Narcotics Policy - The troubled 1920s and 1930s

Narcotics Policy The Troubled 1920s And 1930s 4084
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Ironically the domestic successes of drug reformers adversely affected U.S. efforts to promote a global antidrug strategy of control at the source. Expectations in America about how long it would take to put comprehensive controls into effect did not accord with the reality of the situation abroad. Any delay was unconscionable, in the view of some American observers, because the international drug problem had evidently become a grave one. "[S]muggling of narcotics in the United States," lamented Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon in 1921, "is on the increase to such an extent that the customs officers are unable to suppress the traffic to any appreciable extent." The secretary's assertion gave anecdotal credence to unfounded public perceptions about the severity of the drug situation.

The newly created Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs (OAC) of the League of Nations took charge of supervising the obligations incurred by the states signatory to the Hague conventions. Private individuals and those government officials who favored strict drug control doubted whether member states as well as the league itself possessed the political will to enact strict drug control measures. An impasse between Washington and Geneva developed during the early 1920s and kept the United States from influencing the work of the OAC until early in the 1930s. The Department of State's Division of Far Eastern Affairs, the bureau responsible for implementing drug policy, had initially hoped to find some way of cooperating with the OAC. In that spirit Dr. Rupert Blue, formerly the U.S. assistant surgeon general, attended the fourth session of the OAC in January 1923. He made it clear in his remarks to the OAC that the United States held both producing and manufacturing states responsible for escalating international drug problems. In Blue's estimation the only recourse was to call for strict controls on production and manufacture. Representative Stephen G. Porter, chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was as adamant as Blue about what U.S. foreign drug policy should be, wrote Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes that "an effective remedy [to drug problems] cannot be secured by compromise."

Porter quickly transformed Blue's skepticism about the OAC into outright hostility. In May 1923 at the fifth session of the OAC, Porter refused even to engage in debate about U.S. proposals for immediate, comprehensive controls on manufacturing. In defense of his position, which had caused much consternation at Geneva, he belligerently remarked: "If when I get back to America anybody says 'League of Nations' to me, he ought to say it conveniently near a hospital." Porter's bellicosity was in line with Department of State thinking. Secretary Hughes had made it clear that the nonmedical or nonscientific use of drugs was unacceptable and that global production of narcotics had to be controlled. In so doing, Hughes captured the essence of the dogmatic approach to drug control—control at the source— that the United States has pursued throughout the twentieth century. Hughes once observed: "Unrestricted production leads to uncontrollable consumption, especially when the product enters international channels." This assessment of the roots of the drug problem in America resulted in February 1924 in a walkout, led by Porter, of the U.S. delegation from the second Geneva Opium Conference, which had been convened to discuss the manufacturing of narcotics. Other states in attendance would not accept without reservations an American-initiated proposal to bring a rapid cessation to the drug business.

Compounding matters, and making multilateral action against drugs difficult to achieve, was the willingness to hold foreigners responsible, if not accountable, for whatever problems impaired U.S. antidrug efforts. The substances that most captured the attention of U.S. officials in the 1920s were opiates and, to a much lesser extent, cocaine and marijuana. Opiate traffic, increasingly in the form of heroin instead of smoking opium, primarily originated in East Asia. Heroin, once believed by some in the medical community to be a cure for morphine addiction, had initially reached a wide audience as a medicine for coughs courtesy of the Bayer chemical company of Germany. A manufactured drug, heroin could be synthesized from morphine fairly easily; as a result, officials could not readily pinpoint the precise origin of the heroin found in the illicit trade.

In the early 1920s drug manufacturing was concentrated among European nations, the United States, and Japan. The U.S. Congress had tried to control the export of manufactured drugs in a section of the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922 by requiring exporters of such drugs to possess a proper certificate from the importing country. Congress amended the act in 1924 to prohibit opium importation for the manufacture of heroin. This legislation was meant to serve as a model for other countries but did not prevent the diversion of heroin manufactured outside the United States into illegal international channels.

