On the Stigma of Alcoholism and Government Plots: Yesterday and Today

Today most people accept the idea that alcoholism is some sort of disease, or malady of the mind. But Deborah Blum’s Slate article—about a government plot to poison alcohol during prohibition—reminds us that public opinion hasn’t always been so easy-going.

You hear stories all the time about alcoholics drinking all sorts of crazy nonsense to get a buzz, but rarely do you hear stories about the government capitalizing on this sort of phenomena for the purposes of law enforcement.

Although mostly forgotten today, the “chemist’s war of Prohibition” remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was “our national experiment in extermination.”

Even in the early twentieth century, some people were aghast. Editorial debates raged back and forth in the newspapers. Here is a quote you (hopefully) won’t find in any twenty-first century newspaper:

“Must Uncle Sam guarantee safety first for souses?” asked Nebraska’s Omaha Bee.

Lest we start feeling all good about our modern-day government, it’s sobering to remember that a similar plan to poison Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide Paraquat was attempted as recently as the 1970’s. As the Slate article mentions, amid public outcry, the plan was scrapped.

Yay, public outcry!

As a teen, I remember my pot connection—a man in his forties with a prosthetic leg—who liked to joke that the Paraquat in his stash gave you a little extra buzz. I remember feeling some mild concern over this joke, but not enough to hold onto my money. And, of course, in my twenties, knowing that someone had overdosed on a particular brand of heroin was a sure-fire way to guarantee a surge of interest, sellout crowds.

I haven’t used heroin in over twenty years, but I rarely talk about my experience with regular people. That kind of self-revelation can be too difficult to pull off, too much to deal with.

This past Christmas I watched Miracle on 34th Street with my adolescent daughter, who still believes in Santa. I had seen the movie many times before, but not recently. Early in the movie, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), the real Santa Claus, finds a drunken man playing man the part of Santa for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kringle becomes indignant, expressing his displeasure by striking the drunken Santa repeatedly about his head and shoulders with a cane.

My daughter grew panicky. “Daddy,” she cried, “what’s he doing to that man?”

I should have joked with her that it was an old-timer intervention, but I didn’t. I comforted her. She is a few generations removed from the people who thought an alcoholic best served by an ass kicking or lethal dose of posion—she is part of the next generation.

Yay, next generation!

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