tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

What's more supreme than the Supreme Court then?

I'm reading a book at the moment called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It's an interesting and accessible read. The author has gone on a quest to find out as much as possible about how the global drug war came about, and he starts with Harry Anslinger's* personal papers.

One of the things he writes about that I was not aware of was the persecution of doctors who prescribed heroin. The Harrison Act of 1914 prohibited the prescription of heroin by doctors, except in cases where it was used to wean addicts off the drug. However Anslinger believed that some doctors were prescribing maintenance heroin and according to Hari, over 20,000 doctors were arrested in contravention of a Supreme Court ruling (likely the 1919 one mentioned in the previous link) that allowed them to use their professional discretion.

To which I went "WTF? So this guy just ignored the Supreme Court and did whatever he pleased and got away with it?" Followed up very quickly by "Well what's the point of a Supreme Court then?"

Anyway, I went and fact-checked that bit. All I could find was this extract from a Stanford paper which says that over 5,000 doctors were convicted between 1915 and 1938 for prescribing heroin against the Harrison Act. So the numbers vary, but Hari says 'arrested' and Stanford (Trebach, 1982) says 'convicted' and as a criminologist I know that that in itself means they could both be right.

Hari spins the Supreme Court ruling as "doctors' discretion allowed" and therefore implies the doctors were unjustly treated, whereas Stanford spins it as "only in cases of weaning, not maintenance" and therefore allows the possibility that the doctors were deliberately flouting the law. So there's another place where it's about interpretation of the law based on one's own viewpoint.

I haven't checked Hari's notes and references yet - and they take up nearly a quarter of the book. The book has been described by Glenn Greenwald as 'rigorously researched' - so, you know, there's a pretty good chance that the 20,000 figure is backed up with evidence. However, it's written for the layperson, not an academic audience, and it's plainly obvious from the start that the author's view is that the War on Drugs is pointless and harmful. So naturally he would use an injustice frame when talking about federal treatment of doctors prescribing heroin.

BUT. There is ongoing and mounting evidence that prescription of heroin is an effective form of treatment for heroin addiction, with promising results from all trials, and several countries now ratifying laws that allow this form of treatment.

So, whether this author is spinning the story to frame the argument with his own perspective becomes irrelevant. He's right, and regardless of whether the figure is 5,000 or 20,000, whether the doctors were prescribing for maintenance or weaning** - they were doing something that improved the health and prospects of their patients, and Anslinger's extreme approach to drug policy took that option away and replaced it with imprisonment and punishment for what he saw as a moral failing.

That lasted for the next 70 years. Scary thought, that one person with a bit of power can use the justice system to further their agenda in such a harmful way, and persuade the population to support it.

I'll reserve judgement on the book till I've finished reading and fact-checked it, but it's definitely giving me some new things to think about.

* Harry Anslinger was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the time when marijuana was being demonised, just after prohibition. He was responsible for the propaganda that led to beliefs such as those presented in Reefer Madness, and was known for the racist overtones of his beliefs. He's been quoted as saying "Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy." He believed that the only way to address 'the drug problem' was to arrest everyone associated with it and incarcerate them, especially if they were black.

** The current view is that maintenance is warranted until the individual is able to 'get their life together' (ie stop crime, regain custody of children, find work, get a stable home), and then weaning is considered. Some reports are showing that individuals are initiating reduction therapy for themselves once they stop the cycle of constantly needing to find money to support their habit.
Tags: but what about heroin?, drug policy, drugs, prescribing heroin
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