The reluctance of manufacturing states to accede to controls that would mean a loss of market share turned the attention of the U.S. government to the less economically advanced drug-producing nations. Perhaps surprisingly Washington did not redouble prior efforts to curb opium poppy growth in China. Nor did diplomats serving in the Andes pressure leaders in Peru or Bolivia, where el coqueo was an integral part of national culture, to force peasants to stop farming coca. The fall of China after 1915 into a decade of internal strife dominated by regional warlords made efforts to halt poppy growing impossible. Not surprisingly, opium played a vital role in China's economy during the warlord era. As for cocaine, many urban users switched to heroin as a cheaper drug of choice after scarcity and strict enforcement of state laws combined to drive up black-market prices for cocaine. Accordingly U.S. officials encouraged Andean nations to move toward gradual compliance with international agreements relating to coca production. More serious problems lay elsewhere.

It was almost by process of elimination, therefore, that Mexico emerged as the country where U.S. officials hoped to demonstrate that control at the source was possible. Turkey and Persia, as producers of vast quantities of raw opium for both the licit and illicit trade, would also have been suitable candidates for such an effort. Turkey, though, refused to comply with anti-opium agreements until 1932, which rendered diplomatic overtures from Washington useless. Persia, which by 1920 had replaced India in the opium trade with East Asia, depended heavily on opium-based revenue and had a deeply entrenched opium culture of its own, one that transcended class lines. As a result, implementation of international accords by either country was not feasible in the 1920s and early 1930s. Diplomatic efforts to force compliance would almost certainly have failed. Mexico therefore became the proving ground for control at the source.

Mexico's proximity to the United States had rarely served it well. Not only had Mexico lost in war territory that became the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and California, it had also experienced U.S. involvement and intervention in its revolution during the 1910s. On economic and political matters the United States had frequently treated Mexican sovereignty as subordinate to Washington's own national interests. So it would be, commencing in the 1920s, with the issue of drug control.

The United States disdained Mexican sovereignty for several reasons. In the first place many government authorities and private citizens looked upon Mexico's Indian heritage as evidence of an inferior race. To make matters worse in the eyes of their detractors, the people of Mexico were not just inferior; they were unpredictable, an unpardonable trait in the age of progressive reform. In other words, cultural cohesion and political order in Mexico seemed unimaginable to many North Americans. Critics had to look no farther than Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 for incontrovertible proof of this societal failing. Villa's men, rumor had it, steeled themselves for the raid by smoking marijuana; Villa himself reputedly neither smoked marijuana nor drank intoxicating beverages.

Marijuana seemed to be in plentiful supply along the vast open border between the two countries. U.S. officials concluded, not for the last time, that Mexican authorities lacked the political will to fight domestically produced drugs. With the creation of a black market for opiates in the United States following the enactment of the Harrison law, Mexico became an important transit country for illicit substances. Citizens of Yuma, Arizona, appealed in 1924 to the Department of State for help in dealing with the "unbridled vice and debauchery" they contended was plaguing the border region.

Moreover, corruption served to undermine Mexico's drug control efforts into the 1920s. In fact the matter was as much a question of the limits of federal authority as one of corruption, but U.S. critics of Mexico emphasized corruption wherever they seemed to find it. The State Department, predisposed to see corruption by Mexican officials who were believed to harbor Bolshevist sympathies, allowed a 1926 treaty with Mexico for the exchange of information about drugs to lapse after only one year of operation. U.S. consular officials in Ciudad Juárez had long doubted Mexico's good faith about drug control. When authorities in Mexico City dispatched a special agent to the Juárez–El Paso region in 1931, U.S. Consul William P. Blocker commented disdainfully, "The Mexican Government has at last decided to clean up the drug traffic on this section of the border."

That attitude and the coercive diplomacy to which it gave rise would often characterize U.S. antidrug diplomacy, particularly in the Americas, from the 1930s through the 1980s; it tended to ignore not only the historical but also the practical reasons limiting the prospects for control at the source. The blinders that U.S. bureaucrats wore as they endeavored to contend with illegal drug trafficking for more than fifty years made it hard for them to understand why their presumably unobjectionable goals were unattainable.

