chain, used the one million addicts figure in an article favorably discussing the anti-drug views of Royal S. Copeland, Health Commissioner of New York City. Copeland’s anti-drug posturing become important to the story, because he was elected to the United States Senate in 1922. After taking office, Copeland established a friendly relationship with the nation’s most active and self-promoting anti-drug crusader, Richmond Pearson Hobson. Hobson had first won fame for his heroism in the Spanish-American War, and for a short time has been known as the “most kissed man in America.” Later, Hobson has been elected to Congress from Alabama, but his true and lasting fame came as a lecturer and promoter of moral causes. His popular lecture on the evils of alcohol, “The Great Destroyer” was highly regarded by the forces of temperance and prohibition.

In 1923, the alcohol question having been settled for all time by national prohibition, Richmond Hobson turned his attention to the menace of narcotics, founding the International Narcotic Education Association. Although Hobson is largely forgotten today, he was among the best known social crusaders of his time, with an uncanny flair for dramatizing issues—the very definition of the sociological concept of “moral entrepreneur.” Almost immediately, Hobson seized upon the “one million addicts” figure that Treasury had generated, using it in publications and speeches.

Sober deliberations on narcotics

Sober deliberations on narcotics

But an interesting thing had happened. The federal government had, by the time Hobson seized the number, actually repudiated the “one million” figure. Why had the government repudiated its poor but self-serving estimate? It seems clear that the Public Health Service and the Surgeon General had determined by this time that the number really was hopelessly flawed, and there seems to be at some of what we might call an honest effort to correct earlier misinformation. On the other hand, the Narcotic Division of the Treasury Department’s Prohibition Unit, headed by Levi Nutt, seems to have gradually come to regard the constant repetition of the “one million” figure less as a helpful justification for waging war on narcotics, and more an embarrassing commentary on their effectiveness. Either way, by the time Hobson seized the drug issue, the government seems to have wanted the one million addicts to go away. They didn’t.

What followed was a fascinating battle, in which the federal government fought to kill its own number, while anti-drug crusaders used it to promote their cause. And while the latter sought government approval and endorsement, they proved more than willing to fight on without it, and to fight the government itself if need be. Hobson himself had plenty of media allies, including newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (a champion of the anti-drug cause) and one of Hearst’s most famous columnists, Winifred Black (who wrote as “Annie Laurie” in the San Francisco Examiner). Hobson became a regular radio commentator, using his organization’s resources to sponsor broadcasts beginning around 1928, and continuing until less than a month before his death in 1937 (when he appeared on an NBC Blue Network “narcotic defense” program).

Hobson had allies in Congress as well, most notably Senator Royal Copeland. In 1924, they hatched a scheme to get the federal government to pay for a mass printing of 50 million copies of a pamphlet Hobson had prepared, called The Peril of Narcotic Drugs—which would prominently highlight the conclusion of the Treasury Department in 1919 that there were one million drug addicts in the United States. The proposal alarmed government officials; the Surgeon General wrote in a memo that Hobson’s campaign was wrong-headed, for “narcotic addiction is a real problem, but one which is being successfully dealt with.” Colonel Nutt, for his part, wrote of Hobson’s pamphlet that “it was therefore our duty, both in the interest of truth and public health, to give information that would prevent such a document from being endorsed and broadcasted by the Government.” In the short term, the Public Health Service and the Narcotics Division did manage to block the appropriation and prevent 50 million copies of the “one million addicts” from being published.

But the fight over the number continued. Two years later, in 1926, Hobson began preparations for a World Narcotic Conference to be held in Philadelphia, and sought Congressional funding and support. The Public Health Service and the Narcotics Division again warned Congress away, noting that they regarded his conference “with contempt,” noting Hobson’s “persistent and unscrupulous efforts” to imply governmental endorsement. Hobson gave a blistering press conference at the start of the World Narcotic Conference, sharing that the federal government was attempting to suppress the 1919 report (which they were, of course) in an effort to hide the true nature and extent of America’s drug problem.

The one million addicts figure eventually died of old age. References to the Treasury Department estimate continue to appear in print until the early 1930s, though they are few and far between at that point. Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics clearly learned some lessons from the experience with Hobson and his allies. Although it is another story entirely, one of the lesser-known aspects of Anslinger’s tenure was his tendency to attack not only those he regarded as too “soft” on addicts and the drug problem, but those whose anti-drug zeal could be threatening to the Bureau and its reputation.

In the end, mythical numbers—and mythical concepts of all kinds—have a kind of Frankenstein’s monster quality to them. One created, they are not always subject to effective control by their creator. The “one million addicts” episode is less about the ability of government agencies to generate and promote silly numbers (yes, they do) than it is about what happens when the state is riding the back of the tiger, allying itself with the crusaders, the zealots, and the moral entrepreneurs, while feeding them bogus information. In the end, those forces can spin out of control. They have, many times. That’s a useful lesson, any time.

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