Creating a Monster: Newspapers, Magazines, and America’s Drug Problem

  1. Susan L. Speaker, PhD
  1. Susan L. Speaker, PhD, is a U.S. historian and Curator of the Exhibitions Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

    American public discourse about mood-altering, habitforming drugs (e.g., heroin, cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines) often describes them as powerful, irresistible, instantly addictive, sinister, and inherently evil, with no redeeming properties or uses. At the same time, drug users are characterized as either fiends or victims, and any apparent increase in drug use elicits worried predictions of imminent epidemics that will engulf the entire nation. Anyone who has encountered news programs, newspapers, or magazine articles about the “drug problem” over the last several decades will be quite familiar with these types of rhetoric. For over a century, in fact, popular writers have consistently used certain stock themes, images, and language, despite changes in patterns of drug abuse, and in medical knowledge about addiction. I’ve analyzed hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about drug abuse published since 1900 and found several recurring and intermeshed themes. Their persistence suggests that our current drug problems aren’t just about drug abuse and its effects, but about the deeper meanings certain drugs carry in our culture.1 The recurrent rhetoric is also politically alarming, because it has infiltrated not only in the popular media but also legislative processes that determine national drug control policy. Like all language that is adopted without critical analysis, the rhetoric that frames our drug problems threatens to narrow our policy choices.

    A Paradigm Shifts

    Americans have been worrying about drugs such as cocaine and heroin for a long time. This concern grew slowly during the last half of the nineteenth century and gained much more momentum between about 1890 and 1920. By 1928, a noticeable change had occurred in the public discourse about drugs and drug addiction. Previously regarded as merely “unfortunate,” drug use was increasingly described as the root of all social evil. Prior to 1905, there were very few articles on drug addiction in the popular press; most of the people writing about drug problems were physicians and social workers, and sometimes missionaries to China. Addict memoirs made occasional appearances as well.

    “Street of the Living Dead Harbors Dope Sellers in Heart of San Francisco”

    October 11,1921

    Popular articles on drug use increased from 1906 to 1914 and polemicized the issue along three lines: opium traffic in China and the Philippines and struggles to establish international controls, domestic efforts to control patent medicines and to remove dangerous or adulterated products from the market, and the rise in cocaine use between about 1907 and 1912. Together, these problems helped to justify the passage of America’s first federal narcotic-control law, in 1914. For several years after the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act, popular articles were actually quite sympathetic toward the pitiful addicts whose supplies were now curtailed. By the mid 1920s, however, anti-drug reformers were describing America’s “narcotics problem” in apocalyptic terms that have since become widely familiar. The change in rhetoric stemmed partly from genuine increases in addiction and the advent of cocaine, but also had much to do with an increase in lower-class recreational drug use and declining middle-class therapeutic drug use, the success of alcohol prohibition, and the social and cultural effects of the First World War (e.g., xenophobia, fears of Communism, rejection of traditional culture).

    Ten common themes in American anti-narcotic literature, 1920–2002

    • Powerful, seductive, irresistible, instantly addicting drugs

    • Physical damage caused by drugs, including users’ deaths and effects on users’ offspring

    • Drugs as the cause of economic, social, and moral failure

    • Drugs as a direct cause of deviant behavior: crime, violence, theft, prostitution

    • Drugs or drug use/abuse as an “epidemic,” “flood,” or “crisis”

    • Drugs and drug abuse as a hidden peril among respectable citizens, professionals, schoolchildren

    • The association of drugs with various social “outgroups” or minority groups

    • Drugs as part of conspiracies

    • Demands for uncompromising, “zero-tolerance” policies to eradicate the problem

    • Self-chastisement and calls for self-purification of the entire society

    Talking about Drugs in the 1920s: Constructing the Monster

    Richmond P. Hobson is probably the best-known anti-drug activist of the 1920s. A Spanish-American War hero, former Congressman, and well-regarded temperance crusader, Hobson became involved in the campaign against “dope traffic” in 1920, writing articles and giving talks about the threat of narcotic addiction. He went on to establish several anti-narcotic organizations: the International Narcotic Education Association (1923), the World Conference on Narcotic Education (1926), and the World Narcotic Defense Organization (1927). These groups worked hard to raise public awareness, using many of the tactics that had worked so well for the Anti-Saloon League and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union: enlisting the aid of prominent citizens (e.g., physicians, attorneys, judges, and legislators) and civic organizations; holding national and international conferences; agitating for stricter controls; and sponsoring Narcotic Education Week during the last week in February, beginning in 1927. Hobson distributed millions of pamphlets and article reprints, contributed articles to magazines and newspapers, and contacted teachers and school superintendents. He and other reformers, such as Sara Graham Mulhall, made regular appearances in the New York Times and magazines, and often gave speeches to women’s clubs and other civic groups in New York City. Mulhall published a well-received book (Opium, the Demon Flower) in 1926, which was based on her experiences as Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Narcotic Board. Hobson and his associates were also able to reach a wide audience through the new medium of radio (which had made its commercial broadcast debut in 1921).