In contrast to their attitude toward Mexico, U.S. officials did not judge Bolivia, Persia, or China to be models worthy of emulation in the pursuit of control at the source. In the case of Bolivia, folk wisdom had maintained long before the modern era that without coca there would be no Bolivia. The movement toward coca prohibition that surfaced from time to time before 1900 in Peru had made few discernible inroads into Bolivia. For U.S. authorities to presume that they could alter the real economic and symbolic value of Bolivian coca was akin to cultural arrogance. Try they did, however, to influence public policy in Bolivia, although not as overtly as in Mexico. Conferees at the first Opium Conference at The Hague had agreed that drug control could never become a reality unless coca and cocaine were included among the substances being controlled. That determination meant that effective coca control must come to Bolivia. U.S. representatives in La Paz suggested to government officials there that cuts in coca production would indicate Bolivia's willingness to work with the international drug control movement. The effort got nowhere.

At Geneva in 1924 the Bolivian delegate, Arturo Pinto Escalier, said that his government found coca chewing to be "a perfectly innocuous activity." More to the point he identified how vital coca was to maintaining the integrity of Bolivian culture. It would, he had previously told the OAC, "be impossible for the Bolivian Government to contemplate restricting the production of coca leaves without seriously interfering with the needs and economic life of the working population, particularly in mining districts, as coca leaves constitute for them a source of energy which cannot be replaced." The United States would have to look elsewhere for control at the source.

The situation in Persia was also instructive for U.S. policy goals. Prior to the second Geneva Opium Conference, Moshar-ol-Molk, Persian minister for foreign affairs, declared that it would be difficult to establish an international antiopium movement. The foremost obstacle was economic, even for those states fundamentally in agreement with the strict U.S. objectives. It was "impracticable suddenly to place a prohibition on [the opium business] without …the substitution of other products for the production of opium, and the adoption of an appropriate decision whereby the domestic consumption of opium could be gradually stopped."

Persia's request for a program of crop substitution did not catch U.S. officials off guard. Elizabeth Washburn Wright, the widow of Dr. Hamilton Wright, had examined firsthand the opium situation there and became an advocate of increased silk production as a replacement for opium. She made the case for economic diversification in informal conversations with the Department of State and in her capacity as an assessor to the Opium Advisory Committee.

A former State Department economic adviser, Arthur C. Millspaugh, who headed the American Financial Mission to Persia from 1922 to 1927, also made the connection between Persia's economic stability and the status of the opium trade. In the course of reorganizing Persia's finances the American mission assumed the task of collecting opium revenues. Millspaugh soon realized that any precipitous change in the opium situation would probably result in economic chaos and political instability. At the urging of the mission Persia indicated its willingness as early as 1923 gradually to reduce dependence on opium, particularly if foreign assistance were forthcoming. No one should underestimate opium's importance, Millspaugh noted, because "irrespective of the revenue which is derived by the Government from it, opium-cultivation in Persia constitutes one of the important agricultural industries, and the only one which makes any substantial contribution to the export trade."

By mid-1926, however, the Persian government, on Millspaugh's advice, had withdrawn an official request for a U.S. loan to help finance the difficult transition from opium to other commodities. U.S. officials had let it be known that they did not want to set a precedent by underwriting such a momentous change. If American banks bailed out Persia's drug-reliant economy, would they do the same for Bolivia or China? What would be the limits of such a potentially openended commitment? Also, why would banks invest heavily in an agriculturally based economy like Persia's? Short-term profits were unlikely to flow from the agricultural sectors of the world economy in the 1920s. Nor did the United States, after its withdrawal from the Geneva Opium Conference in 1925, want to be even remotely associated with the work of the league. A league-sponsored commission of inquiry to Persia after the Geneva conference recommended consideration of a crop substitution program. Persia itself, having worked within the confines of Millspaugh's mission since 1922, was increasingly unwilling further to surrender its financial autonomy to foreign control. For the foreseeable future the substitution of other crops for opium remained out of the question in Persia.

As for China, well into the 1920s conditions there were so chaotic that there existed no realistic hope for implementation of controls on opium growing. Even before the death of Yuan Shikai in mid-1916 and the subsequent onset of the warlord period, opium production and consumption was spreading throughout China, as had been the case in the late nineteenth century. British Minister Sir John Jordan, believing that the situation would lead to a desperate quest by the government for a reliable source of revenue, termed a proposal to establish an opium monopoly "a retrograde step." Opium's hold on China precluded the chance for significant reform. To American officials, plans to create a government opium monopoly, which meant adopting and enforcing over time a program of gradual suppression, flew in the face of reason. By the mid-1920s U.S. authorities concluded that gradualism was merely a cover for continuation of the twin vices of opium production and consumption. Making matters worse for proponents of opium control was an apparently successful effort by Japanese nationals to dominate a burgeoning market in North China for illegal morphine.