    “Drug Evil Invades Cities, Towns, as Ruthless Rings Coolly Recruit Victims”

    October 10, 1921

    Hobson and company had important allies in publisher William Randolph Hearst and longtime Hearst writer Winifred Black, who wrote pseudonymously as Annie Laurie2. Black had been writing exposés for Hearst papers since 1889, and was one of the pioneers of the “sob sister” style of journalism. Although he himself was not a smoker or drinker, it is not clear whether Hearst took an interest in drug reform before 1920. In any event, he did not seem to mind others indulging, even after he took up the anti-narcotic crusade. However, Hearst had already established a long record of using his papers and magazines to promote any cause that had the potential for increasing circulation of his publications through sensationalism, and he saw drug reform as such a cause.

    By 1923, Hearst’s media empire was huge, including twenty-two daily papers (with a total circulation of 3,000,000), fifteen Sunday papers (total circulation of 3.5 million), and nine magazines (total circulation of 2.7 million). It was estimated that one of every four American families read a Hearst publication. Hearst may not have been liked or respected, but any crusade he took up was guaranteed a large audience. He exerted considerable editorial control over his publications, and they all, typically, ran the same major stories.

    Hearst’s newspaper crusade against the narcotics threat opened in October 1921. In the first of a month-long series of articles, Laurie stated,

    Twenty years ago the dope habit was confined to the underworld—today it is reaching, creeping—closer—closer, to the very doorsteps of the plain, everyday home—and it has already trailed its slimy length into the very heart of what we call society. . . . The whole state of California is rotten with “dope” and the “dope” traffic.

    Efficient, well-organized, and cunning drug rings were depicted as a growing menace, which Laurie likened to the “Creeping Johnny” fever (i.e., malaria) that had killed so many in Panama before the canal zone was drained and windows were screened against mosquitoes.

    “Path to Penitentiary Paved by Lives of Men Debauched at Early Age by Narcotics; Prison Physicians Warn that Importation and Sale of Devitiating Drugs Must Stop or America’s Youth Will Wallow in Vice”

    January 30, 1923

    Whenever things get a little dull in town, the drug ring sends men and women to the villages and farming communities and these men and women establish agencies in strange, unlooked-for places: cafes, livery stables, garages, ice cream parlors—everywhere. We have no deadly mist here creeping up from any low and fetid ground, but we have this drug traffic, as deadly, as cruel, and as rapacious as Creeping Johnny ever dared to be. Would you like to see him face to face, this Creeping Johnny that is menacing us and our children with his slow, silent, smiling, cruel, secret advance? That you can never do, for it is part of the secret of his power that he himself is always invisible. But come with me, into the Street of the Living Dead, and I will show you some of his victims.

    The next day’s story recounted Laurie’s visit to a known drug-dealing area just off of Market Street. She saw strangely pale high school boys hanging out with a dealer, and described a pretty young woman making some sort of bargain with a filthy degenerate, before her chauffeur-driven car picked her up. She passed scores of haunted, bedraggled creatures, filthy beyond description—men, women, boys, girls—glaring with the eyes of fiends, twitching, muttering to themselves. These sights, she said, would haunt her, “waking or sleeping, as long as [her] heart [would] beat and…brain…remember.” The series continued daily on the front page for another week, recounting the ruined lives and the criminal drug traffic she witnessed in “Paradise Alley,” “Evil Town,” and “Misery Alley” of various California towns. She included the comments of policemen and federal drug agents, and urged readers to remember that every hophead was good for six more, and those six for another six each.

    “Marihuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days: Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood-Lust”

    January 31, 1923

    Laurie’s articles continued to appear in the first section of the Examiner for several more weeks. Drugs were alleged to be available everywhere, among black plantation workers and migrant farm workers and all other levels of society, and on ships and trains. Likening the widespread availability of drugs to a terrible plague, she exhorted her readers to action:

    [Sh]ould we sit around and say, “Isn’t it dreadful?” and not lift a hand to put a stop to the horror? …[W]e of California should be proud indeed to know that we are leading this nationwide fight upon such a monstrous evil.

    The editorial pages also contributed to the crusade, with written commentary and some evocative cartoons. One editor (possibly Hearst himself) compared the drug traffic to an episode of bubonic plague in San Francisco years before. The key to control, he said, was to “GET AFTER THE RATS,” which in this case referred to the drug peddlers. “Seek them out where ever they hide,” he continued, “and show them no mercy.”

    In January 1923, the Examiner ran another series, focused more specifically on the juvenile victims of the drug rings. Even small towns, like Peoria, Illinois (“pretty place, prosperous and happy looking….a town full of good old-fashioned Americans—that’s Peoria….”) were “alive with dope.” Small-town teens, seduced by the wily agents of the drug rings, ended up living in squalid degradation in Chicago or other big cities. Even worse, over half of all convicted criminals were also drug addicts, according to some of Laurie’s official sources.

    By the tons it is coming into this country—the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….Cocaine stifles reason, chokes all sense of responsibility and sets loose upon the world a dangerous “Frankenstein” with neither reason nor conscience to control him. Heroin combines morphine and cocaine and is stronger and more deadly than either.”

    During the first national Narcotic Education Week in February 1927, Laurie’s columns again told readers of the drug danger perched on their doorsteps. Heroin, morphine, cocaine seemed harmless and innocent when first encountered, she argued, but could turn even the best people into thieves and murderers:

    Morphine addicts…are mild and harmless while their systems are full of morphine….Take it away from them and they are wild beasts of savage cruelty, absolutely impervious to any human pity or sympathy of any kind. Many of the most brutal murders in America have been committed under the urge for morphine….A harmless, good-natured boy of 17 will take two or three sniffs of “snow” and turn into a cold-blooded, cruel, bloodthirsty bandit, ready to hold up his own father and kill his own mother to get money enough to go out and buy some more “snow.”

    Laurie’s articles shared space on a page with news from Hobson’s International Narcotics Education Association, which estimated that there were four million addicts in the U.S.

    “Marijuana Causes New Peril—Weed Drives Fiends to Murder”

    February 25, 1928

    In February of 1928, Laurie wrote another series, using the same themes with different twists. She explained that marijuana was the American hashish, and in India it was known as the “murder drug;” a person under its influence would “catch up his knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing every one he [encountered]….” She further pointed out that one could “… grow enough marijuana in a window box to drive the whole population of the United States stark, staring, raving mad.”

    Opiates and cocaine seemed to be coming under control by the late 1920s, but cannabis was one menacing drug that had escaped regulation under the 1914 Harrison Act and subsequent amendments. For reformers, and for Harry Anslinger, first chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, marijuana was the demon drug of the late 1920s and 1930s. Anslinger gave many interviews, speeches, and radio addresses on this topic, and co-authored an article titled, “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth” for American Magazine in 1937. His stories of marijuana-induced atrocities and depravity strongly echoed earlier accounts in Hearst’s papers: young men and women with no history of anti-social behavior were alleged, once under the influence of cannabis, to be liable to ax-murder their families, casually kill strangers and policemen, rob, rape, kidnap, and torture.

    The U.S. has experienced several generations of “drug problems” since the 1930s; drug control policy has cycled through conservative and comparatively liberal phases. Much has been learned about the complex of social, individual, and physiological factors that contribute to drug use, addiction, and its ramifications. But the older rhetoric has persisted, largely unchanged. During the great crack cocaine scare of the 1980s, the media churned out a steady stream of stories of instant addiction and violent criminal behavior. Once again, drugs were likened to demons and serpents, and drug use was compared to the great bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. Many stories explained again how cocaine had invaded not just the inner cities and suburbs, but small-town America and the countryside. Once again, Peoria, Illinois was discovered to have a festering drug problem beneath its wholesome surface. Once again, Americans were exhorted to make, as President Reagan said, “a sustained effort to rid America of this scourge by mobilizing every segment of our society against it” and “to just say no to drugs.”

    The problems associated with drug abuse, of course, are not trivial; they can be serious, debilitating, and deadly for users, their families, and communities. Yet the rhetorical language I’ve outlined here has provided a poor tool for framing drug policy. Although it strikes a responsive chord in our culture, it has been of minimal use in ameliorating the problems that have been criticized for decades and may well contribute to the legendary intractability of our “drug problem.” Now, as in Hearst’s heyday, such rhetoric may be better for selling stories than for dealing with the problem it describes.


    • 1 These deeper meanings tied to cultural fears of dependence, anarchy, conspiracy, and loss of past virtue and promise. See “The struggle of mankind against its deadliest foe: Themes of counter-subversion in anti-narcotic campaigns, 1920-1940, J. Soc. His. (Spring 2001): 591-610.

    • 2 All highlighted headlines are attributed to Annie Laurie’s articles for the San Francisco Examiner.

    • 3 According to David Courtwright’s careful analysis, drug use had been declining since 1900, and the number of addicts probably never exceeded 300,000. See Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (1982).

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