U.S. appeals to Chinese authorities to control the situation where practicable fell on deaf ears. Having reasserted nominal Republican control of China with the success of the Northern Expedition in 1928, the government of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) thereafter strove to appease Washington while continuing to profit from the trade. Headquartered in Nanking, Kuomintang leaders managed, simply by announcing a policy of suppression, largely to place the blame on Japan for China's opium troubles, many of which were of its own making. This accomplishment was all the more remarkable because of the Kuomintang's intimate ties to the notorious Green Gang of Shanghai, a secret society that dominated the Chinese underworld and by 1930 controlled a great percentage of the illicit trade in smoking opium in South China. Its most notorious figure, Du Yuesheng, headed the local opium suppression bureau at various times. Few knowledgeable foreigners believed that opium suppression would come anytime soon to Shanghai and, hence, to South China.

Japanese adventurism rendered largely irrelevant the actual steps taken against opium by Nationalist China. Herbert L. May of the New York–based Foreign Policy Association remarked in 1926 that the Japanese "were manufacturing drugs on a large scale and the government [in Tokyo] was closing its eyes to what was going on." Like the regional militarists, or tuchuns, of China's warlord era, Japanese civilian and military officials in North China and Manchuria were seeking to profit from the opium and morphine trade. The assassination in June 1928 of Zhang Zuolin helped to expose both Japan's expansionist ambitions in North China and beyond, as well as the role of its Kwantung Army in the opiate business there.

The League of Nations dispatched a Commission of Enquiry to East and Southeast Asia in September 1929 to investigate both opium traffic originating in China and the incidence of opium smoking among resident Chinese outside of China. The commissioners found that local opium cultures created more than a social problem; they created alternative, underground economies that helped to destabilize the political economy of the region. The commission, linking the opium business to the security of nations beyond Asia, predicted further trouble with opium unless China brought production under control. This concern was echoed by delegates and observers attending the Conference for the Suppression of Opium Smoking held at Bangkok in November 1931. The American observer, John Kenneth Caldwell of the Department of State, condemned the smuggling of opiates from East Asia, which he declared was a growing problem for the United States. Nanking's refusal to attend the Bangkok conference underlined the near stranglehold of opium on China.

China's unwillingness to participate at the Bangkok meeting derived in part, though, from the threat to its security posed by the seizure in September of Manchuria by Japan's Kwantung Army. Kuomintang leaders were persuaded that they would need all the resources they could muster, including those purchased by revenues from the opium trade, in order to contain Japan's advance into North China. In that sense the Mukden Incident, which precipitated the taking of Manchuria by Japan, allowed Chiang Kai-shek to continue to use opium revenues for his own political and economic purposes while at the same time blaming Japanese military forces for poisoning China with narcotics.

The United States, though suspicious of the Kuomintang's motives where opium suppression was concerned, increasingly supported China in its dispute with Japan over opium. The adoption of a tougher stand against Japan came with the appointment of Stuart J. Fuller to the position of narcotics chief in the State Department's Division of Far Eastern Affairs. Fuller had served in the 1920s as a consular official in Tanjin where he observed the growth of Japanese involvement with the narcotics trade in North China. Fuller's antinarcotic zeal was matched by that of Harry J. Anslinger, a onetime State Department official who had become commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) with the creation of the bureau in 1930. Importantly, unlike their predecessors they were able to put aside tactical differences with the OAC and turn the League of Nation's efforts against drugs toward the larger American policy goals of drug control at the source and improved interdiction of the illicit narcotics traffic.

Under the obvious fiction of a suppression movement, opium production, consumption, and addiction worsened in Nationalist China. U.S. military attaché Colonel Joseph W. Stillwell succinctly summed up the situation when he observed, "Opium is the chief prop of all power in China, civil and military." U.S. reaction to conditions in China was remarkably muted. Fuller, U.S. ambassador Nelson T. Johnson, and Anslinger evidently believed that Chiang would turn against the traffic as soon as it was in his interest to do so. They therefore began to hold Japan to a stricter measure of accountability than China. Johnson wrote Fuller in March 1934 that the Japanese "have no moral scruples when it comes to opium or the use of the gun or the sword."

Even though Fuller actually did criticize China before the OAC in May 1936, he saved his strongest language for Japan. "Let us face facts," he intoned, "where Japanese influence advances in the Far East, what goes with it? Drug traffic." One year later, as tensions were mounting between China and Japan, he told the OAC that conditions in Japanese-occupied areas of North China were "appalling and beyond description." Yet neither in North China nor in Manchukuo were conditions quite what Fuller and other critics of Japan claimed them to be, either before or immediately after the inception of the Sino-Japanese War in July 1937. The reality of the situation scarcely mattered, however, to critics of Japanese expansion. To some observers the battle against drugs in North China was bigger than a mere defense of security. "Humanity," stated the South China Morning Post, "has come to rely heavily upon American aid in the war on drugs."

The characterization of American drug policy as a war on drugs precisely captured the spirit of what Fuller and Anslinger were trying to achieve in the 1930s through participation at OAC meetings and by means of bilateral diplomacy. In assessing the threat posed by drugs the two Americans viewed traffickers and producers of drugs as criminals who, in their most heinous incarnation, were also mortal enemies of the state.

Anslinger later wrote about the use of opium as a weapon of war in occupied China: "The Japanese had coldly calculated its devastating value as forerunner to an advancing army; long before the steel missiles began to fly, opium pellets were sent as a vanguard of the military attack." The inception of general war in Europe in September 1939 served to intensify American efforts to expose Japanese dependence on opiates as a way of maintaining order in their budding empire on the mainland. When the Pacific War spread to include the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief declared in January 1942: "We in the Treasury Department have been in a war against Japanese narcotics policy for more than ten years…. We have experienced Pearl Harbors many times in the past in the nature of dangerous drugs from Japan which were meant to poison the blood of the American people."

In slightly more than a decade narcotics had become inseparable from the security of Washington's closest ally in Asia, China, and were playing a significant role in the development of Japan's foreign policy. It scarcely mattered whether high-level Japanese officials in Tokyo actually countenanced a policy of using drugs as a weapon of war in China at any time in the 1930s; what was important was the perception, especially in Washington, that they were doing so. In sum the drug scene in East Asia in the 1930s announced the opening of an era in which antidrug policy would become an important, if not well known, aspect of the foreign policy of many nations.

Developments in Latin America during the 1930s also offered an indication of how drugs could undermine political stability and civic order and thereby have a deleterious effect upon a nation's security. Shipments of illicit narcotics from Europe to Central America, which presumably were destined for the United States, nearly destabilized the Honduran government in the mid-1930s. While urging Honduras to deal more forcefully with the situation, Fuller and Anslinger were unable to determine the accuracy of reports alleging the involvement of North Americans in the trade.

That U.S. officials endeavored to influence the drug control policies of other countries partly resulted from a decision made by the League of Nations and reflected a tactical departure by Washington from its former hostility toward league-sponsored antinarcotic activities. The 1931 Manufacturing Limitation Convention had urged all countries, at the behest of the United States, to create an independent drug control office. In fact, the league singled out the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as a bureaucratic model that others might profitably adopt. Honduras, however, had neither the will nor the resources to follow the U.S. example.

More than any other country in the 1930s and early 1940s, with the possible exception of China, Mexico tested the limits of U.S. drug foreign policy. Would the United States be able to replicate abroad, whether through persuasion or coercion, its own restrictive approach to drug control? One prominent official in Mexico, Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, did not believe that U.S. policy was worth emulating, a view essentially shared by domestic critics of Anslinger and the FBN. As a result of his dissent from Washington's supply-side philosophy, Salazar found himself the object of intense public and diplomatic pressures that proved impossible to resist. In August 1939 he was forced from office as head of the Federal Narcotics Service and was immediately replaced by an individual more inclined to follow the lead of the Department of State and the FBN. The change in personnel did not soon lead, however, to a noticeable improvement in the drug situation at the U.S.–Mexican border. That did not occur until World War II, when the two nations experienced limited success in controlling drugs. Even then progress seems to have reflected as much the decline in wartime demand for illicit drugs as a victory for control at the source.

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